DUBROVNIK SET FOR PLATINUM CHIP CRUISE DATE IN SEPTEMBER

With it’s amazingly intact medieval old town and imposing city walls, Dubrovnik is one of the absolute must see ports on the eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit throughout the summer months.

And, while the port is always busy from May through to October, this coming September 8th will witness a platinum chip convocation of cruise ships at the stellar Croatian port- not so much in terms of numbers, but more in standards of sheer, jaw dropping top end luxury vessels that will arrive over the course of the day.

In no particular order, Crystal Cruises’ sublime Crystal Serenity (with yours truly aboard), the sumptuous Silver Spirit of Silversea, Hapag Lloyd Cruises’ peerless Europa 2, Azamara Club Cruises’ immaculate Azamara Journey and the amazing, five mast Royal Clipper of Star Clippers, will all arrive at the port. Between them, these five superb ships are expected to deposit a total of around 2700 guests into the venerable old sea city on the Adriatic.

Of the five, Crystal Serenity will dock in the harbour at Gruz, just a short, two kilometre ride from the old town. The other four ships will lay offshore and tender passengers in to the dock at the bottom of the old town, literally at the foot of the main street of Stradun.

This is a quick and easy process- I arrived in Dubrovnik this way aboard Silver Spirit a few years ago- and, bearing in mind the relatively small numbers involved, it should be pretty much of a hassle free process.

Ease of access to the city itself is generally good, a fortunate fact when you consider that Dubrovnik is now attracting close to a million cruise visitors each year.

While five ships in Dubrovnik is nothing new, the arrival of this particular quintet will be quite something. Of the five, only the Azamara Journey remains on my ‘to do’ list, so this will be like a unique reunion of old friends.

Not to mention, of course, fantastic photo opportunities for all the ship spotters out there.

Stay tuned for a full report, with photos, after the event.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

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….

 

FOUR STAR! STAR CLIPPERS TO BECOME A QUARTET

In a move that has been bruited for many years- and anticipated by the maritime community just as long- Star Clippers has finally announced that it will build a new ship, due to make her commercial debut in 2017.

The five masted, 300 passenger ship is due to enter service in the second half of 2017. The 8,770 ton vessel, powered by more than 6,350 square metres of sail, will be built by the Brodosplit shipyard in Croatia, and will sail on Mediterranean and Caribbean itineraries.

This new ship will be heavily influenced by the legendary sailing ship France II, according to Star Clippers owner, Mikael Krafft. Indeed, stories exists that the masts for this fourth planned vessel in the fleet were actually built in preparation some years ago.

Many features from the immensely successful Royal Clipper (see previous blogs) will return, including a trio of upper deck pools, one of which will have a transparent bottom that filters sunlight down into the dining room, set at the bottom of a central atrium. Like the Royal Clipper, the new, as yet nameless ship will also feature a water sports platform at the stern.

Accommodation wise, the ship will have some thirty four cabins with balconies, as well as four more expansive owner’s suites as top drawer offerings. The dining room will be able to accommodate all passengers for dinner at a single sitting.

With a capacity for around 75 extra more guests than the Royal Clipper, this new ship is a logical evolution of the Star Clippers concept of providing a near perfect replication of the original, late nineteenth century sailing ships of old, married to a wealth of modern technological ‘must haves’ such as air conditioning, to provide one of the most stunningly unique sailing experiences available anywhere at sea.

Having been privileged enough to sail on all three of the current Star Clippers fleet- Star Flyer, Star Clipper and, of course, Royal Clipper, truly, the ‘cathedrals of the sea’- I am absolutely delighted that Mikael Krafft has finally felt able to go ahead with his vision for this new ship, one I know personally that he has carried a torch for over many years.

This new ship is going to be clearly quite something, and I am going to try and follow her progress as she comes along with great interest. As developments come into the public domain, you will most definitely find them here.

As ever, pray stay tuned…

Sails up! The Royal Clipper sets out on another elegant adventure

Sails up! The Royal Clipper sets out on another elegant adventure

CUBA CRUISES- COMING SOON?

Cuba bound soon?

Cuba bound soon?

With the recent news of Barack Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba, the mainstream cruise lines are savouring the long cherished possibility of a return of cruise ships to the sultry, long isolated Caribbean island, Famed as a hugely hedonistic destination for Americans in the pre Castro era, it has been largely off limits to cruise ships since 1963.

There are currently a coupe of vessels making cruises around the island. Both the superlative Star Flyer of Star Clippers, and the Celestyal Cristal of Cuba cruises, run seven day itineraries that make a long circuit of the island each week during the winter months. But both of these smaller, more intimate ships cater mostly to an international market- largely Canadian in the face of the latter.

What people are waiting for is the arrival of the mega ships operated by the ‘big boys’ of the industry- Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. And, the way things are looking, that might be sooner rather than later. But there are obstacles that first need to be overcome.

Firstly, the docking facilities in the capital of Havana are nowhere near adequate to handle one big ship, let alone the armada waiting to pounce on Cuba. The infrastructure is raw, and there needs to be far more in the way of air conditioned, tourist coaches for the sightseeing passengers.

That said, none of these are decisive deal breakers. From New Jersey to Jamaica, all of the big lines have proved adept at creating their own, purpose built docking complexes. This is the obvious way forward for Cuba and, though it would entail much co-operation between cruise lines, local tourist board and, of course, government offices, there is no reason why this cannot be done.

For their money, the lines gain access to a hugely sought, legendary destination seen by many as some nostalgic nirvana. Many Caribbean ‘regulars’ are getting tired of the same old islands. Once glamourous destinations such as Nassau now seem jaded and tired. New destinations are always to be welcomed.

And a ship sailing from Florida could easily make a leisurely, fuel conservative weekly sailing to Cuba, docking for three nights in old, storied Havana at what will- initially at least- be absolutely knock down docking fees. And the flow of tourist dollars from each ship load will inevitably boost the local economy massively. Whether that is ultimately for good or ill is too far away to call.

For marketing men, filling cruise ships to Cuba would be the Holy Grail; an ultimate no-brainer that will attract the crowds, looking for the shades of Ernie Hemingwayand his ilk among all the decaying, Mojito fuelled fun on offer.

Obviously, one to watch. I will be following this with great interest.

As ever, pray stay tuned.