PORTUSCALE- IS THIS THE ENDGAME?

Yesterday’s sad departure for the scrapyard of the ailing Lisboa, ex Princess Danae, throws a pretty stark light on the state of parent company, Portuscale Cruises.

With no news of any employment for the company’s flagship, the beautifully restored, 1961 built Funchal, or the smaller, 6,000 ton, 1965 built Porto, things are looking anything but good.

Mercifully, the one success story in this bleak litany seems to be the 1948 built Azores, soon to be renamed as Astoria. The former Stockholm has been chartered by British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, for a few years. In turn, she will go out on an extensive, French based charter for most of 2016. So, for the future at least, her future seems assured.

The potential loss of Funchal and Porto would be devastating for those who love smaller, classically styled ships. Fewer and fewer of these charismatic dowagers remain in service with each passing year. And, while it does not actually bear thinking about, the possibility that these two fine ladies might follow Lisboa on her last, lonely voyage can no longer be discounted.

I hope and pray that this can be avoided. More than ever, the maritime community needs to be able to experience ships that come with no other gimmicks than that of being at sea on a solid, dependable, classically styled ship.

Fingers crossed on this one. As ever, stay tuned.

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

IS PORTUSCALE CRUISES IN TROUBLE? (UPDATED 13/3/2014)

Heading for a new life next year?

Heading for a new life next year?

Reports are currently rife at the influential Seatrade Miami conference that Portuscale Cruises is in trouble.

Stories are circulating that the Lisboa has been arrested at Lisbon, while the recently renovated Azores- due to leave over the next few days to start an almost year long charter for German cruise company, Ambiente- has been delayed from leaving the same port.

Renovation work on Lisboa was suspended a few weeks ago, when an official Portuscale announcement stated that structural problems with the ship were far more extensive than had been originally ascertained. A lucrative charter to a French cruise operator had to be cancelled at very short notice. Provisionally, Lisboa is intended to resume sailing in 2015.

Meanwhile, the veteran Funchal is due back at sea shortly, off to begin a season of cruises from the UK and Sweden through the spring, summer and autumn. There has as yet been no word about the future of these.

Fourth of the Portuscale trio, the smaller, also renovated Porto, was still in Lisbon at last report.

It is little more than two years since Rui Allegre first masterminded the astonishing resurgence of the veteran Portuscale quartet from the ashes of the imploded Classic International Cruises. The owner saw an obvious market for the elegant, traditionally styled quartet in an era largely dominated by amenity laden mega ships.

Funchal actually went back to sea for three months last year, beautifully restored and looking better than ever, Rave reviews came from on board, and guest satisfaction rates were high. The future did, indeed, seem bright.

However, the abrupt cancellation of work on Lisboa- which had been progressing nicely- rang alarm bells.  Portuscale had gone so far as to announce a programme of cruises for the renovated ship on her French charter, as well as going to the extent of making public some artist renderings of her restored interiors and outer decking.

The loss of revenue from the French charter must have been quite a hit. And the ships, with their vintage styling, are very labour intensive, and expensive to maintain.

At this time, no formal statement is forthcoming from Portuscale. It is to be hoped that the Azores can leave on schedule for her charter to Ambiente Cruises as planned.

I suspect that the potential loss of that German charter might well prove catastrophic to the nascent cruise line. And it would be a true tragedy if these four ships were to be lost after so much hard work has been done to bring them back up to speed.

As always, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

With regard to the Azores charter to Ambiente, German sources have reported that the ship has, indeed, left Lisbon, en route to begin her programme of cruises from Bremerhaven on March 16th.

She was apparently delayed by the non issuance of a necessary sailing certificate, which has now been supplied.

While this news is indeed a relief, there has been no official word from Portuscale Cruises over the alleged arrest in Lisbon of the partially refurbished Lisboa, as outlined below.

ADDENDUM:

Well worth checking out in the responses to this piece is a note from Luis Miguel Correia, one of the most renowned, knowledgeable and well informed writers and photographers in the entire maritime industry, and someone whom I have had the pleasure of sailing with in the past.

Luis is well connected to the current owners and operators of the Portuscale fleet and, as such, his response to my original blog post above, is definitely worthy of your consideration.

OCEAN VS. RIVER CRUISING- THE PROS AND CONS….

A river cruise can take you right into the heart of cities such as historic Antwerp

A river cruise can take you right into the heart of cities such as historic Antwerp

The rise of river cruising over the past few years has been nothing short of stratospheric. And, as river cruisers become more expansive and luxurious, so the appeal continues to grow. The result? More and more people are flocking to this new generation of river boats than at any other time before; a trend that shows every sign of continuing over the next few years.

So, what if you’re a devoted, deep blue ocean cruiser, considering dipping a toe in the much shallower waters of exotic river cruising? Is it possible to ‘cross deck’ between the two different kinds of adventure? And what are the potential pros and cons out there?

OK, let’s take a look at a few of these….

DOES SIZE MATTER?

Naturally, even the biggest and most elaborate river boat is going to be much tighter in terms of mutual proximity than most cruise ships. So…. should you encounter that certain someone that sets your teeth on edge just by walking into the room, is escape so easy an option?

Well, most lounges on river boats are quite large, and most restaurants are open sitting, so there will usually be just enough clear water between you and your very own Marie Celeste. Also, many of the new ships have large cabins, often featuring French balconies. If you want, you can retire to your own personal, comfy bolt hole, without losing anything of the scenic parade passing by. At least on one side of the boat.

NEAR, MY DEAR…..

Porto's hilltop location is absolutely stunning. Approaching it by river cruiser is increidble.

Porto’s hilltop location is absolutely stunning. Approaching it by river cruiser is incredible.

Another great advantage of river cruising is that most vessels rock up to a quayside right in the centre of town, usually meaning that you can forget long coach rides to see the local sights and highlights. Many will, indeed, find this to be a blessing.

ROCK AND ROLL, OR SMOOTH AS SILK?

River sailing is most always calm to the point of soporific. There’s a strange, dual sense of being almost close enough to the passing landscape to touch it, while at the same time feeling a sense of quite splendid isolation. A strange dichotomy, but not without its charm.

ACTION PACKED OR ACTIVITY LACKED?

Again, size precludes a river cruiser from offering the facilities of a deep sea ship. If you can’t live without a rock climbing wall, flow rider, 24 hour popcorn and thirty alternative restaurants, then river cruising might not be for you.

And yes, the boats are much more low key in terms of nightlife. Think ‘country house’ rather than Studio 54 with azipods.

Then again, many river ships spend overnight moored in the middle of city centres, from Porto to Prague. This gives you the opportunity to dip in and out of the local restaurant and social scenes just as much or as little as you like, and without the worry of having to find a hotel afterwards. Which can be rather nice.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT, RIGHT?

Cruising past the banks of the River Douro in Northern Portugal.

Cruising past the banks of the River Douro in Northern Portugal.

Alas, river cruising is not a cheap gig, especially in Europe. That said, many operators include a huge amount in the fares, such as most, if not all shore excursions, and free beer and wine with lunch and dinner. Specialist operators such as Titan UK even include door to door transfers, and even overnight hotels as and where necessary.

And, to be completely fair, even big ship cruising in Europe is typically quite expensive, especially in the high summer season. You pay your money, and you make your choice.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Both ocean and river cruises offer hugely inclusive, tempting, quality options for the soft adventurer, either as a solo traveller, part of a couple, or as part of an extended family group. And while nothing will ever replace the thrill of sailing into New York, or enchant me like those sun kissed, indolent Greek Islands, I am becoming more and more addicted to river cruising as well.

Does it have to be either/or? I don’t think so. If there’s an itch to scratch, I respectfully suggest you get out there, and give it a try.

Either way, I suspect that you will be pleasantly surprised. Enjoy!

GET THEM WHILE YOU CAN- CLASSICS STILL SAILING IN 2014

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale's Lisboa has few modern equivalents

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale’s Lisboa has few modern equivalents

Last week delivered a trio of heavy shocks for lovers of the traditional, smaller cruise ships. First came the sad news that the pioneering Song Of Norway, the start up ship for Royal Caribbean, had been sold for scrap. More than anything, this brought home the shaky mortality and status of that maritime ‘Brady Bunch’ of older vessels.

There followed the indescribably painful sight of the Pacific Princess, famed as the original Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish slaughterhouse. Listing painfully, shabby and dilapidated, the once graceful ship has been reduced to a sad, squalid shadow of her former glory.

Then, only yesterday, the beloved Ocean Countess caught fire in the Greek port of Chalkis as she was being readied for a new charter season next year. The fire, now extinguished, seems to have centered on her midships pool and forward observation lounge. No impartial assessment of the resultant damage has yet been put in the public arena, but it hardly helps the prospects of the 37 year old former Cunard stalwart.

Even worse, 2014 will see the withdrawal from service of the Saga Ruby, the former 1973 built Vistafjord. This legendary ship, the last passenger ship to be built in the UK, is facing a very uncertain fate, and optimism regarding her future employment- if any- is very thin on the ground.

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

All of these point up a simple, salient fact for anyone wanting the chance to sail in one or more of this dwindling band of thoroughbreds; get out there and do it, while you still can. The clock is ticking, and options are really running out now.

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the classically styled ships still sailing out there. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible, and apologies in advance for any unintentional omissions.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines still operate the classic duo of Boudicca and Black Watch, a pair of 1972 beauties originally built for the Royal Viking Line.

Competitor Cruise And Maritime offers cruises on the Discovery, the former Island Princess (and sister ship of the Pacific Princess) as well as the 1965 built Marco Polo.

All four of these ships can be embarked from a series of different ports around the UK. Looking further afield increases your options a lot. Here’s a few more options for your consideration.

Louis Cruises will sail the Louis Rhea, the former 1971 built Cunard Adventurer, out of Piraeus this summer. She will be running with her former Norwegian Cruise Lines fleetmate, the 1968 built Louis Aura, best remembered as the famous, fondly remembered Starward.

From Israel, the Golden Iris operates cruises for Mano Maritime. She is the former Cunard Princess and, by an ironic coincidence, she is currently laid up for the winter alongside her former sister, the fire ravaged Ocean Countess, in the Greek port of Chalkis.

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Most potent of all, the Lazarus- like resurrection of Portuscale Cruises in Lisbon has put a quartet of platinum chip, beautifully styled former ocean liners back on the market. Azores, Funchal. Lisboa and Porto will all be sailing full schedules over the 2014 season and, while some of these will be on European charters, there are options to board the exquisite Funchal in the UK over the summer. Many of those cruises are being marketed by Travelscope Holidays in the UK.

The future prospects of all of these ships are, of course, directly related to their profitability as going concerns. That being so, 2014 might well be a good time for true lovers of the ocean liners of the past to turn those fond, romantic dream voyages into a more practical, eminently rewarding reality.

WINTER BRAZIL SEASON- WHO’S SAILING THERE THIS YEAR?

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Now that autumn’s cold, clammy fingers are tickling our collective windpipe, many of us start to succumb to an almost pathetic sense of yearning for clear skies, sparkling seas and yes, good, warm sunshine. If the Marie Celeste had only been able to drift like our collective thoughts, then she would never have been becalmed in mid ocean…..

Assuming you’re ready to take the plunge (pun wholly intentional) then; where to? If the Caribbean seems overcrowded, or the Canaries too ‘same old’, then options look as if they are beginning to stretch thinner than the credibility of Donald Trump’s wig. The Far East too far out? The winter Mediterranean not warm enough? Dubai just ‘duh’?

So- how about Brazil in particular and, indeed, South America in general?

OK. Halt. Who goes there? Well, you might be surprised at just how many options you actually have, my friends…

Late each autumn, a conga line of cruise ships flee the leaden European winter and flock like so many exotic birds of passage to the warmer, far friendlier waters of South America. Every kind of ship and line, from budget to mass market, to deluxe, all inclusive icons of the cruise trade. And they do it for very good reasons.

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal...

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal…

For starters, there’s that sultry, samba fuelled fire cracker otherwise known as Rio De Janeiro. But Brazil is far more than just Rio. There are stunning beach resorts like Ilhabela, Paraty and cool, swaggering Recife. Argentina rolls out the red carpet in sultry, full blooded Buenos Aires, the tango capital of the world. An overnight stay here on most cruises is almost mandatory. Quite right, too.

Uruguay is often overlooked and forgotten in the South American beauty pageant, and yet Montevideo is one of the most stately, graceful monuments to sheer indolence and tropical cafe life that you’ll find anywhere south of the equator. In short, there are no shortage of places, parties and sheer pleasurable experiences to be had down under the balmy tropical Latin skies.

You just have to decide what ship and style is right for you.

Louis Cruise is operating the Louis Aura (ex-Orient Queen) in those waters over the winter. She’s small, intimate and unassuming, but well fed and chock full of charm and fun. Cruise lengths are everything from three days to a week. The ship is an absolutely great budget choice for the region.

Latin flavours are on offer from both Iberocruises and Pullmantur, The two Spanish operators both have a ship or two ‘down Rio way’ during the winter, offering predominantly seven day cruises. Of the two, Pullmantur has the advantage of being all inclusive, and generally offers bigger ships. Both products are great value for the fares charged.

MSC know how to get the samba started

MSC know how to get the samba started

Staying in that Latin groove, both Costa and rival MSC have big, amenity laden megaships aplenty down here for the season; a hangover from the days when Italian liners routinely made line voyages from Italy down to South America. The big draw with both lines is the vast number of available balcony cabins that they offer.  These are probably the best party boats in the region if you’re looking for some serious hedonism, but the lines to get off and on them at some ports might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Good prices, though, and again, itineraries are typically six and seven days, with a few shorter cruises in between.

Touch more international? Royal Caribbean usually has a pair of its gorgeous Vision class ships down here, with their updated eating areas and vast swathes of floor to ceiling glass windows. They, too, will offer six and seven night round trips- typically from Santos, the port for Sao Paolo- but they will also fold some shorter, three and four night jaunts into the mix as well. And, don’t forget that Royal Caribbean now offer a handful of single cabins on many of their ships as well.

Want luxury? Fine. Sassy Crystal, sophisticated, European accented Silversea and classy, all inclusive Regent Seven Seas all offer winter holidays on wonderful, expansively opulent ships, where tailored service, gourmet food and a classically styled cruise experience are all in the mix. Longer itineraries- typically in excess of ten days- allow for a far more immersive experience, but at a price.

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Most of these lines will offer you packages including airfare, hotels and transfers, but what if you want to book your own flights? Well, here’s a few ideas….

British Airways offers a string of flights from all over the UK through Heathrow, and many of these are often on a code share with it’s Spanish partner, Iberia, over Madrid.

Air France/KLM also offers good regional connections to both Brazil and Argentina over it’s main hubs at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport and Amsterdam Schipol.

You could also do worse than to take TAP Air Portugal. They fly from their main hubs in Lisbon and Porto, with connections from the UK available from Gatwick, Heathrow, and also a limited number from Manchester in the winter months.

So-food for thought? Throw off your winter woolies, put on your dancing shoes, slap on the factor thirty sun screen (lots of it) and- get out there!

PORTUSCALE CRUISES; BACK FROM THE ASHES

The classics are back

The classics are back

Few things stunned the maritime community quite like the Lazarus style resurrection of Portuscale Cruises, the nascent niche operator that has risen, Phoenix style, from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and it’s spectacular collapse a couple of years ago.

Make no bones about it; Portuscale is as far removed from the accepted tenets of mainstream cruising as it is possible to be. While modern ships divert their passengers attention from the elements by showcasing a whole string of eye boggling, constantly evolving new features, the Portuscale experience is resolutely, exquisitely retro.

Here you’ll find much smaller, more intimate ships that still have the personal touch, while keeping the base amenities that made ocean voyages such a compelling way to travel in the first place. You’ll find good restaurants offering traditional, fixed seating for dinner, a show lounge and a piano bar, a few shops, and large, commodious cabins that actually give you room- and reason- to relax in. Though not too many have balconies, there is a really agreeable trade off on these small, beautifully crafted gems.

This comes in the shape of their simple, stunning lines; a clear throwback over more than six decades, to an age when seagoing ships had beautiful, bewitching lines. In short, they possessed camber, sheer and poise; things once deemed to be marketing attractions in and of their own right. Things rescued from the scrap heap by Portuscale. And quite literally at that, too.

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

Each of the four ships- Funchal, Porto, Lisboa and Azores- represents one of the most elegant and evocative travel experiences available anywhere today- the maritime equivalent of the magnificently resurrected Orient Express luxury train. Vessels that offer two journeys for what amounts to the price of one.

Firstly, each ship will take you on a hopefully compelling voyage of discovery to a string of ports around the globe; the smaller size of the ships also allows them to nip smartly into the smaller, sweeter little port havens that their bigger, glitzier brethren have to glide past. This is a compelling excuse for booking in and of itself.

The second journey? A voyage back in time, to an age when more personalised service actually counted for a lot. To an age when a good steamer chair proved far more preferable to gimmicks like cantilevered walkways and rock climbing walls. An age when you could actually look out at the ocean in all it’s moody, matchless majesty, and feel a real connection with it. A time when ship and sea were unashamedly symbiotic.

The living, breathing proof of this renaissance emerged a few weeks ago, when Funchal emerged from her dusty concrete cocoon like a flower bursting into bloom after three years of darkened lay up.  Scrapyards around the worlds had flexed their cheque books and sharpened their knives over the demise of the Classic International fleet; it seems that those gentlemen- so busy and feted of late- are to be disappointed on this front, at least.

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

God knows, the maritime community needs the diversity that is wrapped up in this quartet of proud, distinctive little hulls. 2013 has seen Sleeping Beauty begin to slowly blink herself awake. It is very much to be hoped that 2014 sees a resurgence of interest in what amounts to a truly largely forgotten form of travel; the small ocean liner.

PORTUGAL’S POUSADAS- THE SMART STAY OPTION

The beautifully illuminated church facade

The beautifully illuminated church facade

If the idea of staying in some large, anonymous hotel leaves you feeling more than a little chilly, those lovely people in Portugal can offer you something a lot more authentic and alluring, without having to sacrifice on the style or comfort. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of the pousada.

Anyone familiar with the Spanish concept of the parador will pretty much have the gist of this already. Simply put, a pousada is a historically significant building- typically a chateau or, in my case, a twelfth century monastery- that has been upgraded to provide a unique holiday experience, while preserving as much of its original character as humanly possible.

The result is an experience that mirrors the warmth and hospitality of the best hotels, while at the same time providing you with a unique insight into a way of life that has largely vanished, But, bear in mind that a pousada is not a purpose built hotel; only so many modern creature comforts can be shoe horned into an establishment whose parameters were defined many centuries ago. And, indeed,one that was created for an entirely different purpose altogether.

I stayed in the amazing Amares pousada up in the quaint, picture perfect village of Santa Maria do Borbo. It was originally a twelfth century monastery. It remains a singularly stunning building complex, with its history seared into every stone wall around you.

Beautiful old stone fireplace

Beautiful old stone fireplace

The rooms are not huge, but they are surprisingly comfortable. There are no balconies, but the rooms retain the original stone window seats once used by the monks that inhabited them. I was surprised by just how large the bathrooms were. The windows came complete with motorised blinds. And the bed was as comfortable as anything I’ve ever slept in.

Elsewhere, the downstairs public rooms included a huge, comfortably furnished lounge, complete with a cavernous, wood burning fire place that would be quite magical on a chilly winter evening. There’s a huge dining room that offers up the typical Portuguese regional fare; dishes that revolve heavily around meat, potatoes and hearty vegetable soups. The desserts are as sinful as you’d expect- probably the most wickedly indulgent things to ever go on offer in a monastery. And the breads, fresh baked each day, were just gorgeous.

There was also a separate television room, and a snooker table. All of these facilities were encased within the original stone structure of the monastery itself. There’s a vast, expansive terrace facing out over the lush, mountainous scenery all around; an absolutely picture perfect place for pre and post dinner drinks.

The extensive, beautifully manicured grounds also contain a circular swimming pool, surrounded by a swathe of inviting sun beds. But nothing- and I mean nothing- beat the cloisters in the middle of the complex for sheer haunting, atmospheric beauty. Here, time seemed to have stopped around the year 1300.

The past is all around you

The past is all around you

A quadrangle of vast, vaulted stone archways still frame what was once the epicentre of the monastic complex. It’s a spot of incredible, atmospheric peace and beauty, with its torchlit, ancient arches framed perfectly against the gentle, purple glow of a perfect midsummer twilight. The silence and the sense of wonder is almost electrifying.

There’s a beautiful seating area out here, and one of the waiters will be more than happy to bring your drinks outside for you. It’s so perfectly frozen in time that it is easily possible to imagine a slowly processing line of robed monks drifting past in the early evening ether.  It;s an incredibly powerful and serene space, and no hotel- in Portugal or possibly anywhere else- has anything quite like it.

And this is the essence of the pousada experience as a whole. If you’re looking for loud, lively bars, discos and late night casino action, then this is not for you. Nor are there any of the extensive spa and shopping facilities of the big hotels. Here, the key is just unwinding totally amid spectacular natural surroundings.

And what scenery it is.

Here, in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, the country’s premier wine growing region is literally right on your doorstep. Acres of lush green terraces, stepped against plunging mountain sides, march down to the river that cuts a languid, serpentine swathe through the valleys below. And, while Portugal remains largely a devoutly Catholic country, the production of the exquisite local port wine is almost a religion here in and of itself.

The village of Santa Maria do Borbo (see previous posts) is literally straight across the road from the pousada, and the huge church that is attached to the complex. Life here is slow, pared back and mellow; there are only two cafe bars and one restaurant outside the pousada complex, but the prices are so cheap here that you’ll begin to believe in miracles.

The courtyard is incredible

The courtyard is incredible

The nearest large city is Braga, the third largest city in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto. It’s about an hours’ drive away. From there, you can take a train to and from Porto. If it sounds remote, that’s exactly the point.

Downsides? There are quite a few steps to climb to access the pousada itself. Anyone with mobility issues should bear this in mind. Passageways are long, and dimly lit at night. I thought it atmospheric; you might think it’s spooky. Public transport is almost non existent; two buses a day connect the village to Braga. And taxis are very, very thin on the ground out in this part of the world.

This would make a great, two centre holiday when combined with a few days in vibrant, cosmopolitan Porto, or even with a short river cruise on the long, winding mass of the Douro itself.  As a region, it is relatively undiscovered in comparison to the playgrounds of the Algarve coastline that lie quite some way to the south.

It’s also very different in temperament to lively, sophisticated Lisbon. But there are several pousada strung right across the length and breadth of the country, like a string of random exclamation marks.

Each one of these is as individual as a human fingerprint. And each one has a story to tell that is all its own. Go enjoy.

FLYING TAP- EASY AS 1/2/3…

Not all airlines are created equal...

Not all airlines are created equal…

This was my first experience of flying Air Portugal, also known as TAP. After reading the odd horror review online, I was pleasantly relieved to discover an airline as small and perfectly formed as the country whose flag it flies so proudly.

Admittedly, both flights were only in the order of two and a half hours each; a round trip between London Gatwick and Porto, Portugal’s second city. Boarding at both ends was simple and efficient; the airline flies Airbus A320’s on this route, twice a day from Gatwick.

Inside, the planes offer a three seat across configuration, with seats on both sides upholstered in blue leather. Both planes were clean and seemed free of any real wear and tear. Seat pitch of thirty one inches in economy is the same as it is in business. This was more than enough for me, but I’m only five foot six in height.

I didn’t try the recline. Ceiling mounted, drop down screens delivered the safety briefing, and an episode of Mister Bean on the way out. I thought it odd that we were not offered any means of listening, but it was still diverting enough to pass the flight.

Flight staff on both legs were pleasant, attentive and genuinely courteous. Food is as advertised on their website for short haul- a cold sandwich, usually ham and cheese, with coffee or tea and some kind of fruit juice. The sandwich was actually edible, in contrast to the grenade strength bread rolls offered as inflight fodder on some other airlines.

Drinks were free, and I enjoyed a pre arrival glass of zesty vinho verde, poured from a full sized bottle on the trolley. I was offered another without having to ask for it. Bear in mind that this is economy, too.

One duty free run was announced and made on both flights, and the seat in front of you contains the usual inflight magazine and duty free guide. Unlike some airlines- especially the budget ones (I’m looking at you, Easyjet and Ryanair)- landing cards were announced as available, and brought through the cabin. Well done TAP on that one. Airlines take note; not every passenger on a European flight is a citizen of the EU.

Outward flight was bang on time, but the return one pushed back twenty five minutes late, as a consequence of it being late inbound. This was announced to us by the pilot in flight, and not on the ground at the airport.

That said, the lovely check in staff at Porto gave me an extra leg room exit seat without me even requesting it, so happy feet on the way home, too. And yes, I did enjoy that feeling of being just a little extra pampered, as well.

I will happily use TAP again in the future, and would certainly consider them for a long haul flight out to the USA, or even Brazil. The airline flies A330/A340 planes on these routes.

All in all, a nice, understated start and finish to a wonderful holiday. Kudos to Air Portugal. Obrigada!

CLASSICS TO INFINITY…. AND BEYOND

ImageIn the world of modern cruising, the miraculous salvation of the former Classic International Cruises fleet must rank as the most staggering comeback since Lazarus. OK, well at least since Take That.

When the banks foreclosed on the fleet of classic liners so lovingly maintained by the late, great George Potamianos, scrapyard owners everywhere opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives. And who could really blame them for scenting blood?

ImageHere was what had been a modern cruise accountant’s nightmare. A fleet of low density ships, floating anachronisms that were incredibly expensive to sail and maintain. Labour intensive, with only a handful of balcony cabins across the five ships. A complete lack of modern, time killing attractions and, above all, their sheer age working relentlessly against them. Though I remained outwardly optimistic, in my heart I had also written those lovely, fondly remembered ships off.

I have never been so glad to be proven wrong.

In a move that stunned and surprised everyone, four of the five ships have been bought from the banks by Doctor Rui Alegre, a Portuguese business man. He immediately reinstated the stalled revitalisation of the handsome, 1961 built Funchal. Now, after several years of stop-start work, the ship is scheduled to start sailing again under charter this September. This was originally thought to be in Northern Europe, though another source has the ship going to the Mediterranean.

ImageBaby of the fleet, the 6,000 ton Arion has now been renamed as the Porto. She now sports a smart black hull, and a black and yellow funnel bearing the logo of the newly named Portuscale Cruises. At the time of writing, she is undergoing final refurbishment in Lisbon.

Nearby, the classic, 15,000 ton Princess Danae is being refurbished, and has been renamed the Lisboa, in honour of the Portuguese capital.

Athena, the former Stockholm, is already back at sea, operating charter cruises in the Black Sea for a Russian firm, under her new name, Azores.

It is expected that all the ships will be up and running by 2014, though whether some or all go out on charter is as yet unclear. Portuscale is being quite tight lipped. Indeed, silent.

Also encouraging is the revival of the Classic International Cruises brand itself, with the Potamianos brothers-sons of the original owner- having completed the repurchase of the 15,000 ton Princess Daphne, currently laid up in Crete. Again, details are thin on the ground, but it seems that the brothers have gone to great lengths to buy back the ship so beloved of their late father.

ImageIt remains to be seen how this small, beautifully styled band of survivors can buck the trend of a depressed market that is largely dominated by mega ships. But, having seen these ships come so far, and watch them re-emerge after defying all the odds, it would be a rash man indeed who would bet against them.

I’m not that man. I wish both operations smooth seas, and a rising tide of good fortune.