FOUR THINGS ABOUT CRUISING THAT STILL MAKE ME GO ‘WOW’…

Exhibit One, your honour...

Exhibit One, your honour…

These days, big cruise ships have become so amenity laden that they resemble something of a cross between a shopping mall and a Las Vegas resort. We’re almost swamped by a tidal wave of cutting edge, new attractions that seem to expand with each new ship.

Of course, it’s all done to give those fantastic floating resorts some new kind of ‘wow’ factor, and that’s okay. People do love them. But after more than thirty years at sea, some of the most amazing- and lasting ‘wow’ factors for me have little or nothing to do with this new, neon gimmickry.

So, without further ado, here’s just a few of the things that still really float my boat; pun wholly intentional…

1) looking back out over the wake at the stern. Nothing is so stress beating as this; just leaning on the railings with a breeze kissing your hair, an early morning cup of coffee to hand, and just watching that vast, roiling white wake, cutting a perfect straight line back across the sparkling azure carpet of the briny, all the way back to the razor fine line of the horizon. Almost miraculous.

2) Watching the gangway come down at the start of the voyage. We no longer have streamers to throw, so I always make a point of going to watch the gangways retract back ashore. It’s a hugely symbolic moment; I equate it with severing the last links to reality. And, even though the ship is still briefly tethered to the land by her mooring ropes, I can feel secure in knowing that the ship- my little fantasy island for the duration of the journey- has been hermetically sealed; made safe and fast against all the banal, screaming mediocre stuff on shore that rains  on my parade. Adios, Jedward. It’s been emotional.

3) I love watching how some people open up and blossom as the voyage takes hold. Strangers on day one become smiling acquaintances; people become less buttoned up, less uptight.

And you do see it, too; it’s almost as if some dead weight has been lifted from them. People who may not always be especially pleasant ashore seem to raise their game as they lose their defensive armour and posture.

I once saw two little old ladies from an English ship; probably pillars of their local WI, in their pearls and twin sets. They were probably fierce competitors in their local home made jam competitions. They made it ashore in Willemstad, Curacao one Sunday morning. And there they sat, at a sun splashed waterfront cafe, in their twin sets, complete with baseball caps and a bottle of Budweiser each. The old dears were drinking straight from the bottles, and giggling to themselves as they did so. They had gone native in the Caribbean, and it was wonderful to see. Heartwarming, even. For them, it must have been so liberating; probably a moment never to be repeated.

Exhibit Two. The Defence rests. And quite comfortably, too...

Exhibit Two. The Defence rests. And quite comfortably, too…

4) The sunsets. The oldest cliche at sea, but I never, ever tire of them. Out on the ocean, away from any land based pollution, they take on a magical, almost mystical allure that defies conventional wisdom. People who would never look twice at a sunset at home are lured out to them, as helplessly as lost moths that flitter skittishly around a flame.  They seem to take forever; both time and reality appear to have been put on pause.  And, if there’s a little soft piano music drifting around in the ether, then it sharpens the mood- and the moment- to almost brilliant perfection.

OK.  There’s just a few of the things that still hook me about cruising, and sailing in general. What is it about the cruise experience that keeps bringing you back? What makes you smile??

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!

MESMERISING MYKONOS

ImageMykonos. Even saying it sounds good. As zesty as lemon splashed souvlaki, And every bit as irresistible.

ImageWhereas most of the Greek islands are archaeological theme parks, devoted to Zeus, Apollo and all the other ancient deities, Mykonos bows her sun-kissed head solely to the god of Hedonism.

ImageNo other island in this sparkling sea of gems quite outshines Mykonos in the twenty carat, indolent people watching stakes. It combines the ‘stroll and roll’ loucheness of sassy New Orleans with the laissez- faire lifestyle of the south of France to create a style all of it’s own.

ImageIt all comes together most perfectly at sunset. The Greek island sunsets are legendary, but those in Mykonos draw out the crowds like some kind of mellow, mystical bat signal. The mood and vibe is very similar to Key West, it’s freewheeling soul mate across the Atlantic.

ImageThese are best viewed from the patch of barren scrub in front of the famous windmills on the headland or, if you get there early enough, from one of the waterfront bars and restaurants that wind along the sinuous, spray kissed sprawl of Little Venice.

ImageIt is nothing less than Mother Nature staging full on theatre. A slow, subtle lowering of a spectacular, blood red curtain on a sea of polished glass. With friends, with wine, and always with a sense of wonder, the surreal, splendid spectacle will reduce even the most blase lotus eater to a jaw dropping jumble of awed, smiley silence.

ImageThe island is a famous party playground in the summer months; as indelibly identified with modern, cutting edge dance music and clubs as Ibiza or South Beach. But, if that’s not quite your thing, there’s a place I’d like to share with you…..

ImageJackie O’s is a bar that sits right at the end of the main drag on the waterfront. Walk all the way along the pavement- watch out for the vicious, snarky pelican and the stumbling, often sozzled local transvestite (the latter has a habit of falling into the water) and right on to the end, please.

ImageAvoid going up into those tempting, cobbled lanes with all those nice little shops. There will be time for all that tomorrow. Just keep walking and…..

ImageYou are here.

ImageJackie O’s was the place where Aristotle Onassis used to woo the widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, back in the 1960’s. Even now, it seems frozen in that time period.

ImageInside the two level bar, plain white walls are adorned with pictures of the famously reclusive duo, taken back in the day. But the real magic happens outside.

ImageHere, you can slouch across cream coloured sofas that surround low slung tables. Flickering lamps glow against the fast, reddening sunset. The beer is ice cold; the breeze warm, almost silky.

ImageAnd the soundtrack…. melt into the velvet warmth of Dusty Springfield’s peerless version of The Look Of Love, or some deep, soul stirring Nina Simone track from way back in the day.

ImageMusic. A magical sunset. A matchless location. The whole potent cocktail comes together as perfectly as a Busby Berkeley dance routine. It stirs a quiet storm in the soul. A moment as ethereal as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings; one as precious as gold. A moment that you never, ever forget.

Somehow, only Mykonos seems to create this amazing, platinum chip vibe. It never fails. And, by the way, mine’s a Mythos. Cheers!