GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

SOUL TRAIN- ROLLING OUT ON THE HIGH SEAS…..

Keep on truckin'- all the way to the sunny Caribbean......

Keep on truckin’- all the way to the sunny Caribbean……

Soul Train was, in its heyday, the biggest dance show of its kind ever shown on television. For two decades, it showcased the baddest and best in soul, funk and disco music in a style never seen before or since. It’s demise was massively lamented, and a void was created that nothing has ever been able to fill.

Until now, that is.

Like the venerable Orient Express before it, Soul Train is being hauled back out of the sidings, buffed, shined and bejewelled, and sent out to sea. The journey takes the form of a fabulous, week long overkill of platinum chip soul, disco and funk outfits, showcased aboard Holland America Line’s spectacular Eurodam on a week long circuit of the Eastern Caribbean, sailing round trip from Fort Lauderdale on February 23rd, 2014.

The ports of call alone are compelling enough, with a visit to chic, cosmopolitan St. Barts, a rare, overnight stay in funky, feisty St. Maarten, and a visit to Holland America’s private island of Half Moon Cay. Throw in the world class comforts of a stylish, sophisticated five star resort such as the Eurodam, and it’s a double winner.

But then, of course, there is the actual line up. If soul is your food, then this is the most fantastic, all you can eat buffet ever set afloat on the high seas. Here’s some of the roster of luminaries being specially shipped aboard to ensure that the Eurodam rocks, hustles and grooves until the break of day;

'What a day for a daydream. Custom made for a day dreaming boy....'

‘What a day for a daydream. Custom made for a day dreaming boy….’

The Isley Brothers- Charlie Wilson-Roberta Flack-Jeffrey Osborne-The Commodores-Stephanie Mills-Peabo Bryson- Morris Day and the Time-The Manhattans- Maxi Priest-The Chi Lites-Honey Cone- Ray, Goodman and Brown-Peaches and Herb-DWB-Blue Magic-Cool V.

If this lot doesn’t get you out of your seat and back into sequins, flares and the Spanish Hustle, I suggest that you check your pulse. It’s quite possible that you might a;ready be dead. This fabulous combination of smooth grooves and decadent, five star funk and disco is a full ship charter, and definitely not for the shy and retiring.

Combining the comforts of a world class floating resort like the Eurodam with the colours, feel good vibe and sheer fun of the Caribbean is sweet enough, but adding such a hugely talented entertainment handle is something else again. The Soul Train brand of cruises is now established as firmly up and running, and features similar, funk fuelled fests to the magical Mexican Riviera in the fall.

It’s also worth noting that, while the bulk of the partiers will hail from the USA, a facility exists on line for international guests to book as well. For further details, check out the website at: http://www.soultraincruise.com

Get out there…

ENCORE FOR EXPLORER OF THE SEAS

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

After eight consecutive seasons as a dedicated ‘New York ship’,Royal Caribbean International stalwart, Explorer of the Seas is being deployed for a season of cruises originating in Port Canaveral, Florida, over the winter of 2014/15.

The 140,000 ton Voyager class megaship is the only one of the five ship class not to be sent to Europe since her completion. Owners Royal Caribbean international have instead largely ran her on nine night spring and summer Caribbean cruises from their New Jersey base at Cape Liberty, augmented by five night Bermuda cruises in the summer, and on a series of longer, twelve night ‘Deep Caribbean’ itineraries through the winter seasons. In this role, the Explorer of the Seas has become a popular and familiar staple on the North American cruise circuit.

Eight cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas have been announced for the ship from Port Canaveral so far. These commence on November 15th, following her fourteen night repositioning cruise from New Jersey to Florida, via the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. The itineraries are as follows:

Nine night Southern Caribbean: Two departures to Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in the Southern Caribbean. Sails on November 15th and December 4th, 2014.

Five night Caribbean and Bahamas: Three departures to Cozumel and Nassau. Sailing on November 24th, November 29th and January 4th, 2015.

Five night Bahamas cruise: This one off cruise visits Nassau and Royal Caribbean’s private island at Coco Cay. Sails December 18th.

Four night Christmas cruise: Another one off, arriving at Royal Caribbean’s private island of Labadee, Haiti, for Christmas Day. Sails on December 23rd.

Eight night Eastern Caribbean cruise: Ports visited include Labadee, St. Croix, St. Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sails on December 27th.

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

The redeployment of Explorer of the Seas from Cape Liberty to Port Canaveral will give Royal Caribbean a three ship presence in the Florida port, along with ‘short cruise’ ship Enchantment of the Seas, and the larger Freedom of the Seas.

For UK passengers, these cruises are ideal combinations with a stay in Walt Disney World, or even with a beach holiday in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater or Tampa. A Port Canaveral departure means convenient flights from the UK into Orlando, and also offers the scope to visit such attractions as the space centre at Cape Canaveral, with its huge display of rocketry, space capsules and lunar memorabilia.

This is a good selection of cruises from a European perspective, as it cuts out the often cold and stormy first day or so encountered in winter time sailings from New York. Definitely worth taking a look at next winter.

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.

SCINTILLATING SINT MAARTEN

CNV00089Half Dutch, half French and totally alluring, St. Maarten (in Dutch) a.k.a St. Martin (French) is one of the most perennially popular mainstays on the Caribbean cruise circuit. Your first view of the place is a pointer as to why. St. Maarten is a stunningly lush smorgasbord of sight, sounds and vibrant colours, and they all combine to give this sun splashed little sliver of paradise a real feel good, funky vibe that is irresistible.

The islands of the Caribbean were coveted and fought over by the big European colonial powers- England, Spain, France, and Holland especially- for centuries. But St. Maarten was almost uniquely spared real violence, as the result of an amicable agreement between France and Holland to share the island. Today, St. Maarten is classed as a part of the French West Indies, along with nearby St. Barts, Mustique and Guadeloupe.

Like many islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Maarten has a spine of low, rolling hills, carpeted in deep, rich shades of green, that dominate it from most angles. The beaches are the stuff of legend; blinding white expanses of dreamy, spun sugar sand edging gently into the electric blue hue of the Caribbean.

There’s the smell of fresh cooked jerk chicken, and the subtle lilt of reggae. Water taxis and slowly waving, impossibly tall palm trees. Screeching parrots and soaring para gliders. Jet skis and jewellers’ shops.

CNV00100The Dutch side of the 37 mile island is busier, and dominated by its capital, the pretty town of Philipsburg, where most of the big cruise ships dock. The shopping here is among the most comprehensive in the Caribbean now, with great bargains especially on electrical goods, leather and.the aforementioned diamond and tanzanite shops There are scores of restaurants lining the sand here, and numerous bars offering up cold beer and glorious, glacially frosty margaritas.

The most famous of all the island’s chill out spots is still Orient Beach, with its big hotels and separate nudist area. More high octane is Mako Beach, right on the edge of the airport runway. If you like the idea of the landing wheels of an inbound 757 almost kissing your hair, then this is definitely your kind of place.

Over on the French side, the pretty capital of Marigot is quieter, more chic, with lots of elegant little sidewalk cafes and a less frantic vibe. For lovers of good restaurants, the area around Grand Case will offer you the best of what is available locally, and in a quite spectacular setting.

CNV00105If you’re here for the day, it’s worth checking out the famous salt flats, not far from the centre of Phillipsburg. And if you want to try something really different, the chance to crew and sail a real, live America’s Cup yacht is a very definite adrenaline surge, and comes highly recommended.

Of course, you could just chill in a hammock, drink daiquiris, and listen to reggae, too. Peachy….

SHAPES OF SHIPS- FORM OVER FUNCTION?

CNV00013The argument is constant and ongoing. Why are modern cruise ships almost always unfailingly ugly, especially when compared to the classic liners that so many of us knew and loved? Do advances in technology go hand in hand with a general retreat into so many bland, soul-less stereotypes, breaking out over the oceans of the world like some incurable rash?

Well, yes. And you can put that down to a number of factors. One is the travelling public’s obsession with having balcony rooms at sea- something I am as guilty of as the next person- and the inevitable fact that the form of every ship is uniquely dictated by it’s function.

New hulls are jam packed with so many dazzling features these days. Many of them come across as a pastiche of a fantastic theme park, crossed with a shopping mall, that just happens to go to sea. A host of features, unheard of ten years ago, are now accepted as standard. Rock climbing walls, five storey high theatres, water parks; ice rinks and incredible themed bars are only some of the things that today’s cruise passengers just cannot seem to exist without.

No wonder Disney got into the game; they could see which way the tide was flowing.

CNV00181Ironically, their ships are some of the best looking afloat; classic modern interpretations of a timeless style. Add the demand for balcony cabins- artfully fanned by the cruise lines- and it is little real surprise that something had to give.

That ‘something’ was the beautiful and distinctive hull shapes that made those old liners such a joy to behold. Norway, QE2, Canberra and a handful of smaller, sylph-like sea goddesses set a standard for interior and exterior elegance that these modern ships could never dream to aspire to. Yet, timeless beauties that they were, each of these became increasingly outdated, as the travelling public lapped up a conga line of shiny new hulls, chock full of state of the art goodies and time killing diversions. Inevitably, stage presence and sheer charisma alone were just not enough to satisfy this new wave of cruising neophytes.

it is not so difficult to understand. The modern cruise passenger, cocooned in state of the art luxury and with every modern convenience to hand, is blissfully incapable of viewing the often ugly, hulking exterior in which those facilities are packaged. And nobody who has sampled a balcony cabin needs to be sold on the sheer delight of watching an amazing sunset from your own private bit of deck space, champagne at hand, or the simple pleasure of a sunny balcony breakfast, with perhaps a view of St. Maarten as a side order.

CNV00031However, there are some modern ships which seem to get it just about right. As well as the Disney ships, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky are both big, amenity laden and- whisper it- extraordinarily beautiful.The stunning Crystal Symphony is arguably the most beautiful ship afloat anywhere, both inside and out. And not a rock wall to be found, either.

The brace of Seadream yachts are low slung, seagoing paradigms. They are the swans of the ocean; as expansive and luxurious as they are easy on the eye. The five original Silversea new builds are all true beauties, marred only for some by their squared off sterns. A look that makes them resemble supermodels burdened with backsides as large as the late Luciano Pavarotti.

But even here, it is function that dictates. Those same, squared off sterns allow for the expansive terrace restaurant so beloved of Silversea devotees. Including yours truly. There are few finer spots anywhere at sea to enjoy a beautiful outdoor breakfast, or a mellow martini at sunset.

And therein lies the truth. The fact that we simply cannot have it both ways. No one appreciates the lines of a beautiful ship more than I do and, while it remains perfectly true that I can live comfortably without a balcony cabin, the fact is that I prefer not to. A happy medium is hard to find here, and harder still to alchemise on the drawing board of the modern maritime architect.

CNV00036Owners want to shoe horn as much revenue generating space into these new hulls as possible. Combine that with the new safety and hygiene standards demanded of modern ships- standards undreamed of in the old days of the Mauretania, the Normandie and the Queen Mary- and you have, for want of a better phrase, a near perfect aesthetic storm.

Nostalgia intensifies this retrospective yearning. The current outwardly bland, uniform designs of modern ships do not endear themselves to those who love the traditional liners. Yet it is those self same ships that are attracting people to put to sea in numbers unheard of before.

It is a seagoing Catch-22 that many of us can ponder as we enjoy a last, lazy night cap on our balcony, with the peaceful, rolling ocean and a sky packed with stars for company. That kind of ageless, sea going beauty has never been open to debate.

And, traditionalists, remember this; when QE2 – rightly acknowledged by most as the very epitome of seagoing grace and elegance first made her debut, many regular Atlantic passengers loathed her boldness and modernity. She was not ‘their’ idea of what Cunard represented in their eyes. This argument gained renewed momentum, when QE2 lovers looked down at the new Queen Mary 2. Not quite ‘their’ kind of ship, either. And so it goes.

Yet still, we sail. And, in the end, we are still all wrapped up in the thrall of being at sea, just like legions of our forebears in the past. Endless voyages on a succession of constantly evolving hulls. Racing towards a horizon, a nirvana, that none of us can ever reach.

I think that we can, perhaps, all unite on that premise, and be thankful for it, too.