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

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.

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.

OVERNIGHT STAYS IN PORT- THE PROS AND THE CONS

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

There was a time when the idea of keeping cruise ships in port overnight was absolute anathema to cruise ship owners. It meant the payment of more excessive docking fees to the local authorities, and there was always the potential revenue loss involved in passengers dining and partying ashore at nights. It was a double whammy that some lines fight tooth and nail to avoid for decades.

But there were some ports that offer such a wealth of attractions that a simple day time visit was nowhere near enough time to really see all the sights. Saint Petersburg, Hong Kong and Singapore were among an initial handful of ‘trophy ports’ where the lines were obliged to simply bite the bullet, and stay overnight. In the case of Saint Petersburg, the more deluxe lines can stay for up to three nights in succession.

As time has moved on and more new ships have come online, cruise lines have been looking to diversify right across the board. And some of the feedback indicated quite strongly that more and more passengers were in favour of more overnight stays on a cruise, especially in regions like the Mediterranean. Following the potential money trail, the lines had little choice but to play ball.

But as time went on, those same lines came to realise that certain economies of scale accrue from overnight stays. Port fees were often countered by the amount of fuel saved in being tied up at dock, and some shore excursions could even be run and sold  during the evening. And the chance of a welcome run ashore at the end of a busy working day was also a valuable morale booster for ship crews as well.  As long as a reasonable balance could be struck between these pros and cons, overnight stays could be made to work for all concerned.

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

A classic example has just been seen in the dropping by the Bermuda government of its age old ban on cruise ship casinos being open in ports. These are obviously a big source of revenue for the cruise lines, and Bermuda’s insistence that they remain closed certainly hurt the island’s cruise trade.

In the Far East, more erudite operations such as Voyages to Antiquity offer many overnight stays, including up to three nights in such fabled ports as Yangon. Saigon has evolved into a very popular overnight destination while, back in the Mediterranean, companies such as Azamara and Crystal now offer overnight stays in such idyllic spots as Sorrento. Kusadasi, Barcelona and even Monte Carlo.

For passengers, overnight calls allow for the possibility to see a destination in greater depth, and at a far more leisurely pace than that allowed by a typical ‘nine to five’ daylight stay. The possibility of being able to dine ashore at night builds in far more options- and therefore value- for potential passengers. Managed and promoted properly, cruise lines will, in future, find overnight stays to be far more of a positive benefit than an awkward accommodation. I expect to see many more in the future.

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

Hello, world. Let’s do this in style…

Pool deck of the Balmoral, at anchor in beautiful Flam, Norway.

Pool deck of the Balmoral, at anchor in beautiful Flam, Norway.

Sunrise over Papeete

Sunrise over Papeete

Travel means a lot of different things to many different people. From derring-do back packers to unashamed sybarites, city break fans to nature lovers, nostalgia buffs to armchair wanderers. But the thing we all have in common is that we want to be taken out of the ordinary; moved, amazed, enlightened, engaged…

That’s what this blog is about. I’ll take you to the most beautiful places on earth in the most fabulous of styles. Cruises and voyages to suit every taste and mood. Train journeys that tantalise. But it’s about far more than that…

The enduring legend; Queen Elizabeth 2

The enduring legend; Queen Elizabeth 2

We’ll go back in time, as well. Revisit the heyday of the great ocean liners. Expect some nostalgic musings and, hopefully, a bit of insight that makes you want to look deeper at things for yourself. The beginning of another journey of discovery? Absolutely.

I’d like to share spectacular sunrises and sublime, mellow sunsets with you. From the Norwegian fjords out to French Polynesia, via places too electrifying to ignore. We’ll do springtime in the magnificent Greek Islands, and summer jaunts to Bermuda.

Looking down from Sorrento to the lidos near Marina Piccolo...

Looking down from Sorrento to the lidos near Marina Piccolo…

Come aboard, and enjoy some mellow autumn wine on the amazing lidos of Sorrento. We’ll see the spires of Istanbul, the awe inspiring pagodas of Burma, and the dazzling gem that is the Manhattan skyline.

We’ll go skinny dipping on a surf kissed San Diego beach, and take a languid cruise along the Nile. We’ll drink good beer in wonderful Copenhagen, and margaritas in the sun kissed playgrounds of the Caribbean.

And another thing to bear in mind is that, often as much, it’s not so much about where you go, as how you get there.

If it’s legendary, elegant, beautiful and fun, then we’re all for it. Don’t bring mundane, bland or banal into the mix. Leave that stuff packed away with the bags in the hold. We don’t want that kind of stuff on this fantastic voyage…

Train ride, anyone?

Train ride, anyone?

Most importantly, we’ll do it in style. Because travel can be an art form, too. Quirky and eclectic as a Picasso, or as cake rich as a centuries-old Rubens. The world is a canvas, and these words and pictures are my brush strokes.

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia...

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia…

OK, who ordered the Palace special?

OK, who ordered the Palace special?

Beautiful, beguiling Burma...

Beautiful, beguiling Burma…

Feel free to interpret them as you will. Welcome aboard. It’s going to be one hell of an adventure….