INDOLENT ITALY- DREAMING WIDE AWAKE

Italy. Just say it. It sounds good. It feels exotic. A land as full of temptations as any Venetian coffee house, and one no less surprising in terms of sheer, splendid variety.

Consider wandering the streets of ancient Rome, one of the greatest cities on earth. You can drink Chianti and feast on prosciutto within sight of the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Coliseum, where men once literally fought for their lives, while swarms of scooters buzz past like swarms of maddened wasps.

You could savour the wonderful, indolent dolce vita lifestyle on the Olympian, lemon scented heights of stunning Sorrento, where people watching is an art form in itself. Or you could head down to the waterfront lidos, jutting out like spindly fingers into the azure blue hue of the balmy Mediterranean.

History and hedonism combine perfectly in vast, atmospheric Venice, where a glut of slowly crumbling, cake rich renaissance palaces, churches and theatres line vast, meandering canals where gondolas pout at the masses of summer tourists. Sample a real Bellini at Harry’s Bar, where the famous drink was originally invented, or take in the sounds of a full orchestra as you sip café in the unparalleled elegance of Piazza San Marco.

Something more tranquil, perhaps? Head for the vast, sparkling expanse of Lake Como, where million dollar villas peep out from amid vast tracts of deep, rolling greenery. Savour cocktails on the terrace of some wonderful old Grand Hotel, as the slowly setting sun turns the waters of the lake into  a sea of blazing straw.

For a real taste of Italian flair and style, check out tiny, picture perfect Portofino, a serene sweep of old Italianate architecture in shades of ochre and terracotta, wrapped around a sublime, yacht studded harbour like an elegant charm bracelet. People wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of small third world country pick at freshly caught fish and mouth watering paella.

For quirky history, meander up to small, patrician Pisa and gaze in awe at the infamous Bell Tower, the Campanile, shearing a full dozen feet from the vertical. Nearby is Florence, with its fabled Statue of David, world class museums, and the amazing medieval shopping arcade on the old bridge, spanning the mighty Arno.

You could check out the countryside of rustic, rolling Tuscany, with its smart, secluded villas and small, timeless towns, where houses still cluster around the bell tower of the local church as if for safety. Here, life seems to take on a timeless, otherworldly kind of quality.

This is just a small sample in the box of delights that is summertime Italy. Get out there and enjoy them. Live la dolce vita for yourself, and experience the difference between merely existing and truly living. Wonderful stuff.

Pisa

Pisa

GORGEOUS GENOA- A CLASSIC ITALIAN BEAUTY

The gorgeous Hotel Di Savoia looms over Genoa's skyline

The gorgeous Hotel Di Savoia looms over Genoa’s skyline

One of Italy’s greatest ports and also one of the original, hugely powerful city states that pre dated the unification of Italy, Genoa today is a vastly under rated, beautiful city. Awash with gloriously over the top Renaissance statuary and architecture, it has never quite attracted the same level of kudos and amazement as, say, Venice, Florence, or Rome.

Located on the extreme north west tip of Italy, Genoa is almost right on the border with France. A train from here will have you in Monaco in just three hours.

The port has been the epicentre of Italian ocean travels for over a century. All of the great Italian ocean liners- from the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia, through to the Andrea Doria, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello- started their maiden voyages from here. All called this great sea city their home.

Set on a series of rolling hills that cradle a stunning natural amphitheatre, Genoa has much in common with cities such as Lisbon; you see it in the Italianate architecture painted in a riot of pastel shades;  in the vast, overblown monuments to local heroes such as Christopher Columbus, and in the trams that crawl sluggishly into the hills.

But though the city is a riot of undiscovered and extensive glories, modern Genoa is not simply some Gothic theme park. The long, gracefully curving waterfront has one of the most fantastic aquariums in Europe, and literally hundreds of bars and waterfront cafes that brim with life in the long summer days and nights. There’s even the giant pirate ship built for the multi million dollar move, Cut Throat Island, now a popular local attraction.

And, of course, the big ships do still sail from here, too. Year round, the giant cruise ships of MSC Cruises and Costa Crociere  still ghost in and out of the ancient sea city, along with many others. With the gorgeous fishing villages of the Cinque Terre region almost within shouting distance, many big cruise ships use Genoa as a base from which to allow their passengers to explore such famous beauties as Portofino and Alassio.

While there is much to see and savour in those amazing, idyllic little slices of the good life, it is still nothing short of amazing that hordes of arriving passengers still give barely a second look at the swaggering, gorgeous city that actually welcomes them. For far too long, Genoa- or Genova to give her the Italian name- has been a hugely under rated destination in her own right.

And, when you’ve checked out these pictures, you- like me- might be left with one simple question; why?

Genoa's imposing cruise ship terminal

Genoa’s imposing cruise ship terminal

Awe inspiring Genoa

Awe inspiring Genoa

Rich and colourful

Rich and colourful

Italianate echoes

Italianate echoes

Old and even older

Old and even older

Genoa is at once hilly and heady

Genoa is at once hilly and heady

Ice cream colors prevail here

Ice cream colors prevail here

Typical medieval Italian largesse

Typical medieval Italian largesse

Soaring, spectacular Genoese cityscape

Soaring, spectacular Genoese cityscape

The elegant Hotel Di Savoia

The elegant Hotel Di Savoia

Genoa is elegant and symmetrical

Genoa is elegant and symmetrical

Tram ride

Tram ride

Love these stunning buildings

Love these stunning buildings

Palms and passageway pastiche

Palms and passageway pastiche

Ancient clock tower

Ancient clock tower

Did someone say 'pirate ship'?

Did someone say ‘pirate ship’?

Now that's big

Now that’s big

Genoa is a bustling city

Genoa is a bustling city

Facade of the cathedral

Facade of the cathedral

Want Lions? There you go

Want Lions? There you go

And that's 'arrivederci Genova'....

And that’s ‘arrivederci Genova’….

SEADREAM IN THE SUMMERTIME MED; THE GOOD LIFE JUST GOT BETTER…..

What a day for a Seadream....

What a day for a Seadream….

Harbours full of idly bobbing yachts. Cobble stone streets and quaysides awash with waterfront bars and cafes, brimming with life well into the small hours. Porsches and Lamborghinis sitting idly under a canopy of gently waving oleander. People wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country, discreetly checking out the milling throngs strolling past their lunch tables. For sure, it could only be the summertime Mediterranean.

If there is a region more dedicated to la dolce vita, or one more perfectly sculpted to deliver it in spades, then I have yet to find it. There is something so utterly seductive and compelling about those platinum chip, people watching playgrounds that sparkle along the summertime coasts of Italy, France and Spain. They draw people back year after year, like moths to a flame that bursts back into life again with the dawn of each new spring.

And, for sure, there are no shortage of huge, glitzy cruise ships that will show you the ‘greatest hits’ of the Mediterranean. Rome, Florence and Naples. Monaco and Barcelona. All places worthy of your attention and indulgence. All fabled and legendary. And, in summer, all crowded beyond all belief.

If you’ve ‘been there and done that’, then you don’t need to be told that these port intensive, week long ‘Meddy-Go-Rounds’ are great fun, yet anything but relaxing. Especially in the heat of mid summer, they can actually be damned hard work, as you try to absorb whirlwind encounters with a conga line of mind blowing cathedrals, castles, piazzas and shopping plazas. Fabulous and enjoyable it is, but relaxing it most certainly is not.

And that’s where Seadream Yacht Club comes in……

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening...

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening…

Imagine a small, 4,200 tons, all inclusive yacht, carrying a maximum of 115 guests, served by a hand picked crew of 90. Now make that yacht all inclusive from dawn till dusk, with free flowing champagne and fabulous, round the clock food that truly is ‘gourmet’, and a casual dress code that is perfectly suited to those balmy Mediterranean climes.

Imagine voyaging along and to all the small, smart resort havens that the bigger ships have to sail past. Tying up literally in the middle of town, just steps from the action. And a schedule that allows for long, lingering stays in those same ports, often overnight.

Sounds dreamlike for sure. But Seadream II is no dream. She is very, very real.

Each summer, Seadream II meanders among those peachy little splashes of paradise along the length of the Riviera and the Adriatic on a series of indolent, hugely inclusive adventures. A small marina at the stern allows her to carry such ‘toys’ as kayaks, sail boats and jet skis. In the more enclosed harbours, these are available to all passengers free of charge. It adds a whole new dimension to your idea of personal indulgence.

A unique outdoor set up means that all guests can dine alfresco- at any time of the day or night- on extraordinary, elegant fare. Imagine breakfasting on lamb chops as you sail into the stunning bay of Dubrovnik, or savour a long, lazy dinner in the fantastic, floodlit bay of Portofino. Peachy, non?

The aft pool

The aft pool

Life on board is totally informal and unstructured. Evenings tend to revolve around cocktails at the sumptuous Top Of The Yacht bar, open to sea breezes on both sides. It’s a causally spectacular little enclave, perfectly proportioned, and just as perfectly served. You’ll find it hard to tear yourself away at any hour of the day or night.

The aft lido deck features a small pool, and a hot tub just perfect for midnight cocktails, after you wander back to the yacht after a few hours strolling the bar and restaurant scene in Saint Tropez. This is one of several ports where Seadream II offers a number of overnight stops and, unlike certain other ports, it really does live up to the hype; a fabulous, fun place just to ‘stroll and roll’ and take it all in.

While the staterooms do not have balconies, all are outside, and come with marvellous, mulit jet showers in a marble lined bathroom, together with top end toiletries by Bulgari. Panelled in gorgeous cherry wood, each one features a sublime double bed, mini bar, plasma screen TV, and a separate living area.

I thought at first that I would miss having my own balcony but, truth be told, Seadream II is so small, elegant and intimate that the entire yacht feels like your own private terrace. And a slew of Balinese Dream Beds on the upper deck can be reserved-again, free of charge- so that you can sleep outside, underneath the stars. in perfectly secluded privacy. At a time of your choosing, a Seadream steward will wake you with orange juice, coffee, champagne or, indeed, all three. It’s a perfect spot from which to catch the first tender, blush pink flush of an early Sorrento sunrise, and a simply wonderful experience in and of itself.

To sum it up, Seadream II is a small, perfectly formed lady, one every bit as elegant as an exquisite charm bracelet. Yet she is big on style, hospitality, and things to do- or indeed, not to do.

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera...

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera…

You can hang out in a hammock with a glass of ice cold champers, or tear up the sparkling briny on an exhilarating jet ski ride. Be as sociable or as reclusive as you wish, and when it suits you. The kind of people typically drawn to the Seadream experience tend to be affable, pretty easy going types that are very well travelled. For the most part, they share a common aversion to the crowds carried on the big ships.

Come the autumn, Seadream II crosses the Atlantic, and relocates to the balmier, more welcoming climes of the Caribbean. From here, she saunters around the smaller, more secluded yacht havens that were once the playgrounds of seventeenth century privateers such as Bluebeard and Ann Bonney.

Whatever, whenever, the same casual elegance is a constant. But I offer you one well meant word of warning; if you once get to savour the Seadream experience, it will quite likely spoil you for just about anything else.

Other than that, enjoy. It’s all good.

DECLINE IN LA DOLCE VITA? CRUISE NUMBERS TO ITALY SET TO DROP OVER 2014

Pompeii remains a staple of the Italian cruise circuit

Pompeii remains a staple of the Italian cruise circuit

New figures released today suggest that 2014 will see the first fall in cruise ship passenger numbers visiting Italy for more than a decade.

While 2013 figures are estimated to show a five per cent overall increase on 2012, next year’s numbers are expected to be down. Hardly surprising, in light of the fact that a few of the usual summer Mediterranean mega ships have been pulled from the region. Royal Caribbean had already announced one ship less sailing the Med next year, and Carnival is leaving Europe altogether over the course of 2014.

Next year’s drop in numbers is conservatively estimated at 6.9 per cent, with actual visitor numbers pegged at over ten million for Italy as a whole.

Another factor being cited for the withdrawal of some cruise ships is a lack of flexibility among Italian port authorities in terms of berthing arrangements, a bugbear that has frustrated the major cruise lines for a number of seasons of late.

The figures, compiled by Venice based company Riposte, Turismo, analysed data supplied from some thirty six ports around mainland Italy and Sicily. It estimates that a staggering 11,4 million people will visit Italian ports over the course of 2013- up 5.1 per cent on 2012- but expects numbers to tail off next year.

It’s interesting to note the numbers involved for the principal ports of call, as listed in order below;

1) Civitavecchia, the port of call for Rome, lists 2.4 million passengers from around 951 cruise ship visits.

2) Venice claims 1.8 million from some 548 ship visits.

3) Naples had 1.2 million visitors from 517 different ship calls.

4) Genoa, which has just clocked over a million visitors from some 290 calls.

The figures for Genoa especially are revealing; the port has long been seen primarily as an embarkation/debarkation port, rather than as a destination in its own right like Venice and Rome.

The Coliseum makes Rome an unmissable draw

The Coliseum makes Rome an unmissable draw

However, Italy as a whole remains the biggest draw on the Mediterranean circuit. With a string of ‘greatest hits’ attractions such as Florence, Pisa, Rome, Sorrento and Pompeii all within easy sailing distance of each other, the country is still uniquely placed to showcase a huge amount of it’s history and culture, even over the course of a relatively short cruise.

Also encouraging for the long term Italian scene as a whole is the continuing growth in year round cruising. Uniquely sited in the centre of the Mediterranean, Italy offers convenient embarkation ports in Genoa and Rome to the Western Mediterranean, and from both Venice and, to a lesser extent, Bari, to the currently convoluted Eastern Mediterranean.

The figures cited above probably represent no more than a temporary dip in what has been a steady growth market for many years. As ever, stay tuned.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS- COMING UP IN THE CRUISE WORLD

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Quite a few things worth noting here, actually, as we begin the long, slow slide into winter. A possible new build. maybe a new cruise line, a big refurb, and some big shifts in deployment are all here in the mix;

AIN’T NO SUNSHINE

After an initially troubled start up following her unprecedented, bow to stern refit, Carnival Sunshine (the former Carnival Destiny) will leave Barcelona on November 1st for a sixteen night transatlantic crossing to New Orleans. With her goes the last deployment of any of the ‘Fun Ships’ in any European cruising region until at least 2015.

Carnival Sunshine will operate seven night Western Caribbean itineraries from New Orleans through April 2014, when she comes around to Port Canaveral to offer six and eight night round trip Eastern Caribbean itineraries.

SERVING UP INDIAN…..

Word is circulating about the likely start up of a new, Indian based cruise line, aimed at tapping the potentially huge local domestic market. Royal Asian Cruise Lines is said to have already bought the laid up Gemini, last used as an accommodation ship at the 2012 London Olympics. The line is also said to be in the market for up to four more, second hand ships of a similar size and vintage.

Final financing arrangements were due to take place in Barcelona this month. The cruise line will initially operate in the Indian Ocean, including the waters around Sri Lanka.

SEABOURN’S FAB FOUR?

Ultra luxury Seabourn Cruise Line is said to be on the cusp of ordering a fourth vessel in the highly successful, 32,000 ton Sojourn class. If so, it will give the line a consistency across the fleet, and a potential depth of world wide deployment that is going to be hard to match. Meanwhile, first of the initial trio, Seabourn Pride, will leave the fleet to join new owners, Windstar, in April next year, with the other two smaller sisters completing the transition in 2015.

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

LOUIS SWINGS SOUTH

With the season for short Aegean and Greek Islands cruises coming rapidly to a close (the last few sailings are in early November)  Louis Cruises is sending two of its ships across the Atlantic on full winter charters.

Louis Aura, currently sailing as the Orient Queen, will be heading for Brazil, to operate a series of itineraries varying in range from between three to seven nights, concentrating mainly on the north east coast of Brazil.

Louis Cristal (familiar to many as Norwegian Cruise Lines’ former Leeward) is off to begin a series of pioneering, seven night fly cruises from Havana, Cuba to the Caribbean. The Louis Cristal is under charter to a Canadian tour operator. Embarkation is also going to be possible for these cruises in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

NOW, VOYAGER

Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Voyager will enter dry dock in Marseille on October 14th  for an eight day refit that will see full refurbishment of the Horizon and Observation lounges with new carpetings, furnishings, and a new bar in each. All penthouse suites will also get a comprehensive makeover.

In addition, all balconies will receive new teak decking, and outdoor relaxation areas will be enhanced with new deck furniture. The Constellation theatre and the atrium will be refurbished with new soft fittings, and marble enhancements.

Carpeting throughout the 708 guest all balcony, all inclusive Voyager will be replaced, and new art works added right throughout the ship.

Seven Seas Voyager is due to resume service on October 23rd, with a ten night sailing from Rome to Venice.

I’ll be on board for that, so expect a more comprehensive appraisal soon after. Stay tuned.

THREE EPIC DAYS- A MINI TRIP ON THE BIG SHIP…..

Three days on the Norwegian Epic… It went by at a rate of knots that made the Normandie look like a non starter in the speed stakes. Day by day, here’s how it panned out.

DAY ONE:

Up above the Pyrenees

Up above the Pyrenees

It’s an unfeasibly early 4.15am check in at Newcastle Airport for the BA shuttle down to Heathrow Terminal Five. A simple airside change of gate, and I’m on the haul out to Barcelona. Managed to blag an exit row seat, with about four foot of glorious legroom in front of me. Love the views of the cloud capped Pyrenees drifting by below as I pick at some nibbles and a vitally refreshing OJ. Wheels down on time, through the airport quite quickly. Meet the rest of our media group, and then we’re off on our way to board the Norwegian Epic.

The sheer size of the Epic is still something to marvel at, even after three years. The huge width of the ship permits an enormous amount of interior space to create fabulous, diverse sets of vaulting public rooms. Quick bite of fish and chips at O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill, and I’m back in the zone. Lifeboat drill is held inside, and then it’s pre dinner drinks with what proved to be a lovely media group. We’re outside on the aft terraces outside Spice H20 as this enormous, sea going cathedral swaggers out of sunny, beautiful Barcelona; destination Naples.

The Manhattan Room

The Manhattan Room

Dinner in the gorgeous, retro Manhattan Room, with its wall of glass windows overlooking the stern. There’s a live band playing old Motown, and Ike and Tina Turner stuff. It’s got the look- and feel- of a thirties style New York supper club, and I love it. Great food, service and music. After dinner, i call it a night at about ten. Been awake for more than twenty four hours by this stage. My head crashes onto the pillow, and I’m out even before the light clicks off.

DAY TWO:

Pool deck on the Norwegian

Pool deck on the Norwegian

At sea. A good night’s sleep, a decent breakfast, and all is well with the world. Warm sun feels good on my skin. The Norwegian Epic is full- there’s more than 4200 passengers on board- but the flow of the ship makes it seem like so many less. The upper decks are a giddy whirl of water slides, pools, hot tubs and tiki bars. There’s even a kiddie’s Nickelodeon area. Rows of sun loungers, fast food outlets and a slew of sunning space. It feels like a cross between Waikiki Beach and the French Riviera. Designed to make you feel good. It works.

Pathetic attempt to grab a healthy lunch at the Garden Cafe buffet is sideswiped by irresistible striploin steak only marginally smaller than the ship. Lord forgive me, I could not walk past those nice little slices of chocolate cake. Epic fail.

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Penance is a bottle of chilled champagne, savoured in one of the ridiculously big padded chairs. There’s an avenue of these, in between the forward pool area and the outdoor shops just behind me. A sweet, warm breeze drifts down this alleyway, Carries the music from the live band playing up front; bits of Bob Marley and some Stevie Wonder go with the champagne flow. People saunter past in both directions. Eventually come to the realisation that the bottle is emptier than Paris Hilton’s head. Doh.

I manage to grab an hour out on my balcony. Nice, large space, and a quick coffee from the in room coffee maker to go, Love the sound of the ship’s mass, moving through the sea and throwing up quite a wash. We really are powering along now.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

No words can really describe the amazing, early evening performance from the Blue Man Group. But here’s a few, anyway; toilet rolls, crunchy nut corn flakes, lasers, hammers, and plumbing used as drums. Oh, and a bit of escapology. Lots of blue paint. Dazed? You will be. Keep up at the back….

Dinner in Le Bistro is sumptuous. Onion soup, amazingly tender and succulent surf and turf, and creme brulee all washed down with a warm, rich Malbec. Great food and service, and even better company. Disco? Rude not to, really. Wonder idly who will be the first to try and climb on the life size horses at the entrance. There’s bowling lanes in there, too. The whole thing looks like a Moroccan harem, with big divans, recessed sofa areas, and oversized pimp chairs; very a la P. Diddy. Some good tunes, too. Vintage Michael Jackson, some Chic- forever cool- and a packed room to boot. The cuba libres are like the medicine of the gods. Best use sparingly. Long day tomorrow. But it’s fun. Bed at three. Doh….

DAY THREE:  Up at a ridiculously early hour to grab a quick breakfast in the Garden Cafe. The Norwegian Epic is edging into the Bay of Naples. The sun is rising from behind Mount Vesuvius; the old brute seems to be glowering at us from across the water, but even it’s squat, scary stance can’t detract from the sheer beauty and serenity of the moment.

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

We’re already snuggled up against the dock of the Stazzione Maritima by this time. I trudge off the ship, half awake, to be met by the human dynamo that is Wanda. Wanda is our tour guide; a Joan of Arc dressed by Gucci. Short in stature, but my God, her energy levels are something Duracell can only dream of. Wanda woman is taking us to Vesuvius. I begin to pity the scarred, scary looking old gargoyle. Vesuvius, that is.

We hike up to the summit of the mountain itself, some 4200 feet above the city of Naples. It’s a steep, onerous trudge across rolling tracts of black volcanic sand. I’m thrown by the sight of flourishing vineyards standing near jagged tracts of vast, mis shapen lava accumulations. We walk past cloud level, and the sun disappears. Seconds later, it comes back. Seeing into the crater is like looking down the jaws of a tiger shark. We’re too insignificant for Vesuvius to care. It knows how to deal with our kind; just ask the still cowed shades of Pompeii, right down the hill.

We yell into the crater for effect. Vesuvius responds with thirty centuries of silent, stony contempt. Euphoric to have got to the top and enjoyed the staggering views over the bay, but happy to follow the indefatigable Wanda back to the bus. I sag into my seat on the blissfully air conditioned coach like some puppet with its strings cut. But Wanda has more in store for us. Yup, it’s an afternoon in Pompeii.

The silent streets of Pompeii

The silent streets of Pompeii

Any attempt at Frankie Howerd jokes fall flat when confronted with the reality of Pompeii. This is a sixty six hectare, shattered corpse of a city, and it died screaming. Twenty thousand denizens and hedonists went down with Pompeii; it’s like a cross between a first century Las Vegas and the Titanic. You can still see the rutted truck marks left by Roman chariots more than twenty centuries ago.

Lower floors of houses and shops, immolated for centuries under seven metres of pumice, ash and hot lava, jut upwards in the afternoon sun like ranks of serried, jagged molars. Pompeii is immense, upsetting, tragic and deeply, deeply spooky. The sheer scale of its destruction is a lesson that we have neither the gall or gumption to comprehend. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but I’m glad to head back to the air conditioned serenity of the Norwegian Epic.

It’s been quite the day. Sadly, alas, it’s also arrivederci to the wonder that is Wanda. Ciao Bella, grazia!

Back on board, showered and changed. It’s five o’clock, and that can only mean one thing; Margarita. The first one goes down quicker than a hooker’s drawers at the start of Fleet Week. But oh boy, what an adrenaline charge. There’s live music on deck, and the soft, warm air is beginning to subtly change. So, too, has my mood; the ghosts of Pompeii were refused entry at the gangway. As the second, sweet margarita kisses my throat, the Norwegian Epic is threading her way out into the bay. Over it all, Vesuvius looms and watches. And waits. Our last night at sea begins with a killer watermelon martini at Shakers Cocktail Bar. Then we’re all kitted up with fur capes and gloves, for a session in the Svedka Ice Bar. Surreal does not begin to cover it.

The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire Strikes Back?

Everything inside here is literally made of ice, save for the fur rugs on the ice benches. And, of course, the bartenders. We have luminescent, bright blue coloured cocktails in glasses made of ice. In our garb, we look like a cross between a coven of defrocked nuns and those jawas from The Empire Strikes Back. Fun it is. Yes.

Dinner tonight is in Teppanyaki. This Japanese themed restaurant is as much drama and theatre as fine dining, and proves to be anything but teppan-yucky. We sit in wary anticipation as our kimono wearing, bandana bedecked chef unleashes a blizzard of brilliantly sharpened knife blades on succulent cuts of beef and seafood; and all at a speed that makes Bruce Lee look about as agile as Bruce Forsyth. The guy is a whirling dervish, and each requested dish is cooked up to sizzling, finely sliced perfection in front of you.

Scared? Moi? Hell, no. I climbed and conquered Vesuvius, pal. I am Spartacus. Even if I felt more like Albert Steptoe’s older brother when I got back on board. It’s a fantastic, thrilling piece of food as theatre. We’re all pretty much beat after our epic adventures of the day. And, as it’s now eleven o’clock and we have to be up at six to leave, that can only mean one thing.

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki......

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki……

That’s right. Sing it with me. D-I-S-C-O…… Two and a half improbable hours of cuba libres, and an inevitable, graceless gallump around the dance floor to Mambo No. 5, and finally, sayonara, sweetheart. It’s 1.30 in the morning. Hangovers? Pah. Spartacus never bitched about hangovers, did he?

DAY FOUR:

We’re docked in the port of Civitavecchia, waiting for the shuttle to take us to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The coffee helps me little. I feel like an undertaker with the hangover from hell. Maybe I should try gargling with embalming fluid. I mean, look what it did for Engelbert Humpaduck, or whatever the hell he’s called.

The coach rattles through the wondrous, rustic countryside of Lazio as sunrise kisses the cornfields. There’s an interminable wait at Fiumicino itself. Our flight takes off twenty minutes late, but swoops down into a grey, somber looking Heathrow on time. I fall asleep on the shuttle up to Newcastle.

Looking back, I’m awed and amazed at how much good stuff we shoe horned into three short days. I met some truly amazing people indeed, and sampled everything from the fiery miasma of Mount Vesuvius to our chilly little tinctures in the Ice Bar.

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

The Norwegian Epic herself was big, both in size and the scale of the welcome on board. Even the above account is not a complete narrative of everything that we got through. And, for those of you pondering that sixty-four million dollar question…. The answer is: yes. Somebody did manage to climb up on that ruddy great horse just outside of the disco. And no, it wasn’t me. I get vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb. Horses for courses? Sure. But when it comes to climbing up on to something that big, Spartacus I am not. No. Not ever.

POMPEII- THE PETRIFIED PLEASURE CITY

The silent streets of Pompeii

The silent streets of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted on a searing hot summer day back in August of AD 79, it rained fiery death down upon a series of towns and coastal resorts that clung to the hills around the Bay of Naples. And, while Herculaneum has since been heavily excavated, none of the others have the fame or notoriety of Pompeii.

For sure, Pompeii worked very well as a commercial and industrial centre. But it’s main raison d’etre was primarily as a pleasure resort. It was essentially the equivalent of a first century Las Vegas; it attracted the high rollers from nearby Rome, looking for a seasonal fix of decadence and unbridled debauchery.

Pompeii did not disappoint it’s lecherous ranks of gold trimmed toga wearing gawkers and sightseers. It was a city awash with brothels, as well as arenas for gladiator fights. It had shopping streets that made it very much the Fifth Avenue of it’s day; traders from all parts of the known world were drawn irresistibly to the city on the bay, and the smouldering, giant Mount Vesuvius that watched over the entire region.

Visiting senators, generals and psychopaths could buy everything from lions to leopards, fur skins to bonded slaves. Pompeii was a city almost awash in the locally brewed wine; a feverish, roistering flesh pot living on borrowed time.  Wrapped in a cocoon fashioned from it’s own sense of deluded invincibility, what followed took it totally by surprise.

The wreckage of a ruined playground

The wreckage of a ruined playground

The force of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that day was cataclysmic. It literally blew the top off the huge, brooding molten sarcophagus, and rained a tidal wave of ash, pumice and noxious gases down on the towns clustered around its slopes. Stunned and disbelieving, many people sought shelter in the cellars of their homes, where they were literally asphyxiated in their thousands.

Many looked to the sea for escape, only to find themselves confronted with a slow, inexorable tsunami that turned that entire Bay of Naples into a no go area. Helpless and horrified, thousands watched in stunned, fearful, disbelief as the funeral pyre of molten death from Vesuvius rolled like a tidal wave towards them. The horror must have defied any kind of adequate description.

The city of Pompeii was literally immolated under a slowly settling layer of ash and mud, some seven metres thick. There it lay, in all it’s gory, grisly anonymity, until excavation work began in the mid seventeenth century. Gradually, the mud and muck was hacked away, and something monumental emerged back into the sunlight after sixteen and a half centuries entombed underground.

Today the cobble stone roads are still pitted with the track marks left by Roman chariots all those centuries ago. The remains of the lower levels of all those shops, bars. brothels and restaurants jut like strings of jagged, broken molars along street after street. Clumps of sparse, dirty grass and weeds have taken hold along window ledges once adorned with priceless Etruscan vases. Staircases end abruptly, their stone washed expanses still echoing with the desperate, doom laden footsteps of the city’s terrified denizens.

Somehow these frescoes survived

Somehow these frescoes survived

Pompeii is a city that literally died screaming, and some essence of those desperate last hours still hangs in the air like poisonous ash.  Even in daylight, this ruined, sixty six hectare corpse of a city is a spooky, deeply upsetting experience. A population of more than twenty thousand souls breathed its last in these buildings, and out on those same cobbled streets.

The ash that was their death shroud served to preserve their corpses. Or, more accurately, it formed a mould around each victim and captured their essences for posterity, even as they expired in agonised contortions. Today, plaster casts can be seen of some of these poor souls. It is definitely not an experience for the squeamish.

Elsewhere, the scale and ruined splendour of the city is evident in the scores of serried, sometimes truncated doric columns that still point at the sky like so many accusing fingers. There are shattered portals, row upon row of excavated, incredibly well preserved vases and urns, and once ornate porticos, still inscribed with the names of the original donors. There are the open spaces once occupied by spectacular pagan temples and, on the walls of many buildings, the ghostly remnants of the once vibrant, brightly coloured frescoes that adorned the most opulent and commodious of Pompeiian villas.

The amphitheatre is more or less completely intact; a stark, semi circular expanse of serried stone seating that once staged the most elaborate and bloody of entertainments.  By a supreme irony, brutal death was meted out here to those who decreed the same fate for numerous gladiators over the lifetime of this original Sin City.

Surreal. The stunted remains of once prosperous Pompeii

Surreal. The stunted remains of once prosperous Pompeii

Today, ragged ranks of pine and cypress trees soften the seared, stony stance of old Pompeii. Birds sing in the air once again. And, not so very far away, Mount Vesuvius still looms over the Bay of Naples like some ominous gargoyle, ever present and, more to the point, still possibly not yet sated or satisfied by the harm she wrought all those centuries ago.

Pompeii is worth a few hours of anybody’s time. It is very hard work in the searing heat of summer, and the crowds can be phenomenal. And some of the legion of shops that line the approaches are so monumentally tacky and appalling that you almost find yourself praying for a second eruption.

Those things noted, Pompeii remains a perennial standout on the European travel circuit; a petrified, partially preserved monument to human folly and stupidity on the most epic of scales. Highly recommended.

Most visitors for Pompeii will arrive either by sea, or by air into Naples Airport itself. Exploring Pompeii and/or Herculaneum would make an excellent, two centre option with Sorrento, the island of Capri, or other resorts along the Neapolitan coast, such as Amalfi or Positano.

The best times for sightseeing here are usually April and September.

ROME; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

If these walls could talk...

If these walls could talk…

Rome. One name. A million memories. The Eternal City. Endless images. What exactly is Rome to you?

Rome for me is the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Colosseum, stark and unyielding against an early autumn sunset. Every stone, pillar and archway has memories of desperate gladiator duels, animal fights and appalling ritual sacrifices seared into it. It seems to defy both time and the Gods themselves.

Rome is the smell of fresh, piping hot espresso and the zesty aroma of fresh, fragrant lemon trees in full bloom in the first, heady days of spring. It is sunset on the waters of the ageless, meandering Tiber, and an early evening stroll across one of the ancient bridges that still vaults that serpentine span.

Rome is the jagged, stunted remnants of shorn doric columns, glinting eerily in the noonday sun that washes the scarred, silent expanse of the Forum. The same sun that once glinted on the blades of the daggers of Brutus and Cassius as they bathed this same soil in Caesar’s blood.

The magnificent Pantheon

The magnificent Pantheon

Rome is the sight and sound of  masses of motor scooters, buzzing like hordes of maddened wasps as they swarm heedlessly past the balcony from where the strutting, meat headed Il Duce once harangued the increasingly sullen crowds. It is the cool, ordered magnificence of Bernini’s stunning, colonnaded courtyard as it  sweeps up to the serene, ordered symmetry of Piazza San Pietro. It is the intricate, impossible, frescoed real estate of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And the brooding, turreted bulwarks of Castel Sant Angelo, where more than one pope sought refuge in the Middle Ages .

Rome is the bustling cafe society of Piazza Navona and its riot of impossibly ornate fountains. Rome is cold, crisp wine on a warm summer night, sitting under illuminated plane trees and watching la dolce vita unfurl all around you like some impossibly exquisite Caravaggio painting.

Above all, Rome is, truly, eternal. A city that was once the centre of the greatest empire the world had ever known; a magician’s conjuring trick that reinvented itself to become the focal point for one of the world’s greatest religions. A city that embraced modernity, and then framed it in the context of its own matchless, exalted past. A stunning juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern; the sensational and the effortlessly, eternally serene.  A moody, Machiavellian style melting pot that inspired Michelangelo and infuriated Mussolini. A city so mesmerising and sweeping in historical scope and treasures that even the retreating German army balked at vandalising it in 1944, defying Hitler’s direct orders to destroy it completely.

Tutti di Trevi.....

Tutti di Trevi…..

Rome is Trevi. It is Audrey Hepburn on a scooter in Sabrina. Rome is laughing children eating gelato on the Spanish Steps in the summertime.

These are just a few of my own mental images of this swaggering, majestic city. What is Rome to you?

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN SOUTHERN EUROPE

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The whole thing with southern Europe is that it is one vast, cake rich, cultural glut of incredible things to see. Castles, cathedrals, museums. Turrets, campaniles and spires. They all vie- nay, sometimes demand- your undivided attention on any given day of your European vacation.

Simple truth? You can’t do them all. So don’t even try. More truth? Not all of the truly great, awe inspiring sights are of human construction.

That point made, here’s five of my favourite places in the Mediterranean. With time, tide and fair breezes, they might just become some of yours, too.

Church of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Antonio Gaudi was a creative genius on a par with Warhol or Hans Christian Andersen, and the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church is without doubt his most stunning masterpiece. With it’s clutch of gingerbread spires clawing at a perfect Catalan sky, it has become the symbol of one of the greatest, most swaggering and stylish cities in the world.

In places, it has the appearance of a slowly melting cake, inlaid just above ground level with some of the most amazing and intricate carvings you will ever see.  There is literally no other church like it in the world. During the day, this honey coloured colossus enjoys a matchless stance by a small park, but try to catch it at night. Indirect lighting, built all around it makes Sagrada Familia truly unforgettable and awe inspiring. You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to be awed by this stunning testament to human devotion and ingenuity,  Highly recommended.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

Bay of Villefranche, Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

A sensuous, semi circular sweep of high, rolling hills studded with million euro villas, Villefranche is the most stunning single coastal location anywhere in southern Europe; one so perfectly formed that it was used as the backdrop for a James Bond film in the 1980’s.  At the edge of the quay, a row of Italianate shops, bars and restaurants in shades of blue, ochre and terracotta curves seductively around the lower edge of the bay. Umbrella shaded bars and pavement cafes spill out onto the quay that overlooks an azure harbour, studded with literally dozens of idly bobbing yachts and fishing boats. It’s a place to kick back and people watch over a sumptuous, two hour lunch, You’ll see people wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of a third world country, and old ladies walking impossibly small dogs among the jasmine wreathed cobbled streets that lead up into the old town.

Once seen, never forgotten; Villefranche will stay with you long after you leave it behind.

Greco-Roman Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

This almost perfectly preserved, Eighth Century amphitheatre is as compelling for its location as it is for it’s ageless, elegant sweep and still flawless acoustics. Nestling in the shade of towering pine trees at the top of Taormina, it looks down and out over the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean. From it’s terraces, you can clearly see the brooding, still smouldering mass of Mount Etna, grey against a cobalt blue sky.

It has an exalted, almost Olympian feel to it; row upon row of stepped, circular stone seating cascades down to a central ‘stage’ which is still used for outdoor concerts to this day.

Worth going to simply for the view alone; an outdoor concert at dusk would be a truly amazing experience as well.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

One of the scenic exclamation marks in a city almost awash with them, Piazza Navona has been a Roman stand out for centuries.

The centre piece is formed by a series of amazing, medieval fountains by Bernini, almost awash with a riot of intricate, over the top, Romanesque statuary from the middle ages. Off to one side is the cool, ordered elegance of the circular Pantheon, with its shady interior, incredible frescoes and marvellous acoustics.

These fountains and surrounding buildings form the focal point of this famous, frantic, bustling square that hums with life at all hours of the day and night. The whole area is framed by a host of sun splashed cafes and restaurants, while mime artists and strolling musicians mingle with dog walking locals taking time out for an ice cream.

It’s a quintessential Italian slice of the good life; la dolce vita served up with age old Roman style in a swaggering, feel good setting. Deliciously over the top, and typically addictive.

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Chora, Mykonos, Greek Islands

No other single sight is as evocative of the history and hedonism of the Greek Islands as those five famous windmills that sit on top of the hill above the harbour of Mykonos, immortalised in the movie, Shirley Valentine. They can be seen from any part of the island, and the views of the sunsets from here draws out the crowds each and every night in the peak summer season. It’s an almost pagan ritual, as compelling as anything you’ll see at Stonehenge. The vibe at evening time has more than a little in common with Key West.

Individually, each of the five windmills has a uniform stance. Circular and whitewashed, surrounded by low stone walls and fronted by petrified, long silent sails, each is topped with it’s own thatched ‘mop top’ roof.  It is their collective poise and presence that makes them so memorable; they loom above the Aegean’s most compelling and indulgent island like a quintet of benevolent deities.

So; there you go. Five of my faves from the magnificent Med. You may agree. You may disagree. But I think we’d all agree that the real fun lies in getting out there, and finding and defining your own favourites, Happy exploring!