MSC ARMONIA PLUS; SHIP BEGINS DRY DOCK EXTENSION

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the 'Italy afloat' lifestyle

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the ‘Italy afloat’ lifestyle

MSC Armonia has entered a Fincantieri dry dock in Palermo, Sicily, for a major ‘chop and stretch’ operation that will create more balcony cabins, as well as a vastly enhanced set of new facilities for children and teens. The ship arrived in Palermo on August 31st, and work was put in hand immediately.

A pre built mid section, some twenty four metres long and containing one hundred and ninety-four new cabins, will be inserted after the operation to cut the 58,000 ton ship in half. MSC Armonia is one of four similarly sized vessels in the MSC fleet. Over the next year or so, the other three ships- MSC Lirica, MSC Sinfonia and MSC Opera- will also undergo similar drastic surgery.

In all, the work is expected to take some seventeen weeks. MSC Armonia is scheduled to leave dry dock on November 17th to make a repositioning voyage for her second season of seven night, winter Canary Islands cruises. Her new passenger capacity will be in the region of 1,960, based on double occupancy.

As well as the vast structural expansion, MSC Armonia will be enhanced by the addition of new children’s and teen clubs, and a lavish new water park. A new lounge will be added, and the lido buffet opening hours extended in order to provide a twenty hour a day food service. The main restaurant will also be expanded to cope with the projected passenger increase of three hundred and ninety two extra people per week. The ship’s MSC Aurea Spa will also be the recipient of significant upgrades.

Originally built in France in 2001 as the European Vision for the now defunct Festival Cruises, the MSC Armonia came over to her current owners in 2004. She was one of the key elements in the initial, dramatic expansion of MSC Cruises, but has in the past few years been overshadowed by huge new builds such as the MSC Magnifica and MSC Divina.

The extension of the ship makes perfect sense, in view of the ongoing pursuit of the multi-cultural family market by MSC Cruises as a whole. The four sisters as a whole have far fewer balcony cabins than their larger siblings, and less in the way of restaurant choices. The Palermo project should provide all four ships with useful, cost effective life extensions, making them more competitive in the future, but at the same time not quite so big as, and more personal than their larger siblings.

The project as whole is fascinating and multi-faceted on many levels, and the refurbished, renewed MSC Armonia should be a formidable competitor on the winter Canaries run.

As ever, stay tuned.

LAID BACK LIPARI- AN ITALIAN IDYLL

Good morning, Lipari!

Good morning, Lipari!

One of the most rarely visited islands in the entire Italian Mediterranean is Lipari, the largest of the so called Aeolian Islands, located just to the north of Sicily. With a population not much in excess of 11,000, Lipari looks- and feels-like something of a one horse town.

And therein lies it’s unique charm. With no pier capable of docking them, most cruise ships simply sail past Lipari, on their way to the ‘greatest hits’ ports along the west coast of Italy. Only a handful of smaller, intimate vessels find their way to the anchorage just offshore, and tender their passengers into what is, quite literally, the centre of town.

Here, dogs sleep in the shade of side streets, while lines of washing hang limp between window shutters in the mid day heat. An occasional motor scooter might splutter into life like a sporadically maddened wasp. Every so often, the ancient church bells peal dolefully across the narrow expanse of the sparkling briny.

Other than that, the loudest sound is usually that of freshly caught fish, sizzling in a restaurant kitchen. Here, the sounds, smells and sheer sense of classic Italian dolce vita conspire to gang up on you and simply mug you. Because Lipari is not only pretty; it is breathtakingly so.

The obvious sense of intimacy lends it a charm often lost in much larger, more tourist orientated spots. You have none of the crowds of a Sorrento summer here, and none of the ghastly souvenir shops that loom like carbuncles at the entrance to seething, petrified Pompeii. No, Lipari is simple, pared down beauty. Here, less is most definitely more.

Of course, there is nothing to stop you taking a languid wander around the town. Up on the hill, you’ll find the silent stone walls of a massive, Spanish built fortress. It was built in 1556, on the site of an ancient Greek acropolis. Back in its day, it was the only truly safe place on the island. Pirates still roamed these waters into the early part of the nineteenth century.

Lipari at one time was also used to confine political prisoners. One of it’s most stellar involuntary residents was Edda Mussolini, daughter of the deposed, royally dismissed former Duce.

You can ponder this history over the rim of your wine glass, as the afternoon sun catches it and throws the whole, dreamy sprawl of the day into a different light and perspective. But Lipari, name and place, is more about indolent, platinum chip hedonism than anything else.

Enjoy!

Small, perfect and rugged

Small, perfect and rugged

The old Spanish castle

The old Spanish castle

The stuff of dreams

The stuff of dreams

The stunning waterfront

The stunning waterfront

Silver Spirit off Lipari

Silver Spirit off Lipari

Sun, sea, and stone

Sun, sea, and stone

Typical, old world Italy

Typical, old world Italy

Ship and shoreline

Ship and shoreline

Rugged seascapes everywhere

Rugged seascapes everywhere

Rock and rolling sea

Rock and rolling sea

Lipari amphitheater

Lipari amphitheater

Old church tower

Old church tower

Castle summit

Castle summit

If walls could talk.....

If walls could talk…..

Another vantage point

Another vantage point

Suumer time blooms

Summer time blooms

Spectacular view from the ship

Spectacular view from the ship

Boats and battlements

Boats and battlements

Twilight in paradise....

Twilight in paradise….

MINI ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY OFFERS SHORTER FLY CRUISES

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

In a move that is possibly a test run for future sailings, specialist operator Voyages To Antiquity is offering a pair of shorter fly cruises this May aboard the small, beautifully styled Aegean Odyssey.

The fly cruises are of five and nine nights’ duration respectively, and come inclusive of all flights, transfers, shore excursions with knowledgeable, in depth guides, and inclusive beer, wine and soft drinks with dinner each evening. And, with no single supplements to boot, they represent quite extraordinary value.

The first, five day jaunt departs from Istanbul on May 10th, with calls at Lemnos and Izmir to see the stunning, magnificent ruins of Ephesus. Moving on, the Aegean Odyssey then offers a morning touring among the sacred grave sites at Delos, followed by a few hours’ people watching in classy, stylish Mykonos, before disembarking in Athens on May 14th. Single fares for this trip begin at £895.

The second, nine night itinerary begins in Athens on May 14th, and finishes in Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. En route, the Aegean Odyssey visits Nauplia, to see the fabulous site of Epidaurus. After a day at sea, she sails on to Taormina, with it’s fantastic Greco-Roman hilltop theatre, and then on to the historic Sicilian city of Palermo for an overnight stay.

From here, Aegean Odyssey makes her way for another overnight stay; this time in fabled, springtime Sorrento. There is ample time to see such landmark sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum and, of course, the brooding Mount Vesuivius itself, as well as leaving time to enjoy some serious people watching in Piazza Tasso, or even a drive along to fabled Amalfi, or perhaps a boat trip out to Capri.

This cruise concludes the next morning. Prices for the inclusive, nine night package start from £1,495. Again, there is no single supplement.

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

Flights are usually arranged on the scheduled services of British Airways, and include domestic flights to Heathrow where necessary.

The Aegean Odyssey is a small, destination intensive cruise ship with an ambiance more akin to that of a floating country club than a vast maritime theme park. With a capacity for less then four hundred passengers, she offers fabulous service and dining- both indoors and out- and a smart casual dress code.

This is not a ship for those wanting a lively, late night environment. Think of her as a very comfortable combination of a boutique hotel and a fantastic, fulfilling and educational travel experience, and you have the gist.

I particularly recommend the cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship as a great buy. Nicely sheltered, and with lovely canvas chairs, they offer you an expansive and roomy vantage point from which to savour those balmy spring time Aegean and Mediterranean sunsets.

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.

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!

ITALIAN IDYLLS- HISTORY AND LA DOLCE VITA…

CNV00014Travel itself can be a tremendous amount of fun. At it’s absolute best, it is the pursuit of adventure, raised to the level of an art form. But, like all art, some is much more inspiring than others.

When Mother Nature created the spectacular natural canvas that is Italy, she truly outdid herself. And although this beautiful land is stunning at any time, there is no denying that it has an added sparkle of magic in the first, heady days of spring.

CNV00022Winter is shrugged effortlessly off like some damp, top heavy overcoat. Lemon trees blossom along the spectacular, sinuous heights of Sorrento, with its string of Italianate hotels in shades of cream, terracotta and ochre dominating the view.

From their breakfast terraces, guests at these hotels gaze down across the sparking carpet of the spring time Mediterranean at the first arriving cruise ships of the year as they swing idly at anchor in the bay. The tenders bringing their passengers ashore to the Marina Piccolo look like tiny, exotic water bugs.

CNV00028From up here, on the edges of Piazza Tasso, you can look down at the squat,sometimes spindly lidos that jut out into the sea. Umbrellas and deck chairs bloom like fresh flowers along their length as the days grow warmer and longer, and the indolent, irresistible lure of La Dolce Vita echoes like a siren’s call through the ether.

The landscape is lush, undulating, and jaw dropping. Anyone who has enjoyed the spectacular road journey along and around the soaring, sweeping hair pin bends of Amalfi will never forget the experience. Serried tiers of blinding white houses and ancient, dilapidated churches cling like grim death to hillsides that plummet down to the ocean below.

CNV00053Up on the Olympian heights of Sicily’s Taormina, you can gaze out and across at still smouldering Mount Etna from the steps of an almost perfectly preserved, eighth century Greco Roman theatre. This is an open air masterpiece, one so perfectly proportioned for acoustics that it is still used for live concerts to this day.

In this spectacular land, the past is literally all around you. Churches and palaces stand silent guard over cobbled town squares, their facades bleached almost pale white by centuries of exposure to a pitiless summer sun. Long silent bells hang like mute spectators from stone towers  that loom against a petrol blue, spring time sky. Swarms of motor scooters fill the streets at intervals, like gangs of maddened, agitated wasps. The smell of jasmine, hibiscus and lemon is as seductive as the day is warm.

CNV00061Yes, the great cities of Rome, Florence, Venice and the rest will overwhelm you with their sheer, cake rich glut of historical treasures. These are year round attractions; no less glamorous and overwhelming in the more mellow winter months. And yet…

There is something totally unique, vibrant and typically Italian about those western coasts and islands in the spring and early summer. The Italians excel at the art of living in a way that almost no other race does.

CNV00108Whether it’s that first, frothy early morning cappucino, or the long, lazy lunch in Piazza Tasso (two hours plus people watching time), the lifestyle in Italy is, quite simply, terminally addictive. If you’re tired of Italy, I would suggest that you might be tired of life itself. Sad.

Of course the ice cream is matchless, and it never tastes better anywhere than here. Grab a seat at any cafe, and just soak in the sights. Houses with the paint slowly peeling from the facades, set against a backdrop of lush, soaring greenery. Cats peering through window shutters in shades of blue and electric green. Window boxes full of freshly cut flowers and plants. Lines of washing that wave like lethargic flags above your head in the gentle breeze as yet another scooter bumbles past. Dogs sleeping in the shade. Church bells. Accordians. The odd heated argument…

CNV00126Italy. One part ancient work of art. One part modern masterpiece. Altogether quite magical….CNV00132CNV00142CNV00145