MAIDEN VOYAGE MISHAPS AND OTHER SEAGOING SNAFUS

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her 'maiden' crossing to New York in May of 1980

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her ‘maiden’ crossing to New York in May of 1980

Back in the day, the idea of going on the maiden voyage of any new ship had an aura of prestige and glamour that appealed right across the travelling community. Especially in the pre and post war heyday of the transatlantic run, the first sailing of any new ship invariably attracted banner headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

Passengers, in turn, were intrigued by the idea of being part of a piece of history; a headline grabbing maiden crossing was, quite literally, a true rite of passage that participants could dine out on for years. Many did just that.

But the pace and poise of the Atlantic run has largely given way to the indolent largesse of the contemporary cruise circuit. With an ever increasing conga line of new ships emerging each new year, does the ‘maiden voyage’ of today still have the cachet of old?

In many ways, a maiden voyage-especially for a first of class ship- is a bit of a leap in the dark. Shipyard delays are a fact of life in some cases. The crew- all of them new to the ship and most of them even newer to each other- have not really had time to perfect that subtle ballet of interaction with their new surroundings, their crew mates and, indeed, their passengers. Simple fact; anyone expecting flawless perfection and serenity should avoid any maiden voyage like the plague.

Conversely, a second of class ship is- in theory- something of a safer bet. The company will have gained practical experience with the prototype ship, and the new ship will invariably have been tweaked to make her more passenger friendly. In addition, a core cadre of experienced crew members will be transferred to the new ship to make sure that the transition from shipyard to passenger service flows more easily.This is simple common sense.

Many things can also go wrong after an existing ship is extensively refurbished. Public areas and some cabins might still be unfinished, and potential passengers should be aware of that. Sometimes shipyards sign up to completely unrealistic work time tables, simply to gain the work for themselves and/or prevent it going to a rival.

When this occurs, a perfect storm ensues. The line bears the brunt of negative headlines, hugely disgruntled passengers and a harassed, overly stressed crew that simply cannot deliver the experience promised in all the glossy, pre launch literature. Nobody wins in situations like this.

In my mind, a ship generally takes a minimum of four months to ‘bed down’ properly into commercial service. And yet…..

There is still nothing like the glitter, drama and sheer, adrenaline pumping surge of being part of a maiden voyage. Everything is new, with that ‘just unwrapped’ feel that creates a compelling, totally electric atmosphere. The sheer sense of occasion is palpable and, of course, all eyes will be on you. The cachet of being among the first to experience a stunning, sprawling new maritime masterpiece is one that is as timeless and irresistible as ever.

All of these factors are things to bear in mind. The bottom line is that you cannot realistically expect perfection on any maiden voyage. It is far more about the sense of occasion than subtle service and polished opulence.

But would I do a maiden voyage myself? Absolutely. But my expectations would be realistic, and not blinded by hyperbole and glitter. Temper your expectations and just savour the occasion.

And it is always worth bearing in mind that the one and only ship that seemed to approach near perfection on her maiden voyage proceeded to ruin it all when she made an all too perfect approach on a half submerged iceberg.

And those, my friends, are headlines that nobody wants to be part of, however exciting and dramatic it all seems in retrospect.

HAVE CRUISE SHIPS SIMPLY GOTTEN TOO LOUD?

It is time for me to confess.

There was a time, about a decade ago, when I said to anyone dumb enough to listen that the cruise lines simply did not make enough use of their outdoor decks as entertainment venues. I argued that the odd bit of live jazz outside- either by day or night- would be a real alternative from a night spent meandering around the bars and clubs down below.

And I was also all for the odd, open air disco out on deck, around the swimming pools. For a couple of hours on a balmy Caribbean or Mediterranean night, an outdoor disco could be a delightfully indulgent alternative.

Now, just a decade or so later, we have come to a time when our eardrums seem to be constantly under assault from a tidal wave of  brutal, massively over amplified inanity, even on sea days. ‘Games’ around the pool, hosted by cruise staff at a level of decibels that can shatter glass ten miles away, vary wildly in quality, from the mildly amusing to the massively moronic.

Let’s be clear here. I am not having a go at the cruise staff, DJ’s and musicians who, as I know damned well, work their socks off round the clock to entertain and amuse the passengers. What I’m railing against is a mind set whose ideas of ‘fun’ seem to be set in stone.

Has it, in fact, gone too far in the wrong direction? I am convinced that, in certain quarters, the powers that be have simply collated increased volume with amplified levels of ‘fun’.

Er, no. It’s not. Well, at least not for all of us.

Being force fed a glut of pseudo exuberant claptrap that masquerades as ‘participation entertainment’ is most definitely not my idea of fun. And yes, being 55 years of age, there is a possibility that you could argue that I am ‘too old’ for this kind of thing.

To which I would reply; No- I’m simply mature enough to feel annoyed and unsettled by this constant, over amplified dumbing down of what should normally be my blissful, relaxing quality time spent at sea.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Gone are the days of old, when all the entertainment provided would be a live reggae band on deck during the afternoon, laying down a montage of totally apt mood music at an agreeable volume that didn’t have the sharks diving for cover. This was the best of both worlds, because it was ambient and pleasant, as opposed to crude, banal and intrusive.

However, I would agree that there is a place for just this kind of loud, over the top stuff that seems to be spreading across the pool decks of far too many cruise ships like some kind of unstoppable oil slick.

It’s called a frat party. Either that, or Senor Frog’s. Rant over.

This is what a cruise ship's pool deck should sound like.....

This is what a cruise ship’s pool deck should sound like…..

NOTHING TO SEE BUT THE SEA? THINK AGAIN…..

Breakfast with a view?

Breakfast with a view?

There are whole tidal waves of cruise passengers- both potential and actual- who loathe the very idea of a day or more actually spent at sea, anywhere in the world. Horses for courses, of course and, as they say, each to his/her own.

The main bugbear seems to be that people think that they will be ‘bored’ on board. God knows how that one ever gained any kind of leeway, Modern ships today are virtual floating theme parks, brimming with ice rinks, rock climbing walls, flowriders and the rest of all the mod cons that have mushroomed on modern cruise ships. The only way not to enjoy an action packed day on a modern ship is if you embark in a sealed wooden box.

The other one is that ‘there’s nothing to see but the sea’. This one never fails to make me laugh. Anyone who has actually looked at the sea for any length of time, instead of merely glancing idly outboard between burger and cocktail tasting sessions, will tell you that the sea is a fantastical magic carpet, one that changes every few minutes of the day. Endlessly fascinating, it’s moods, whims and occasional bouts of temper is exactly the template that the romance of ocean voyages was built on in the first place.

Think I’m kidding? Consider the sight of dolphins, leaping in and out of the bow wave as the ghost of an early morning breeze drifts across the decks. Or how about early evening, when the slowly setting sun can turn a calm, sedate ocean into what looks like a sea of polished glass?

Crossing the Atlantic, you might get serried tiers of surging grey rollers, flecked with tips of white foam, that lunge at the side of the ship like a series of furious cavalry charges. Or consider midnight off the North Cape of Norway, where the endless summer sun can turn the sea around you into what resembles a field of blazing straw.

Take yourself off to summertime Alaska, and watch giant, glistening icebergs- the true ‘great whites’ of the ocean- as they fracture and calve, and literally thousands of tons of ice impact the sea with a tremendous, thundering roar. Or head down to Antarctica, and watch rose tinted regiments of field ice, drifting skittishly in the austral light across a silent, gunmetal sea.

Try looking at the sea through different glasses

Try looking at the sea through different glasses

And the nights…. have you ever dined alfresco on a cruise ship at night, with a sky packed chock full of twinkling stars and a side order of deep, dreamy moonlight shimmering on the ocean? And, on the right night, you might even see a meteorite shower of incredible clarity, blazing fiery, fantastic trails across the endless expanse of the tropical heavens. Once seen, forever savoured.

These are just a few of the stunning natural brush strokes that can embellish the amazing, sprawling canvas of the ocean. Different times of day cast even the stillest of seas in a literally different light. Stare in idle wonder as fleets of huge, fluffy clouds drift across an endless sky like fleets of giant, ghostly galleons. It’s a quite incredible sensation, an immediate connection to the beauty and sheer immensity of the world all around you.

Nothing to see at sea? Think again…..

EUROPA 2- BILINGUAL BLISS OR LANGUAGE LOTTERY?

Atrium bar on Europa 2

Piano bar on Europa 2

When she launched just two and a half months ago, Europa 2 was hailed as a decisive change with the traditional, almost totally Germanic product that Hapag Lloyd Cruises offered. For the first time since it’s transatlantic heyday, the line is making a conscious, concerted push for the British and American travel trade. I was interested to see exactly how this would work out once on board.

Running multi lingual ships has traditionally been the preserve of mega ship operators, in particular Costa and MSC. For Hapag Lloyd Cruises, it was always going to represent something of a challenge; any new ship usually takes a minimum of four months to properly ‘bed down’; reaching that magical moment when ship and crew are in total harmony, and each understands- and compensates for- any quirks in the other.

Europa 2 had to hit the ground running, aimed squarely at the top end of the market, and intended to deliver a platinum chip product that would seamlessly satisfy both a native German and a nascent English/American clientele. A pretty tall order, to put it mildly.

In my opinion, they have pulled the rabbit out of the hat, and with a considerable amount of aplomb.

All loudspeaker announcements (and they were blissfully few) were carried through in both German and English. All dining venues on the ship- and there are no less than eight of them- carried menus in both languages, which were available at all times.

Excursions operate in both English and German groups, with audio ‘quiet boxes’ supplied where needed. Numbers in each group are kept to a relatively low, manageable degree.

Sitting area of suite 611

Sitting area of suite 611

All staff- and I cannot emphasise this enough- speak both English and German. And, with the numbers on board in the hundreds rather than the thousands, staff have more time to listen to guests. without the ‘benefit’ of overly loud, amplified background music.

All in room information, such as the daily programmes and the quite comprehensive port guides, come in both languages, too.

It is evident that a great deal of care and effort has been placed on getting and maintaining a harmonious level of interaction across the nationalities.  The crew are uniformly smart and courteous; they have mastered the often delicate art of being attentive without being overly intrusive. This kind of approach helped to put all the passengers at their ease from the outset.

So, too, did the sheer, spatial largesse of the ship.  Europa 2 is, quite simply, the most spacious cruise ship afloat in terms of personal living room. Huge, almost double height ceilings are flanked by vast, floor to ceiling windows that flood the strikingly beautiful, almost totally linear interior with light and warmth at every level.

The sum total is a stunningly open, commodious and extremely comfortable vessel. Imagine the Adlon with azipods- or, indeed, the Ritz- and you begin to get some idea of what this stunning new addition to the Hapag dynasty actually represents.

Modernity is as important to the mantra of the ship as flexibility is. For instance, each suite comes complete with its own in house cutlery, crockery and glassware. As a result, it feels more like a personal apartment, where you might just decide to dine indoors occasionally.  It all adds to the sense of casual elegance that wafts through Europa 2 like fine perfume.

Instead of conventional door mechanisms, the suites on board Europa 2 have simple touch pads that open on contact with the card. Intelligent thinking that eliminates the problem with magnetic strips of old.

Strikingly beautiful interiors

Strikingly beautiful interiors

Europa 2 is intended to appeal to multi generational families, and the new ship has a whole raft of interconnecting suites.  On our recent cruise, there were something like fifty children on board.  They were almost always never seen or heard.

One thing you should be aware of is the sauna; German guests do like to get in touch with nature in the fullest and most open sense of that phrase. They are immune to some of the more prurient English sensibilities on that front.  Though it really is not a big deal or a problem of any kind, it is something to be aware of in advance.

I cannot in all honesty remember the last time that I was so completely bowled over by a new ship. The Europa 2 is a swaggering, sensual spread of maritime real estate that does not so much break the mould, as shatter it completely. She is brave, bold, and, above all that, a truly warm, welcoming world of her own.

This achievement is more remarkable still when considered within the relatively short time frame gifted to staff and crew- and operations both shipboard and shoreside- to get this hugely anticipated ship up and running. All things considered, the entire project has been carried through with admirable aplomb.

For all her modernity, the new ship is suffused with the age old tradition of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises style and panache, and the levels of uniform excellence are already very evident in this latest Hapag flagship.  I think Europa 2 would have made Albert Ballinn himself beam with pride.

By the time Europa 2 returns from the Far East for her second Mediterranean season in the spring of 2014,  she will be a very alluring option indeed. Coupled with the smart casual dress code and a whole raft of enticing itineraries, she will be an outstanding and natural choice, even for people who don’t traditionally ‘do’ normal cruises.

And, when all is said and done, who could fail to be impressed with a ship that carries a staff of six nannies, and thirty- two different kinds of gin?

LIKE SHIPS THAT PASS…

ImageThe thing that gets me about travel is that it is so often a mixture of the surreal, the sublime, and the downright strange.

Few things provide more of a velvet gut punch than when the approach to your next port of call- perhaps somewhere in the Med, for example- finds your ship rounding a headland. And there, sitting at anchor, is a ship you knew all too well a year or two ago in another part of the world.

It could have been for two weeks in the Far East, or Alaska. Indeed, anywhere. But suddenly, the living ghost of that trip materialises in front of you, snug against some stunning Italian backdrop. It’s something I always find incredibly bittersweet, and I’m not really too sure why.

Some ships just seem to follow me around as well. Worst offender- Seven Seas Navigator. I first sailed her back in 2001, but I must have encountered her at least a dozen times since then. Incredibly, I once saw her twice in the same year.

The first time was a February day in Cozumel. As the setting sun sagged into the ocean, there was the Navigator, edging out onto a dreamy silver sea, off to who knows where. I was utterly spellbound, watching her vanish.

Four months later, I was leaning over my balcony on Crystal Serenity in Mykonos, watching an all too familiar shape approach before she dropped anchor, not more than a hundred yards away. Yep, Navigator again…

It’s so strange when familiar, much loved ships turn up out of the blue like that. Or, even stranger, when you’re wandering through some African souk and you suddenly spot a face you know, but can’t put a name to. So you maintain a baffled, mildly embarrassed silence, and move on.

Back in the harbour, another all too familiar ship has come looming in during your absence. And then the penny drops; that mystery person from the souk is someone you enjoyed a festive dinner on deck with two years ago. It was Saigon… or was it Saint Petersburg?

Air travel and the internet have definitely conspired to shrink the globe. But it’s still the human element- basic human interaction- that makes travel such a damned compelling business, to my mind.

In the artificial, temporary community of a cruise ship, intense friendships form at unreal speed. Seemingly unbreakable bonds sprout faster than weeds on warp drive. Hardly suprising, given the nature of the shared experiences that cruises serve up in conga lines on a daily basis. And the fallout of those shared experiences seems to sharpen and fine tune every emotion, almost to knife point. And yet, once freed from the glittering, gilded cage that wafted us around the Caribbean or wherever, how soon we forget. Or is it just me?

There’s a strange, yet undeniable melancholy about encountering a much loved ship in another time and place. Especially if the one you’re currently aboard feels like Alacatraz on azipods. Old memories can embellish long gone trips with a sense of lustre and longing. Much like a Chinese meal, it makes a voyage back into the past all too easy and satisfying.

And, just like that fun food, the cravings disappear the instant that you are back out at sea; the piano starts tinkling, and the sun sags gently into the sea. The magic- that unique, powerful, magic- of being on a ship at night takes hold of you, and dances with you. Powerful stuff, too. They don’t call it ‘sea magic’ for nothing.

Places, too. They get to you. No matter how many times I see Villefranche, I still get that delightful little shudder every time the ship rounds the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that matchless view unfolds in front of me; like an old friend, holding out her arms in welcome. There’s always a tear that really does want to come out and play, and a lump in my throat the size of a regulation rugby ball. At moments like this, the adrenaline flows like tap water and every nerve just pings. Almost as if you’ve drank one too many Cafe Cubanos…

Bermuda does exactly the same to me. And St. Barts. Also Copenhagen. And… oh, you get the picture. I’m sure you all have your own mental gallery of goose bump growers.

And, just like ships, people move on. Some of us mature; others simply fester. But it’s all part of a far greater, grander, on-going voyage that, ultimately, absorbs us, and captivates us completely. Like the bows of any ocean liner, we are all constantly chasing a horizon that we can never reach. And that is as it should be

But I guess that’s a big part of the fun, eh? Just remember that you’ll always be doing OK if it’s the champagne that you have on ice, and not the damned ship. Enjoy!

GOLDEN AGE OF SEA TRAVEL? YEAH, RIGHT….

ImageEver since Saint Clive of Palmer launched his fondly envisaged Titanic II project, we’ve had to endure a tidal wave of pious platitudes and rosy burbling about the so called ‘golden age’ of sea travel. Those great, gilded ocean palaces of the past have been flaunted ad infinitum as the absolute apogee of seagoing style and splendour. Often by people who have never even set foot in a puddle, never mind crossing the North Atlantic in a Force Ten.

Seriously?

Let’s inject a little realism here. The shades of those great, beautiful old ships- and they were that- would surely have looked with wry amusement at the rock climbing walls, ice rinks and water parks enjoyed by the voyagers of today on their successors. Not the sort of thing that they would have wanted on board, or needed.

These were a few other modern fripperies that the old ships conspicuously lacked. Stabilisers. Air conditioning. Modern standards of food hygiene, storage and refrigeration. For sure, passengers undoubtedly dressed more elegantly in those days. Fat lot of good if you were being elegantly seasick in a Tuxedo aboard some ocean liner, as it rolled like a drunken duchess in a howler of a winter storm. Stylish indeed.

And while nothing for me will ever match the vast, lustrous beauty of the Normandie- both inside and out- that most mourned and lauded of all ocean liners was known as a notoriously snappy roller. It used to be deadpanned among ocean travellers that she smashed quantities of on board lalique as casually as if it came from Woolworths.

It is infinitely more comfortable to cross these days on the Queen Mary 2, with all the state of the art luxury, comfort and entertainment that you could ever want  laid on for you. So why this obsessive worship and veneration of these long gone, old ocean liners, especially when it is obvious that they do not come close to today’s modern ships in terms of actual comfort and well being?

Those old ships had style, class and individuality; qualities largely absent today among a flotilla of mass produced hulls almost indistinguishable from one another. Time and distance adds to the magical aura of those effortlessly elegant seagoing icons. The past always looks better. I dare bet passengers on the Mauretania or the Olympic looked back on the age of sail through similar rose coloured glasses.

Simple idea how to combine the best of old and new? Take a trans-ocean voyage on one of the ultra luxury lines, and grab one of Maxtone-Graham or Bill Miller’s elegant, evocative volumes on the history of ocean travel. Old meets new, and you can put both into a blissful, realistic kind of context. Voyaging? It has never been more fun or comfortable than it is right now. Fact.