DOG-GONE! QM2 RAMPS UP THE ON BOARD ACCOMMODATION FOR 2016

Some details of next years’ long anticipated refit of Queen Mary 2 have begun to surface.

The 25 day refit will take place at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and will begin on May 27th. The ship is scheduled to leave the dock on June 21st.

No less than thirty balcony staterooms for Britannia Club passengers will be added to the ship. To accommodate an extra sixty potential diners, the area currently occupied on board by the Britannia Club annexe will be extended.

Significantly, the ship will also gain some fifteen new, dedicated cabins for singles, thus bringing her into line with smaller fleet mates, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

And, just to prove that it’s not really a dog’s life on the Queen Mary 2, the ships’ kennel complex will benefit from both a new water hydrant and a lamp post. And, in response to demand, an additional ten kennels will be installed in the ships’ aft placed, upper deck dog compound, bringing the total available to twenty two in all.

The company is also getting ready to announce further enhancements in the future. One of these will almost certainly include a massive change to the centrally sited Kings’ Court buffet area, a perennial cause of customer complaint.

More details will be posted here as they are made public.

As ever, stay tuned.

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

APPROACHING MANHATTAN; THE CAVALCADE AT DAWN

Hey Manhattan....

Hey Manhattan….

Today being September 11th, there seems no better day to recall one of the most perennially magical and awe inspiring experiences that any traveller by sea can ever experience.

The approach to Manhattan.

Long before the completion of the World Trade Centre in 1973, New York was a city as uniquely wedded to the sea as, say, Venice. Manhattan was, and still is, a cluster of stupendous, dreaming spires, rising from the Hudson River. A shimmering, symmetrical confection of glass, steel and concrete that clawed at the sky, but one whose feet were, inevitably, always wet.

It was this unique communion with the sea that gives Manhattan its dramatic, almost mystical stance. And the only way to approach it- to truly get it- was by ocean liner.

Let’s first put this into context; we all know that air travel is mass transportation in this day and age. The jets won on speed, as they were always going to do.

Every few seconds of the day, a commercial jet airliner comes in to land at one of the city’s three principal airports- JFK, Newark and La Guardia- from all over the globe. Except for the pilot and the flight controller on the ground, nobody bats an eyelid at the sight.

Inside, the passengers see nothing but the back of the seat in front of them. The only thing they feel is that uniquely unsettling sensation in their ears as the plane descends, and then that sudden, abrupt thump as screaming rubber connects with cold concrete.

Close enough almost to touch...

Close enough almost to touch…

But arriving by ship? Oh lord, how very, very different…..

How often I stood on the little bit of waist below the bridge of the QE2, shivering in the pale light of dawn as the great ship edged into the sudden stillness of the Hudson at the end of a five day, often storm tossed crossing from Europe. Stood there, with the adrenaline running like tap water. For this was the moment of theatre that nobody wanted to miss; the ceremonial procession into Manhattan.

First came the tips of the World Trade Centre; splintering the horizon like twin, skeletal fingers as the first rays of dawn ghosted across the blackened canvas of the sky. A few lights twinkled, shimmering on the ink black river; a river so still and silent that it could have been made of glass.

That first contact was like a sucker punch; hugely emotional, a deep intake of breath. Here was the culmination of an epic adventure; the arrival in the New World, as generations of our forebears experienced it.

And now, as if pushed from below the sea by some gigantic, unseen hand, the whole of Manhattan rose from the river to starboard, a ragged forest of gleaming spires, squat, hulking office buildings and, looming above it all, the unmistakable twin spires of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. A twin pair of global icons, their facades dusted a shade of blush red as the rising sun sluggishly heaved its way towards a sky so still and silent that it might have been some painted canvas.

To port, the Statue Of Liberty was now in view; a deceptive, diminutive waif clad in copper, torch held aloft. Patient, pale and perennial.

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

History is etched into every fold of her gown. On a warm , spring morning in April of 1912, the same great lady waited patiently for the Titanic to sweep proudly past her, making the same, age old procession as we now undertook. She is still waiting to this day.

Meanwhile, the magnificent vision of Manhattan is now so close as to be almost overwhelming. And we are no longer alone, either.

A trio of Moran tug boats are now riding shotgun on the QE2, like three respectful ladies in waiting. They are there to swing us into Pier 90 when the moment is right.

Now we can see cars, looking like madly animated beetles as they scurry along Twelfth Avenue, their headlights making them resemble tiny glow worms. And we can see lines of them, coming down the canyons that have opened up between the ranks of serried skyscrapers that now loom almost above us.

What strikes you most is the silence; though the deck is crowded, there is almost a sense of reverential awe, one not dissimilar to the feeling of entering some huge, impassive cathedral. And, in a sense, that is exactly what we have just done.

The sudden, exultant boom of the QE2 siren shatters that mood as completely as a brick thrown though a window. It’s a thrilling, spine tingling sound that touches something deep and intangible in the soul. It echoes like fading fog down those same, long canyons. They seem almost close enough to touch now.

Then comes that sudden, abrupt stop. A sharp intake of breath, and then the slow, ponderously elegant swing into Pier 90. After what seems like a lifetime, the matchless, elegant beauty of QE2 kisses the pier in Manhattan. Gangways are down, and we are once again physically tethered to what someone once aptly called ‘the hard, clear vigour of New York’. It was never better put.

Journey done. But we have not merely entered a city. We have arrived. And how.

Almost there...

Almost there…

With thanks to both QE2 and the great city of New York for such a series of priceless, immortal memories. And also with deep respect and remembering the victims in New York and elsewhere of the appalling events of September 11th, 2001.

HOMECOMING QUEEN- THE SS. NORWAY 1984 CRUISES IN EUROPE

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

When Knut Kloster completed his amazing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ style resurrection of the SS. Norway in May of 1980, it was with the express intention of sailing her on year round, seven night cruises from Miami to the clear, sunny waters of the sultry Caribbean. When the still not quite complete ship sailed out of Southampton for New York on May 7th, 1980, few ever realistically expected to see her back in Europe again, other than for routine dry docking.

Several factors appeared to back this up; firstly, the deep draft of the SS. Norway- well over thirty feet- would make it difficult for her to access the smaller, more desirable ports in Europe. And, in those days, even many of the bigger ports still did not have the infrastructure to cope with a ship and passenger load like the Norway could deliver. Plus, the immensely profitable, seven night circuits in the Caribbean were enormously popular.

Just how profitable the Norway was in the Caribbean was highlighted by a brief, three month recession that kicked into the Caribbean cruise run over the summer of 1983. For weeks on end, the average, seven days ships- with capacity for around eight hundred passengers each- were going out half full on average.

At the same time, the SS. Norway- with a capacity well in excess of two thousand passengers, was averaging an occupancy rate of some ninety- three per cent, week in and out. That is a stunning figure; proof, if ever it were needed, of Kloster’s brilliance and foresight in resurrecting the giant liner in the first place.

So the 1984 return to Europe of the SS. Norway to operate a short, summer series of seven night cruises came as a real surprise. NCL trumpeted it as ‘the cruise sensation of the year’, and not without good reason. The news had the same shock effect as a brick thrown through a window. In fact, NCL took advantage of the ship’s return to Europe to schedule a three week dry docking for her.

The plan was to sail the giant ship on a series of alternating, seven night cruises from Amsterdam. One run would encompass the ‘greatest hits’ of the Baltic circuit such as Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen- but, interestingly, not Saint Petersburg. This was 1984, and the Cold War had not quite yet thawed out.

The other run would take the SS. Norway back to her adopted country; here, the vast, beautiful ship would make a stunningly implausible sight in such ports as Flam, Geiranger and Gudvangen. There would also be one longer, spectacular cruise to the top of the North Cape and back, a truly epic odyssey for the graceful giant. This would presage the shorter, seven night runs.

Kloster had intended for his giant baby to sail from New York to Southampton on a nostalgic Atlantic crossing. However, the Hudson River had silted up so much that it would require extensive dredging to safely accommodate the Norway. The harbour authorities were reluctant to go to such expense for what they not unreasonably expected to be a one off visit.

So, the SS. Norway instead sailed up to Philadelphia. After a two night party cruise to ‘nowhere’, she embarked 1,000 passengers for an eight night, eastbound crossing to Europe. Still, some eight feet of her mainmast had to be removed so that she could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge.

The Norway arrived in Southampton on July 26th, joining the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Royal Viking Sky in the Hampshire port. That evening, she left on a two day party cruise to Amsterdam, arriving on the 28th. From here, her season of seven night cruises began.

Prices for the seven night cruises began at $1,140 per person, while the fourteen night North Cape fiesta had fares beginning at $2,190. The seven night cruises were also able to be combined to create one amazing, fourteen night, back to back trip.

That short, high summer season of European cruises was a tremendous success; in fact, it was a sell out. Following her three weeks in dry dock in Hamburg, the Norway returned to Miami via the ‘sunny southern’ route, on an eleven night transatlantic crossing. Leaving Southampton on September 24th and sailing via Bermuda and Nassau, the Norway arrived back ‘home’ in Miami on October 5th, ready to resume her Caribbean circuit.

Despite the success of her short summer season, it would be 1998 before the SS. Norway would return to offer another full season of European cruises. By then, time and new builds had passed her by, and she was no longer the totally dominant force that she had once been. None the less, the fabled ship remained a hugely popular draw. Unable to compete effectively in the Caribbean with newer, more fuel efficient and amenity laden ships, she spent the next few summers in Europe, where her history, heritage and elegance would make her a constantly popular choice for starry eyed nostalgia buffs from  all over the world.

TIMESLIP: QE2 AND THE SS. NORWAY IN SOUTHAMPTON, JULY 26TH 1984; A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.

In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.

In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.

At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.

A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.

Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.

Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.

By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.

Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.

And then, it was our turn.

With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.

Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.

Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.

Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1960’S

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.

LOOKING AHEAD; SOME SNIPPETS, AND A FEW QUESTIONS

Is HAL downsizing?

Is HAL downsizing?

February has broken with some possible welcome news in the cruise industry, an unfortunate accident, and a few question marks that have been hanging around for some time. Let’s take a look at some of them

Following the fire that ravaged part of her lido deck and forward superstructure at the end of November, 2013, there is still no word on whether or not the veteran Ocean Countess might possibly see a return to service. Indeed, the pall of silence that has enveloped the blackened, but seemingly only superficially damaged ship, is far thicker- and potentially more noxious- than the smoke that shrouded the burning ship.

I’ve already touched on the Marco Polo accident in a previous blog, but owners Cruise And Maritime now also have to contend with the second punch of an awful double whammy; the news that partner company, All Leisure Cruises, is putting the chartered MV Discovery up for sale.

This puts CMV- who only recently dipped a first tentative toe into European river cruising- in a bit of a bind. Do they buy the Discovery outright themselves, or perhaps look elsewhere to charter? Ironically, the Ocean Countess, mentioned above, was at one time also chartered by CMV.

Meanwhile, seemingly reliable (that is to say, non official) sources in Dubai are saying that all of the engines aboard QE2 are  now back on line, and that her whistle has been heard, bellowing around the bay. The same sources have intimated that former Cunard staff are on board the veteran ship; all straws in the wind that indicate that her much hyped voyage to China via Singapore, originally scheduled for October 2013, may indeed finally be on.

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Though her future is still shrouded in uncertainty, my feeling is that any sign of regeneration right now must be viewed as a positive. Past experiences tell us all too well that official pronouncements must be taken with a ton of salt. And even so, we can only watch, wait, and hope.

Still on the veteran ship front, seemingly great news comes from Oman, where the former Kungsholm is still moored. A return for the 1966 built Swedish American veteran to either Stockholm or Gothenburg seems on the cards, together with the restoration of her mutilated forward funnel. With her interiors already adapted for hotel use during her stay in Oman, the only real obstacle to returning the beloved liner to her home country seems to be the securing of a permanent berth for her. Negotiations for that are, apparently, ongoing right now.

It also appears that the 1992 built Statendam is up for sale. The ship, the first of a ‘new’, five ship series, built for the Holland America Line, would perhaps make an ideal fit for Fred. Olsen, long known to be interested in acquiring her smaller fleet mate, Prinsendam.

Also welcome news from Star Cruises, who have now ordered a second new giant ship from Meyer Werft of Papenburg, Germany. My guess is that these two ships will be modified versions of the hugely successful Breakaway class, now sailing for sister company, Norwegian Cruise Line.

That’s it for now. As ever, stay tuned.

UPDATE: 

Ocean Countess is scheduled for scrapping at Aliaga, Turkey, this month according to a report on merseyshipping.blogspot.com

My grateful thanks go to Chris Thompson for pointing me in this direction.

THE AQUITANIA, CUNARD’S ARISTOCRATIC LEGEND

From sea to shining sea....

From sea to shining sea….

Aquitania. A ship whose very name is wrapped in romance, legend and maritime lore. She sailed for thirty six years, establishing a continuous service record only recently bested by another Cunard aristocrat, the Queen Elizabeth 2. Though Aquitania was dishevelled and worn out in her final days, he track record is still one of imperishable glamour.

She was built on the Clyde, to be a bigger running mate for the record breaking sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. Cunard needed this bigger, far more opulent ‘third wheel’ to run a weekly service from Liverpool to New York.

In terms of scale, design and execution, the Aquitania had far more in common with the rival Olympic than with her smaller siblings. Like the Olympic, Aquitania was meant to emphasise scale, steadiness and sheer, opulent splendour. The Blue Riband was something she never aspired to; she was intended to be a spectacular floating palace, a Palladian bordello writ large. For decades, her proud, four funneled silhouette would be a byword for style and sophistication at sea.

Her initial timing was disastrous. The Aquitania sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage only days after the Empress of Ireland had capsized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with the loss of over a thousand souls. The lost liner was very much a ‘Liverpool ship’, and the entire city was in mourning when the palatial new Cunarder arrived.

Aquitania managed just three round trips before the Great War decimated the liner trade. Both  Aquitania and Mauretania were requisitioned as the most improbable, fuel guzzling armed merchant cruisers ever, a role quickly terminated when they consumed every last bit of reserve coal in South Eastern England between them. Both ships were quietly laid up until some more practical role could be found for them.

She re- emerged to be used in a more realistic guise as a hospital ship, ferrying thousands of casualties back to the United Kingdom in the wake of the horrific, ill thought through catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign. Later still, she ferried American troops across the Atlantic to the charnel houses of the western front. Despite frequently sailing through areas known to be infested with German U-boats, the Aquitania emerged from four years of war without any physical combat damage.

But her machinery had been all but worn out, and a massive reconditioning was needed to bring the Aquitania back to her brief, pre war glory. At the same time, Cunard took the opportunity to convert the ship from coal to oil burning and, in this guise, she joined the Mauretania and the giant Berengaria on the newly established, post war express service from Southampton to New York.

Cunard's fabled 'big three' in the 1920's. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

Cunard’s fabled ‘big three’ in the 1920’s. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

This Cunard ‘big three’ service soon settled down to become the most reliable and consistent operation on the Atlantic. Each week, one of the three ships would sail from Southampton on a Saturday, bound for America. A second ship would leave New York each Tuesday. The third ship would be at sea, heading in one direction or the other.

With very little variation, the Aquitania maintained this pattern of sailings through most of the 1920’s, and well into the next decade. The Great Depression of 1929 combined with the advent of new, cutting edge, state of the art French and German liners to put the Aquitania and her pre war, Edwardian ilk on notice. Time for all of these ships was clearly running out.

The Cunard/White Star shotgun marriage of 1934 saw the Aquitania relegated more and more to short cruises, from New York to Bermuda, and even up to Nova Scotia. With two huge new sisters on order- the Queen Mary and the future Queen Elizabeth- it was clear to one and all that the doughty old Aquitania was on borrowed time.

Aquitania even made a cruise in 1938 down to Rio de janeiro for the Carnival, where she shared the harbour with much more modern masterpieces such as the Normandie and the Rex. If anything showed her advancing age and limitations, it was this mutual proximity to these two transatlantic speed queens.

Ironically, the outbreak of a second global conflict saved her. As Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, it became evident that the British Empire needed every last single potential troopship, no matter how old or jaded. For the second time in her incredible career, the Aquitania acquiesced to the grey guise of an ocean trooper.

In this second stint, the veteran Aquitania ventured to some amazingly unlikely places. Early in 1940, she formed part of an incredible convoy of liners that included the Queen Mary, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile De France, ferrying virtually an entire Australian army corps from Sydney to bolster General Wavell’s paper thin forces in North Africa. The likes of it would never be seen again.

Tired and yet priceless, the gallant old liner ended up back on the North Atlantic, ferrying American and Canadian troops to Britain in the build up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Once again, she managed to make her own unique contribution without ever kissing the edge of a U-boat’s cross hairs. All things considered, the Aquitania was, indeed, a very lucky ship.

At wars’ end in 1945, the Aquitania was returned to Cunard White-Star, and it was clear that she was almost totally worn out. But so desperate still was the shortage of tonnage that the liner spent four final years operating what was, in essence, an austerity service, ferrying both troops and a tidal wave of GI brides across the Atlantic to both America and Canada.

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Though her funnels were repainted in Cunard colours, very little else was done to recondition Aquitania. Her days were obviously numbered and, with both Queens back in profitable service on the Atlantic by the summer of 1947, the end was rapidly approaching for the Edwardian wonder ship.

She was an anachronistic sight indeed when she finally sailed off to a Scottish breaker’s yard for demolition in January of 1950. Sailing from Southampton for the last time into a thick fog bank, the Aquitania looked like nothing less than her own ghost.

Yet the Aquitania left behind an unequalled service record, both in terms of her peacetime luxury sailings, and through the course of the two most ghastly and destructive conflagrations on the face of the planet.  As a ship built for ‘comfort first, speed second’, she represented at that time a complete, radical change to the entire ethos of the Cunard Line. 

Unlike Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania was known throughout her long life as a good, solid, steady sea boat, and this also helped to make her hugely popular. In fact, those two words- ‘solid’ and ‘steady’- both work as singularly wonderful descriptive words in recalling the career, the achievements, and the sheer allure of that sumptuous, wonderful ship- the amazing Aquitania.

QE2 MOVING? YEAH BUT, NO BUT……

That fabulous bow

That fabulous bow

She was supposed to go yesterday, of course. But, as I type this, the Queen Elizabeth 2 is still shackled to her pier in Dubai. And, inevitably, doubts and fears are beginning to hang over her like gathering storm clouds.

This, despite the fact that the date of her departure was announced months and months ago. If there was a change likely for any reason at all, then there was more than enough time for the new owners to make that public. They didn’t.

It’s yet another botched bit of PR by people who have shown all the deft grace of an elephant tap dancing behind a public house bar. From Nakheel right on down to the current Oceanic Group, there has been one shambolic attempt after another to either stifle any information at all, or to manage the story to suit themselves.

The result has been evasion piled upon platinum chip idiocy; time and time again, pronouncements proffered up as soundbites have sunk one after another.

This, of course, is why so many of us in the west with connections to this marvellous ship, simply no longer take a word that issues from Dubai at face value. Our intelligence has been insulted with a quite flagrant disregard; our fears, anxieties and concerns dismissed with a casual indifference that almost beggars belief.

But I fear the truth is that what we think, care and feel for our venerable ‘lady of the seas’ has no currency whatsoever with the current owners. To them, she is an asset. pure and simple. That asset only exists to be managed, mangled and displayed in whatever way is expedient and, more importantly, profitable.

These are people who only see the ship as she is now. I wonder if any of them ever stood on one deck in mid Atlantic, and watched the wake boiling along behind her?

CNV00128My point here is that they have no empathic, emotional connection with her. Not like we do. Here, it really is ‘them’ and ‘us’ and, though we are in mutual proximity and tied by a common theme, an area of mutual interest, the truth is that we grind up against each other like mutually belligerent tectonic plates.

We- builders, crew, passengers, and those just lost in thrall to her- invested an incalculable amount of emotional currency in her. For the crew, she was their home. Any kind of ‘renovation’ is, for some, unthinkable. Why not just buy the Mona Lisa, draw a moustache on that instead, and then put it on display in Shanghai? 

We’re working on our emotions; the end result of all our experiences and memories of the QE2. The owners are working on pure, impersonal logic. They paid for her, and they own her. Their money, not ours. It’s long been evident that they don’t feel that we have either currency or clout when it comes to the ships’ future. Assuming, of course, that she has one.

I suspect that they are quietly, inscrutably outraged at our belligerence and continual badgering. These are naturally secretive people, and they do not like being called out by people-ie us- whose opinions they regard as largely superfluous to their grand ideas.

Hence the ham fisted, flowery burblings that attempt to pass themselves off as serious press statements. Sorry, but the late Josef Goebbels was more consistently believable than this lot.

Queen Elizabeth 2 in cruising mode at Lisbon, 2008

Queen Elizabeth 2 in cruising mode at Lisbon, 2008

What credibility might once have existed- and I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt- has now been irrevocably squandered. Any future pronouncements will simply be greeted with a tidal wave of silent, unvarnished scorn.

And so it goes. Lies, bluster and incompetence. It would be funny if the potential outcome was not so damned tragic.

CUNARD’S SINGLE TRANSATLANTIC SAVERS FOR 2013

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE QE2 CONVERSION-MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT COMING (UPDATED)

This famous bow will soon be cutting salt water one more time

This famous bow will soon be cutting salt water one more time

Tomorrow will see the official announcement of the name of the yard chosen to convert the iconic QE2 into a floating hotel. These are the words of Daniel Chui, a gentleman described as chief executive of the Oceanic Group, the company that now holds the deeds to the famous former Cunard flagship.

After five years of humiliating lay ups, stop start attempts at conversion and enforced idleness, the QE2 is finally being readied for an October 18th departure from Dubai for the shipyard in question.

Chui has described the conversion of the ship into a 450 room hotel in terms such as ‘historic’. Room sizes will range from sixty to one hundred and fifty square metres, with the emphasis being mainly on British, Classic, Continental and neo- modern designs, whatever that is supposed to mean. Sounds like a pretty uninspired mish mash, to be quite honest.

What is surprising is the news that the 1969 built cruise liner will embark on a ninety day tour of ‘various Asian ports’ next year to showcase her new look. It is not clear whether the company envisages carrying guests in transit or not, but this part of the announcement- a kind of ‘greatest hits’ tour of the region by the long dormant liner- is really fascinating.

Something like $100 million has been set aside for the conversion project; roughly the same amount as it cost to convert the QE2 from steam to diesel electric propulsion during her epic, six month 1986-87 rebuild. Chui says that the cost of undertaking the same work in a European shipyard would probably have been around fifty per cent more expensive.

Some seven different designers were invited to tender for the conversion project, and Oceanic says that all of these proposals will be put online for public viewing, following the official announcement in Shanghai tomorrow.

The QE2 was retired to Dubai, with ambitious plans for conversion into a hotel, in November 2008. The economic slump that followed led to the project stalling almost at the first fence. An attempt to sail the ship to Cape Town for use as a floating hotel for the 2010 FIFA World Cup was nixed at almost the last minute, ostensibly by South African hoteliers.

Let's hope her future is as bright as this shot of her

Let’s hope her future is as bright as this shot of her

What followed was a smoke screen of clumsy PR and an almost cavalier lack of consideration in keeping interested parties informed as to the situation of the ship. This was compounded by apparent in flighting and political machinations among the Dubai based bigwigs holding the ship hostage. As a result, rumours spread like forest fires and, when press releases were grudgingly put out, they were often read with disbelief and sometimes even outright disdain.

An announcement tomorrow will at least put an end to the speculation, if not the foreboding that exists in the minds of many. While the smart money still has the QE2 eventually being permanently homeported in either Hong Kong or Singapore, there are still questions that need answering. Chief among which is the status of the refurbished ship; will she be a hotel or a still active ship?

As with many other things in the long, drawn out saga of the QE2 and her afterlife, the actual answers are anything but clear. I’m hoping that tomorrow’s announcement will lift some of the fog surrounding this iconic, still much loved, legendary ship.

As ever, stay tuned. And fingers crossed, please.

 

OCTOBER 15TH, 2013 UPDATE:

Today, QE2 Holdings officially announced that the QE2 will be refurbished at the COSCO shipyard located in Zhoushan, in Southern China.

All seven submissions for new interior designs should be online, and will remain so until November 15th, when the one that secures most votes will be the winner.

QE2 is still at the moment scheduled for an October 18th departure from her five year lay up in Dubai.

Stay tuned for further -hopefully happy- developments.