THE SOUTHERN CROSS; THE END OF CTC CRUISES

The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross

For many years from the 60’s onwards, CTC was a regular player in the UK cruise market. Operating mainly with a constantly changing roster of the ‘white sisters’ that were built to operate as partial car ferries in the Baltic, and such stalwarts as the Mikhail Lermontov (which sank off New Zealand in 1986) and the Alexsandr Pushkin, still going strong as the Marco Polo, it introduced generations of British passengers to budget cruising.

It was, in fact, the Airtours of it’s day; more downmarket and, for many, more homely than the likes of P&O and Cunard. CTC was a valuable source of foreign currency revenue for the Soviet Union and, for a few decades, it did good enough business.

The CTC ships used to sail predominantly from Tilbury, and sometimes from Liverpool in season. But when the line acquired the Southern Cross in 1994, it introduced what amounted to the first real programme of regional sailings ever seen in the UK.

Built in 1971 as the original Sun Princess, the Southern Cross was sold to CTC by Premier Cruises, for whom she had been operating in the Bahamas as the Starship Majestic. CTC was intending to follow it’s traditional programme; sailing the ship to Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and the Canaries during summer, and sending her on a line voyage to and from Australia each autumn and spring respectively.

The company did very little to her by way of change; even her deep red, ‘coke tin’ Premier paint scheme was left intact. At 17,000 tons, the Southern Cross was a good fit size wise for the average CTC passenger. She had small cabins, and a centrally located pool that was not much bigger than a postage stamp.  Still, she was to prove initially popular.

What was different was that you could board her in several UK ports; Liverpool, Greenock, Tilbury, and even Bristol were all on the menu, In effect, she introduced what the Americans would subsequently call ‘homeland cruising’ many years before 9/11. Both Fred. Olsen and Cruise And Maritime now follow a programme that was actually initiated by this ex- Russian import.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Often as not, the Southern Cross would reposition between two ports, such as Liverpool and Greenock. These trips would be offered as two night party cruises, and they were very popular. It was in this guise that I first sailed on her in August of 1995.

She was a trim, tidy little ship, with passable food and entertainment and, like her predecessors, she offered outstanding value for money. Then, after a couple of seasons, she- and CTC- were suddenly gone. The line quite simply sank without trace.

I caught up with her again a few years later, when she was sailing for Festival Cruises as the Flamenco. By then, her hull had been painted white, with a blue and yellow stripe at the top. Internally, she was almost exactly as I remembered her from the CTC era. However, they had kicked the food service up by quite a notch. I spent a very enjoyable week sailing the Baltic on her. She remained a very pleasant and appealing little ship even then.

Incredibly, she is still going strong, now apparently working as a cruise ship for the Chinese market, but she must surely be on borrowed time now. Like her contemporaries such as the Cunard Adventurer, Song Of Norway and, of course, the Pacific Princess, a sad end is probably not too far away for her.

Still, this diminutive little lady was the ship that premiered regional sailings from UK ports. Small and largely unsung, she left behind a legacy that continues on to this day. She should be remembered for that alone.

TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE?

Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

I’ve just returned from a few days in Saint Petersburg, at a time when the old rivalries between east and west seem to be once more butting heads. From Putin’s appalling crackdown on gay rights to the potential disaster that is Syria, it was a strained, strange time to be in the very cradle of the Russian revolution of October 1917.

Now, I’ve been to Saint Petersburg quite a few times since 2000. In those days, you were not allowed off the ship unless you had a Russian visa, or unless you bought tours to see many of the numerous, incredible sights of this fascinating and convoluted city.

Thirteen years later, that still holds true. Not one hint of a crack in the facade has developed.

What makes it even more weird was the  fact that we docked, quite literally, in the heart of the historic old city. Virtually within spitting distance of Saint Isaac’s and the Church of the Spilled Blood.

Not that I would dare to spit in Saint Petersburg, mind you.

But I digress. We were attached to a kind of floating pontoon, that contains the usually unsmiling customs and immigration people that check you in and out of the city. Back in the day, that same pontoon contained a small bar. A nice place, you might think, to go and spend a few roubles, drink a little vodka, and indulge in some old style glasnost with your erstwhile Russian hosts?

Er, no. Nyet. Not possible….

Now I’m not getting at the ordinary people here. They are just as much prisoners of an unflinching, bloodless bureaucracy as ever they were in the days of Stalin or, indeed, the hapless Tsar Nicholas II. I’ve talked before about a residual siege mentality that exists in this marvellous city- a product of its turbulent, tortuous history. And, unlike the ice on the springtime Neva, it shows no signs of thawing out any time soon.

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

Methinks this could backfire spectacularly in time. Many passengers from our cruise ship came back on board distinctly unimpressed with the attitude, welcome- or rather the lack of it- from the stony faced scions of Comrade Stalin that scrutinised our papers, passports and personal appearance with all the warmth of a Baltic ice breaker.

What was understandable thirteen years ago is just not so any more. Russia has moved on in so many ways, and yet the officialdom involved in getting ashore has all the warmth and welcome on show at Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Smile, guys. Ladies, you too. It’s later than you think. Please- less of the strutting, and a few less frowns? Thanks so much.