THE CONTINUED RISE OF COLD WEATHER CRUISING….

One of the things that continues to fascinate me in terms of cruising’s future is the continual, on going rise in popularity of winter time voyages to cold weather destinations, such as northern Norway, and even some of the banner ports in Scandinavia. In the last decade, it’s a type of cruising that has assumed a momentum all of it’s very own.

For a permanent resident of the north east of England, the very idea of winter time cruising inevitably leads me- and, I suspect, most other people- to look at balmy, warm weather options such as the Caribbean, the Canaries, and even the Far East. After all, if God had meant me to spend winter embraced by cold, chilly days and nights, then why put two international airports within forty miles of my front door? The logic seemed inescapable.

Plus, add in the fun in the sun vibe of the Caribbean, and the fact that our winter season is actually the best time to see the fabled treasures and sights of the Far East, and it seemed even more of a no brainer. I have no problem with winter as such. It’s just that I prefer to enjoy it in a hammock. In thirty degree sunshine.

On a beach. With a Daiquiri. ‘Make winter history’ became my mantra.

But over the past few years, some intriguing new options have crept in onto my radar. And, shock horror, some of them involve cruising to colder- far colder- climes, in the depths of winter.

I think it was P&O Cruises that first tried what seemed to me to be a hugely ambitious, winter cruise to some of the Baltic capitals, as a round trip from Southampton. In an industry where repetition and continuity are so often the buzz words, just the idea of a winter Baltic cruise seemed incredibly audacious, and at least worthy of further investigation.

As a long time fan of such cities as Copenhagen and Oslo, I have to admit that I would be curious to see them in winter. And this new cruise promised overnight stays in both- alluring in its own right. A great chance to really get into and around all the fairy tale Christmas markets, and also to sample some of the local nightlife ashore. Would I be prepared to eschew my normal, sunnier winter sojourns for such a wildly eclectic itinerary?

Not straight away. But I was beginning to wonder…

And then came the advent of winter cruising to northern Norway. Offered as a round trip from various UK ports by both Cruise and Maritime Voyages and Fred. Olsen, these fourteen night winter odysseys to view the shimmering, ethereal skyscapes served up by the magical Northern Lights, really did make a very deep impression on me.

So I began to look at what I perceived might actually work against each option. Of course, the bone chilling cold would preclude using the outdoor pools and hot tubs. And a buffet lunch in the sun was looking highly unlikely. If I went for either of these cruises, I would have to consider my expectations of the actual shipboard experience in a very different light.

But, a few years down the line, and I actually think I could really do one of these trips, and probably enjoy it immensely. And the winter time Baltic cruises have grown in popularity to the extent that even Cunard is now occasionally offering them.

What really won me over is the wonderful brochures, usually produced by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, for their year round, Huritgruten adventures that sail the entire length of Norway, year round.

These articulate the sheer beauty and diversity that each season brings to Norway with such depth, eloquence and inclusivity that I would certainly now put at least one such, short cruise on my prospective calendar. And I think that this new, very real stream of actual information in helping to drive cold weather cruising as a whole.

Like many people, I was something of an ignoramus as to what was actually ‘out there’ on such winter voyages. I knew that cold days and nights were definitely out there at a time when I could be chilling- pun wholly intentional- on some surf kissed Caribbean beach.

But now I know how wonderful, magnetic and alluring the Northern Lights can be. I can sense the sheer, epic adventure of going dog sledding across a sea of fresh, glistening snow under a blanket of gossamer pale Arctic twilight.

I can appreciate how warm pools of light on snow kissed cobble stones might give me a different, delightful take on ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen, or how a glass of warm, spicy wine in a Hamburg bier keller might be the perfect end to a day of spectacular, very different Christmas shopping along the festive expanse of the Alster.

I get how wonderful the tall, slender spires of Stockholm would appear, even through a veil of icy mist. And I can envisage the sheer, splendid peace of sailing between jagged, snow shrouded ravines deep within a Norwegian fjord, while reindeer gaze idly at our ship as she passes by on what looks like a sheet of slowly cracking ice.

I can appreciate how fresh and vital the air would feel, cold or not. And I now get that those winter time skies can provide me with panoramas every bit as mesmerising as anything that I have seen in Asia, or out in the South Pacific.

In short, good travel copy and advertising really does work. Though pretty well travelled, I was obviously in need of education. And now that I have had the education, I have thrown off at least some of my reserve.

And there is also something of the desire to get a bit ‘off the beaten track’ that is fuelling this nascent curiosity of mine. I suspect that the same also holds true for many other people, too.

So, winter cruising in colder climes really is something that I would consider now. I have been lured out of my indolent, sunny torpor with the notion of doing something that looks fresh, vital, and inherently rewarding in a totally different kind of way.

Mind you, that’s not a complete, one hundred per cent capitulation. Oh, no.

I still expect to find my personal, carefully hidden hammock waiting for me when I rock up on Cane Garden Beach in Tortola this year. And when I get there, the only ice I expect to see is in my first Margarita.

I’m sure you get the picture. But it takes more than one picture to make an art gallery. And travel, if it is anything at all, is surely a kind of art form.

You pick the colours. And you decide on the canvas you paint your impressions on. For sure, there are many different options out there.

Cherish them all.

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time....

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time….

SMALL FIRE ABOARD ORIANA CAUSES MISSED PORT CALL

A small fire broke out in the engine room of the P&O Cruises Oriana on Saturday as the ship sailed from Miami, forcing her to return to the Florida port.

The fire, described as ‘minor’ and ‘localised’ by the company, resulted in an extensive inspection of the 69,000 ton ship by the US Coast Guard service before the Oriana was allowed to continue on her way. As a result, a scheduled call into Key West had to be abandoned, and the ship will now sail directly to her next listed port of call at New Orleans, where she is due to dock on Tuesday morning.

Since being named by the Queen in 1995, the twenty year old Oriana has been one of the major cornerstones of the P&O fleet. In her early years, she ran as a consort to the much lamented Canberra. However, in the last few years it is safe to say that she has carved out quite a niche reputation in her own right.

The ship has been sympathetically, but not dramatically upgraded and refurbished over the years, including the recent addition of a handful of single cabins. As of a few years ago, the 1800 passenger vessel is now marketed as an adults-only product.

As ever, stay tuned for any further news.

Oriana will be leaving Key West in her wake on this cruise

Oriana will be leaving Key West in her wake on this cruise

CRUISE FLASHBACK- SS CANBERRA, JULY 1985

I boarded the Canberra on July 28th, 1985 for a week long cruise down to Vigo and Madeira, the only major Portuguese island in the Canaries. It was a cruise that was rare for the P&O stalwart; her usual itineraries ranged from twelve to seventeen days at that time, and the seven night run was a real rarity.

Still, it gave me the chance to sample life on a ship that I had always wanted to sail on, and the chance was too good to pass. The piece that follows is not a warts and all description of that voyage some thirty years ago, but rather a pastiche, composed of moments and memories that have stayed with me over three decades.

Externally, the Canberra was in a deplorable state. Great torrents of rust streaked her hull both on port and starboard sides. The heroine of the 1982 Falklands conflict looked as if she had actually just returned from active duty. I do not know who was responsible for making sure her overall appearance was kept up, but they had definitely fallen down on the job. No self respecting cruise ship would put to sea looking like that these days.

Internally, she was a different matter. Lots of small, clubby wood panelled rooms seemed to feed into each other. There was none of the dramatic, double decked grandeur that I had previously savoured aboard the Norway or the QE2, but there was an immediate sense of calm, welcoming warmth; I guess it was comfort rather than luxury.

In those days, you could buy a shared berth in a four berth cabin, with private facilities just down the hall. I did just this and, for the princely sum of £406.50p all in, I was also gifted first class return rail tickets to and from Southampton, courtesy of P&O. And, though the cabin was in the bowels of the ship, it actually worked out OK for the time. I was seldom in the room.

One of the things I loved about the Canberra was the graceful, upward curve of her promenade deck as it sheared skyward toward the bow. This was a green, steel painted deck that encircled the entire ship, if I remember correctly.

And I never tired of the view looking aft from near the bridge superstructure; the two great, buff funnels sat alongside each other, and resembled nothing as much to me as a pair of castle ramparts, looming against the sky. Over the week, that backdrop would vary from grey and stormy to a sublime, improbable, beautifully burnished sunset as we sailed home over the Bay of Biscay.

The Canberra was almost relentlessly British in terms of tone, ambiance and on board product. Tea in the Meridian Room was served promptly at four, and the on board currency was sterling. There were square and rectangular dining tables in the restaurant- a slightly awkward arrangment when trying to converse at dinner. The food was tailored to British palates, with more than a passing nod to the line’s imperial past in the form of some excellent Indian curries. It was good, wholesome fare all round and, to a still quite impressionable 25 year old on only his fourth cruise, definitely a taste of the high life for sure.

Despite being a big ship for those days- 45,000 tons- my overwhelming memory of the Canberra is just how warm and intimate she felt inside. The one exception seemed to be the famous Crow’s Nest lounge at the front of the ship, on the upper deck; with a wall of floor to ceiling windows opening out over the bow, the views from this semi circular room were really expansive. I remember sitting at the front, in a green chair on a swivel base, watching as the waves lashed the bow of Canberra as she head butted her way through a ferocious and unyielding Biscay howler. On such occasions, climbing and descending the famous, circular marble stairway that led to this room was an adventure in itself.

And even her fondest afficionados could hardly claim that the Canberra got brownie points for stability. During that epic, southbound passage over Biscay, the old girl rocked and rolled to port and starboard like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. She pitched and lurched on the roll, and then heaved herself back vertical again, like some sodden dowager emerging from an overly long soak in the bath. She could wrong foot the unwary with almost effortless ease.

But if ever a ship had heart, a soul, and sheer, unmatched charisma, it was surely Canberra. She did not have the more subtle, elegant luxe of the QE2, or the stunning Art Deco splendour of the Norway, and that at first came as something of a gentle shock to me.

But, truth be told, the Canberra did not need these things. She held her head up, and did not pretend to be something she was not. People loved her because she was dignified, like some elderly hospital ward matron that always insisted on everything being done ‘by the book’. She had soul and, over the course of a week, I came to fall in love with this quirky, delightful lady.

And, of course, the Canberra inspired a fierce level of devotion among her regular passengers, many of whom would not even consider sailing on any other ship- not even her doughty fleet mate, Oriana. Like many such ‘ladies of a certain age’, style and breeding, the Canberra was a ship that had to adapt to survive in the cruise industry.

Yet she remained a remarkable throw back even then. The Canberra was not quite Downton Abbey with propellers, but she certainly had a lot of quintessential, old world tradition and tone about her. Even in 1985, she offered some the the broadest range of accommodations afloat, and she was staffed and served by a crew that was efficient and polite rather than flamboyant and demonstrative. To call her ‘restrained’ is perhaps going a bit too far, but she was certainly no boundary pushing ship by the mid 80’s anymore.

I was lucky to get to sail on her at all, of course, and I’m very well aware of that fact. The Canberra was a fascinating adventure afloat for me back then, and she has evolved into a cherished memory since. And, while I mourn the passing of the many great liners that I was not lucky enough to sail on, I will always count myself as extremely fortunate- both in terms of the experience and, indeed, the timing- that I got to sail on one of the greatest and most legendary of the last generation of cruise ships- the magnificent, majestic Canberra.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

SWANS AGEING GRACEFULLY; ORIANA AND CRYSTAL SYMPHONY AT 20

I had to double check myself today when I came to the sudden realisation that two of the finest ships afloat turn twenty years of age this year, namely P&O’s stately dowager, Oriana, and the truly sumptuous Crystal Symphony, of Crystal Cruises.

Though designed and executed for two totally different markets, both of these beautiful vessels actually have some strikingly common characteristics.

For a start, the interiors of each were the concept of the Swedish based firm, Tillberg Design. Both ships boast beautiful, flared bows and a series of elegant, stepped terraces at the stern. Each is crowned by a single, graceful funnel amidships, looming above a central, open pool complex on the lido deck area.

However, they are the product of two different yards. Crystal Symphony emerged from what was then the MASA shipyards in Turku, Finland, while the Oriana was delivered from German shipbuilders in Papenburg.

While Oriana is the bigger of the two at some 69,000 tons against 50,000 for Crystal Symphony, the former has a large number of inner and outer cabins without balconies, whereas the Crystal ship features no inside cabins at all, and a vast number of balconied cabins and penthouses. Her passenger capacity is also considerably smaller- around 1000 as against 1900 for Oriana.

That said, Crystal Symphony was designed for the deluxe market from the start, while Oriana- the first P&O cruise ship to be named by the Queen, some twenty years in advance of new fleet mate, Britannia- is very much a mainstream resort ship, albeit a very beautiful one. The requirements of two such diverse markets resulted in two very different kinds of cruise experiences.

That said, both ships have aged quite beautifully, and sympathetic updating in the case of both has made them among the most compelling classic cruise experiences afloat today. Oriana took on board many of the most popular features of her earlier sibling, the beloved Canberra. Crystal Symphony has been sympathetically updated over two decades to enhance her extensive spread of on board facilities, without selling short on her original sense of style and panache.

Each ship has retained a great sense of cool, classy poise, though the jury is still out on whether the ‘new’ P&O colours suit the distinguished Oriana as much as the old ones did. Few people resent change as much as traditionalists, and P&O has sold just that for decades.

New to Oriana, and very welcome too, is a small block of single cabins. And, to complement her stylish, mellow vibe, the ship is now sold as an adults- only vessel.

The take over of Crystal Cruises by Genting has left more than one Crystal veteran gazing uneasily at the future over the rim of their pre dinner martinis. Could more change be in the offing? Time alone will tell.

But meanwhile, it is definitely worth celebrating this beautiful brace of ‘ladies of the sea’ as they celebrate their 20th anniversaries. Each is a landmark vessel in her own way; stylish and chic in execution, comfortable and familiar to legions of passengers that have come to know and love them both over the decades.

Smooth sailing and fair seas to both!

SPOILT FOR CHOICE; UK MINI CRUISES IN 2015

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

For those looking to dip a first time toe into cruising’s alluring world, one of the best and most economical options is the mini cruise. With options ranging from between two to five days, these are a good deal both in terms of time and cash outlay. You can break the assumed preconceptions without breaking the bank.

And, no matter what type of ship and short break you might be into, 2015 serves up more options and styles of seagoing fun and fascination than ever before. From the seriously intimate to the stunningly spectacular, there’s a seagoing smorgasbord on offer in 2015 that has never been equalled before.

First up, Royal Caribbean International has the spectacular, ground breaking new Anthem Of The Seas doing some short, three night summer cruises to ports such as Le Havre and Zeebrugge. if you’re into technologically advanced ships laden with a wealth of fascinating gimmicks, this ship is an excellent, if rather expensive option.

Want smaller, more intimate ships that can access the spots that the big ships find difficult to access? Consider Cruise and Maritime, which is offering a series of two to five night options on the veteran Marco Polo, a classically styled, adults only ocean liner. Built in 1965, this unique ship- very much a one off- is celebrating her fiftieth anniversary this year.

Larger and more contemporary, but still human in scale, the line has a new flagship in the shape of the Magellan. The 46,052 ton ship also offers a series of short cruises and, with her large number of single cabins, she is an excellent buy for the solo traveller.

In similar vein, the highly styled quartet of ships belonging to Fred. Olsen Cruise Line remain perennially popular favourites on the short break market. With excellent food and service, plus some enticing overnight stays, these lovely ships have a style and atmosphere that is truly all their own.

Go bigger? No worries. P&O Cruises has long been one of the most established names in the cruising firmament. This year, the new Britannia– the largest ship ever built solely for the UK cruise market- joins her recently restyled fleet mates to offer a string of exhilarating short jaunts out of Southampton, varying in length from two to five days, throughout most of the year. Some of the pre Christmas sailings in particular make for fantastic shopping opportunities on the continent.

Of course, Cunard remains the very epitome of the great ocean going experience. The line celebrates an unparalleled 175 years of success this year, and you can be part of it on a mini cruise of between two and five nights on any one of their trio of opulent, expansive vessels.

And, if you are not too worried about flying one way, the magnificent Queen Mary 2 offers several opportunities throughout the year to sail between Southampton and Hamburg, or reverse, on a two night voyage that allows you to get an incisive little glimpse into this most storied of ocean liner experiences.

All of these voyages are short on time, but they do provide an experience somewhat akin to a film trailer for a major feature. And, because all of these lines want you to see them at their best, they will often push the boat out-pun wholly intentional- to offer up the best in food, service and, of course, entertainment. All are crucially aware that today’s two night neophyte passenger is next year’s potential two week voyager.

So-different stokes for different folks. And you can always tailor your break to suit your moods. I know many people who simply never leave the ships at all, staying on board to soak up all the luxury on board for the duration. Others treat them as extended, exotic spa breaks and spend the weekend in a bathrobe. Others consider sleep as an optional extra, and simply want to party from A to Z. And, of course, still others use them as an excuse for an indulgent shopping and sightseeing break.

Whatever your pleasure, there is more than enough on the menu on one of these enticing, exhilarating little breaks to leave you wanting more. Have fun,

FOUR NEW ORDERS FOR FINCANTIERI?

MSC look set to confirm yet another two ship order from Fincantieri

MSC look set to confirm yet another two ship order from Fincantieri

I mentioned in a previous blog that MSC Cruises were very strongly rumoured to be about to announce a second pair of new builds, in addition to the pair of new mega ships just ordered from the French shipyard, STX. It now looks like that announcement could be imminent.

The two new Italian builds are bruited to be of around 152,000 tons, with a length of some 310 metres each, and a projected total cost of some 1.4 billion euros. The first ship could be slated for delivery as early as 2017.

And- as previously alluded- the same yard is also expected to announce confirmation of yet another order, this time for a brace of sister ships for Oceania Cruises. Unlike the new MSC designs, these two vessels are reported to be another pair of sisters for that company’s first two, highly popular new builds, Marina and Riviera.

The Italian yard has been fantastically busy, and indeed it still is. As well as the above projected announcements, Fincantieri is also cutting the steel, ready for all four of the Lirica class lengthenings. Beginning at the end of the autumn, each ship will be cut in half, then have a new mid section inserted.

The yard is also in the process of putting the finishing touches to the rival Costa Cruises new flagship, the Costa Diadema, which is due to debut this coming November, and is also building the fourth, expanded Odyssey class ship for Seabourn, as well as the new Seven Seas Explorer for Regent Seven Seas, the first new ship for that line in more than a decade.

The yard has literally just delivered the second of class Regal Princess, and is working now on outfitting the Britannia for P&O Cruises, a vessel built to the same design. In addition, the yard is also building the 47,000 ton cruise ship, Viking Star, for Viking Cruises, and also two similar sized sister ships which have recently been confirmed.

This construction programme amounts to a quite astonishing coup for the Fincantieri yard. While the likes of Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean continue to favour the Meyer Werft yard at Papenburg for their new builds, and the once dominant shipyards of Finland seem to be floundering, it is the Italian yard that is picking up orders for a whole raft of diverse new cruise ship designs, ranging from the mass market to the ultra luxury products.

With an enviable record for delivering superb quality vessels, on time and within budgets, the dominance of Fincantieri as the world’s pre eminent builder of cruise ships seems assured, at least for the next few years.

As always, stay tuned.

RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

P&O’S NEW LIVERY; FROM BUFF TO SHADES OF BLUE

Oriana; every bit a timeless, contemporary beauty

Oriana; every bit a timeless, contemporary beauty

Ever since the unveiling of the new P&O Cruises livery, the cruise media has reverberated with volley after volley of comments, varying from the tepid to the downright thunderous. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And, in that frame of mine, this blog is mine.

It must have taken a seismic internal shift in thinking to make P&O– that most conservative and traditional of British sipping institutions- to take such a bold step. For a company that enshrines a whole raft of hallowed, age old traditions, the significance of this rebrand is impossible to overstate.

The ships themselves will lose their traditional, buff coloured funnels in favour of dark blue ones. The famous, snow white hulls will be adorned with long, flowing, Union Jack hull artwork. Artist’s renderings look rather good but, as always, seeing the real thing will be the proof of the pudding.

This is an obvious attempt to emphasize the ‘Britishness’ of the fleet- all of them registered in Hamilton, Bermuda.

That aside, the new livery is a very bold change for what is often perceived to be a solid, if somewhat staid, product. But inevitably, a lot of people do not like it, and are quite vocal on the subject.

And that is fair enough. My opinion is, after all, no more or less valid than theirs. Few fraternities are as resistant to change as ship lovers. And, at times, that is a charge that can fairly be levelled at yours truly. But not this time.

I full well remember the debut of the brand new QE2 in 1969. With her hotel style interiors and her black and white funnel, the ship was an all out attempt at relentless modernity and it, too, provoked howls of outrage at the time.

Not until her post war Falklands refit in 1982 were the traditional Cunard colours added to her funnel, after thirteen years of service. People were glad to see it at the time. She wears those colours still.

However, in the very early days, the P&O ships had uniform black funnels. That was in the days when the company had the mail contract between England and Australia, and it retained those house colours for many years. Not until the 1930’s would the immortal ‘Straths’ usher in the era of white hulls and buff shaded smokestacks.

The immortal Canberra at Vigo in the Eighties

The immortal Canberra at Vigo in the Eighties

Of course, those colours became synonymous with post war P&O sailings and, inevitably, with mainstream cruising. No ship wore those colours more proudly than the immortal Canberra. For me, the idea of the ‘Great White Whale’ in those new corporate colours would just be so obviously wrong.

But Canberra and her ilk are long since gone. The cruise industry is changing and evolving at a dizzying rate of knots. And in a cut throat market, cruise lines must either adapt or wither and die. And your granny’s P&O is no exception.

The first clue should have been with the new television advert, with its backing track that owes more to Xavier Cugat than Edward Elgar. That was eye opening enough in it’s own right and yes, it was refreshing. If I was meant to sit up and take notice- surely the raison d’etre of any on screen advertising- then that commercial succeeded admirably.

There is new blood coursing right through the Carnival Corporation as a whole, and at P&O in particular. Anyone who thought that there would not be changes as a result was fooling themselves.

Hence, the new hull livery. Love it or hate it, this will get people talking and taking notice. It creates momentum, not all of it necessarily forward. But, in the course of things, such rebranding is usually given at least the benefit of the doubt. This one should be, too.

New colours on any cruise ship are always a matter of personal taste. The look might enhance the sleek, classic Oriana, for instance, or backfire spectacularly on the vast, boxy Ventura. Or, indeed, vice versa. And, because perception is such an individual thing, no two people will look at the ‘new’ P&O in the same way.

But this is a bold move, one coming from a company not renowned for being especially adventurous. I wish the company well with the endeavour.

And- if push comes to shove and the exercise fails- the original colours can always be restored at any future date.

INTRODUCING BRITANNIA, AND A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM

Southampton's legendary Bargate

Southampton’s legendary Bargate

It was the announcement that surprised almost no one in the end, but it still managed to excite a vast flotilla of cruise fans. Royal Caribbean International will homeport Anthem of the Seas, the second of it’s new Project Sunshine series, in Southampton from 2015.

The arrival of this fabulous ship sets up an interesting potential duel with the rival P&O Cruises, with the 2015 advent of that company’s own Britannia, a very slightly smaller vessel. Built on the same platform as Royal Princess, she will be the largest purpose built ship ever introduced to the UK cruise market.

Anthem of the Seas will replace the longstanding UK stalwart, Independence of the Seas, after near on five years of sailing from the Hampshire port. Britannia, by contrast, merely augments the already formidable P&O line up currently homeported there.

With her new facilities such as the already hotly anticipated North Star capsule, her dodgem cars and virtual balcony cabins, Anthem continues the Royal Caribbean trend for incorporating dazzling, state of the art new amenities into each successive class of newbuild. By contrast, Britannia will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; a continuation of a popular, easily embraced product and palette enshrined on all of her fleetmates still in service. While the Anthem will scream about her superlative new style and facilities, Britannia will not be screaming at all, thank you very much.

Is there room for both? Well, both lines will be naturally bullish about their new builds, and Royal Caribbean are also retaining the popular Adventure of the Seas on the Southampton roster as well. But in a revealing little insight not so long ago, Norwegian head honcho, Kevin Sheehan, said categorically that the company thought it impractical to dedicate a ship to a permanent UK homeport in the near future.

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

Now, whether this is a totally financial decision, or whether it simply reflects the hard fact that Norwegian currently has less tonnage to shuffle around than Royal Caribbean, I honestly do not know. But I do know that, once both Anthem of the Seas and Britannia enter service, it is going to give Southampton a year round roster of superships, unseen even at the highlight of the ocean liner era in the late 1950’s.

What is for sure is that there will never be a better time to embark on a big ship, sailing from what is still the premier UK passenger port. The choice is nothing short of monumental, with the Cunard trio on hand to augment their P&O fleet mates, plus seasonal summer deployments from the likes of Princess and MSC. That company is also debuting the mighty MSC Magnifica in Southampton for a few cruises next year. How long before one of these newer, bigger vessels replaces the current, stalwart MSC Opera on a permanent basis?

Fred. Olsen also maintains a presence with Balmoral, practically the only mid sized ship sailing regularly from Southampton. So far as we know, no one else has plans to homeport smaller ships there, save for the already present, graceful swans of P&O.

The next few seasons should be interesting. Will the new ships result in overkill in a market that has still vastly depressed prices? Will Sheehans’ side swerve look like sound business? Remember that Norwegian had a ship based in Dover each summer for twelve seasons, before withdrawing altogether in 2011. And, of course, Southampton has infrastructure challenges- rail, road and hotel accommodation- to address as well.

For sure, it is a time of giants, one unseen in any British port before. Almost all of these mega ships can accommodate half as many passengers again as such Southampton legends as the Queens, the United States, or even the venerable, beloved old Canberra. A unique convocation of cruising hardware, wrapped in different shades of style and substance.

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!