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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As ever, stay tuned.

The Norwegian Sun is Rio bound in 2016

The Norwegian Sun is Rio bound in 2016

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.

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!

THINGS FROM MY BUCKET LIST….

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Most people who know me would say that I’m well travelled. My general response to that is that I travel well. And, for sure, I do.

But looked at in either context, a simple fact remains the same; the more we experience of the world, the more we become painfully aware of how little we actually have seen. Travel is like peeling an onion; just when you think you’ve got down to the heart of it, you find another hundred layers, lying in wait to be unravelled.

And that is exactly as it should be, too.

To truly travel, the mind should always be constantly exploring new horizons and, at the very least, contemplating new stuff. Many of us have what we call a ‘bucket list’; a set of trophy things we want to do, sights we yet want to see,

Trust me, I’m no different in that regard. So, without further ado, here’s some of the adventures I still want to experience at least once in my lifetime. Hang on- this could get messy….

TRAVEL BY RAIL ACROSS THE USA

From sea to shining sea. West to East. Starting in Los Angeles with a stay on the dear old Queen Mary, and then making my way on those fabulous Amtrak double decker trains, all the way to New York.

I’d make a two night stop in certain cities along the way; New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia come first to mind. There would be a final couple of nights in New York and then- as a truly grand finale- I’d sail back across the Atlantic to England on the Queen Mary 2. 

That’s living, all right.

THREE WEEKS IN THE GREEK ISLANDS

This would be the complete opposite to my normal, organised routine. Just an open return flight ticket to Athens, as little luggage as possible, and then just island hopping for three weeks, using the local ferries like buses.

Where to? Wherever the mood and the music takes me. A day here. Three days there. Two days anywhere. Repeat as necessary until you become so chilled out that you’re almost liquid.

So many choices, and all dependant on a mood, a whim, People watching and drinking wine in the sun. Repeat as necessary. Jacket and tie? I don’t think so. Not for this one, Colonel.

Rio bound??

Rio bound??

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Anyone with even a hint of romance in their soul has a sacred duty to sail down to Rio; the most sultry and sensuous city south of the Equator. Why sail? Because tourists fly. And you are not a tourist; you’re a child that has to follow the sun. We don’t ‘do’ mundane, chico. That’s not what we’re about, is it? That’s not how we roll.

And, if you are going to arrive in Rio, you want to make that spectacular, dramatic entry from the sea. Sailing in past Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. And do it in style; arrive on the biggest, most swaggering and spectacular ship you can find. You owe it to Rio. And you owe it to yourself. Don’t let me down.

PADDLE WHEELER ON THE MISSISSIPPI

In the immortal words of Churchill, D; Oh, yes…

I want to sit on a rocking chair on some huge, hulking great wedding cake of  a paddle steamer, and pretend I’m Huckleberry Finn while I sip on a mint julep. I want to swagger down one of those impossibly over fussed, Gone With The Wind style grand staircases. To roll on out of New Orleans, with the paddle wheel thrashing up the river behind us, and a dixieland jazz soundtrack ringing in my ears. I still want to be able to hear that music until my dying day. Yes sir, I’ll take some of that Mississippi mud pie, with a big slice of old style steamboating.

Is there more? Oh Lord, yes. Lots. But these are the brightest stars I’ll be aiming to reach for. Bucket list? The only thing that I’m sure of with any real certainty is that I’m going to be needing a bigger bucket.

How about you?