Crystal Symphony offers one of the best lecture programmes afloat anywhere

Crystal Symphony offers one of the best lecture programmes afloat anywhere

Some people think they know it all once they have graduated. They are possessed of a seemingly unshakeable sense of faith in their own infallibility, knowledge and decisions. I’ve always pitied such people profoundly.

My take on life is- and always will be- that you keep on learning from cradle to grave. Life itself is a continuous, ongoing lesson. And if you’re asleep at the back of the class, the only person that’s truly losing out is you, I’m afraid.

And one of the best places for learning is, without doubt, on a cruise or long ocean crossing. Here’s why;

You’ll generally meet an incredible cross section of people with a whole wealth of different backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles, and life experiences. Taking the time to sit back and listen to others is a wise investment of that precious resource of time.

You might not always agree, approve. or even fully understand what they tell you. Sometimes you might be shocked, and on occasions even downright appalled. But that’s not the point.

The point is that everything you learn is like a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of life. Not every bit fits perfectly. Not every bit is meant to.

I find it fascinating to just sit and listen to people as they open up about their lives, their experiences- good and bad- and the way that those events shaped and moulded them into (hopefully) rational, well rounded human beings. if you can’t learn from the past, there’s precious little hope for the future.

See the haunting ANZAC War Graves at Gallipoli

See the haunting ANZAC War Graves at Gallipoli

No two people ever have exactly the same take, even on the same event. But cruising as an educator and enabler? You bet.

And, of course, there are cruise lines out there whose entire raison d’etre is to inform and increase our knowledge of the world around us, past and present. Lines such as Voyages to Antiquity, Voyages of Discovery and, of course, the venerable institution that is Swan Hellenic.

These are the sort of lines that eschew Las Vegas style floorshows in favour of high quality, extremely well qualified lecturers on subjects as diverse as the ancient world, military and socio-economic history, pre and post war politics, and even religion as well. All of these lines tailor their programmes to specific parts of the world that they happen to be cruising in at the time.

For instance, a recent Voyages to Antiquity cruise that I did in the Far East had a distinguished former Australian army officer, lecturing on the fall of Singapore and the battles along the infamous Kokoda Trail. Being in these same waters brought his insights to life with an immediacy- and a poignant sense of clarity- like nothing I have ever experienced.

It should go without saying that those cruises are more for the types intent on feeding their minds, rather than ravaging the midnight buffet (assuming you can still find a ship that serves one, that is). Think cerebral caviar, rather than round the clock pizza, and you get the gist.

Many of the more upscale lines, such as Crystal, Regent and Silversea, generally feature an excellent roster of on board speakers and lecturers, with details listed in advance on their respective web sites. This is a big help when it comes to planning and perusing for the topics and areas that interest you the most. And these are regularly updated, too.

The excellent Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2014

The excellent Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2014

There are also cruises that bring you up close and personal to nature; bird watching cruises, Arctic expeditions, and even voyages to view the surreal splendour of the Northern Lights.

But in the end, you’ll learn as much about life- and humanity in general- from the people all around you. How they speak; how they behave- or don’t.

It’s an endlessly fascinating dance. And, best of all, it comes free with the price of the ticket. Have fun out there.


Braemar is part of the 2014 D-Day remembrance flotilla

Braemar is part of the 2014 D-Day remembrance flotilla

June 6th, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the massed, all out assault by American, British, Canadian, French and Polish troops on the outer bulwarks of Adolf Hitler’s much vaunted ‘Fortress Europe’. The D-Day landings were achieved in appalling weather conditions; they were quite simply the biggest combination of shipping and military might ever seen. And, though the fighting in and for Normandy that raged for weeks afterwards was savage, merciless and brutal, there is no question that the actions instigated in the early hours of June 6th, 1944, marked the beginning of the death throes of the Third Reich.

Next year, a quartet of interesting and quite diverse cruises will visit the sights and highlights of the D-Day anniversary celebrations. Some of them are quite different in emphasis than others, though all quite rightly put an emphasis on acknowledging the sacrifices made by those who never returned from the campaign. Here’s who goes there for those who might be interested, and just how those itineraries break down.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE is offering a twelve night cruise aboard the large, luxurious Eurodam. To use a somewhat unfortunate phrase, this one jumps the gun a bit, sailing from Rome on April 29th. You’ll call in at Portland and Cherbourg, from where you’ll have an opportunity to see the landing beaches. Leaving Rome, the cruise also calls at Cartagena, Gibraltar, Cadiz, Lisbon and Vigo, as well as Zeebrugge, before finally ending in Copenhagen.

My verdict: Really nothing more than a repositioning cruise, albeit aboard a very luxurious and well run ship. Not really an in depth D-Day experience as such, but certainly a nice cruise in its own right. Fares from £1,348 based on an inside stateroom.

FRED.OLSEN CRUISE LINES are offering an excellent, seven night round UK cruise aboard the small, beautifully styled Braemar that takes in many of the most prominent D-Day sites, including Cherbourg and an overnight stay in Le Havre. This really allows you time to see the invasion beaches, plus the museums. It also features a call at Dunkirk, with its memories of the 1940 ‘miracle’, as well as Portsmouth, the nerve centre of the entire planning for the operation. There’s also a call at Zeebrugge on this cruise, too.

My verdict: Sailing on June 1st, this one puts you right in the centre of the commemorations and, just as importantly, in the proper time frame. The cruise sails round trip from Harwich.  Prices for the sailing, based on an inside cabin, start from £699.

German U-boat memorial

German U-boat memorial

CRUISE AND MARITIME offers another seven night sailing from the UK, beginning in Bristol (Avonmouth) and finishing in Liverpool, aboard the elegant, intimate DiscoveryThis cruise also departs on June 1st, and offers calls to see the German fortifications on Guernsey- the only part of the UK to be occupied by the Nazis- as well as Honfleur, a perfect jumping off point to see the paratroop landing zones, including the recreated Pegasus Bridge.

There’s also a Cherbourg call, and the ship spends the actual anniversary cruising off the beaches themselves- a very different perspective indeed.

My verdict: A concise itinerary indeed over the course of a week. And with inside cabins from £649 per person, tremendous value as well.

SWAN HELLENIC is offering a superb, twelve night itinerary from Portsmouth aboard the intimate, highly styled Minerva.The cruise sails on June 4th. This one also overnights in Le Havre and visits Cherbourg, but there is also a call in at Caen, literally the crucible of the Normandy campaign. This literally puts you right in the middle of the entire combat zone, with the attractions all around you. Dunkirk is also on the agenda, as is the headquarters for the D-Day campaign at Portsmouth.

But Minerva also ventures to the French west coast for an overnight stay in L’Orient; the main U-boat base for the Kriegsmarine in France during most of World War Two. Many of the original, giant concrete submarine pens are still in existence, and can be seen to this day. The cruise also visits the island of Belle Ile,

Also on offer is a call at the Isles of Scilly, as well as one at Dartmouth.

My verdict: 

Visit the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of D-Day

Visit the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of D-Day

This is the priciest option of the lot, with inside cabins going at £2,135 per person. However, Swan Hellenic also include all excursions in the fare, and these are of a genuinely high and personalised standard. The twelve night itinerary offers more of everything, albeit at a much higher price point.

All of these cruises are quite likely to sell out quite quickly. If doing one of these cruises is on your personal horizon, my advice is to get in there quite quickly.


Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

The debut of new behemoths such as Royal Princess and Norwegian Breakaway has yet again served to affirm the universal supremacy of the mega cruise ship as the prime source of most seagoing travels. But if you don’t like the idea of whooping it up in a small city with more than three thousand fellow revellers, the alternative options at first appear pretty thin on the ground.

There are small, very highly styled ships out there, of course. Companies such as Silversea, Regent and Seabourn offer sublimely beautiful, incredibly lavish and human scaled products that go to some of the most inviting places on earth.

The problem here for many comes with the size of the price tag.

Because while all of those lines represent outstanding value, the fact remains that we live in straitened and uncertain times. Every penny counts these days. And the price tags attached to these lines are simply a bridge too far for many people.

There’s also a definite high end factor, too. Some people find these ships simply too overwhelming as a travel experience. That’s not to degrade either product or potential passenger; it’s just restating an old truth. Incredible as it seems, some people simply find these ships too luxurious.

So, where does that leave those people- and there are a lot more than you might think- that want to try and find some happy medium? High and dry, you might assume. No medium size, mainstream cruise ship has been debuted in the standard market since the early 1990’s, two decades ago. At first glance, the horizon looks foggy indeed.

And yet, look closer, and there are far more options than you might think. Allow me to introduce you to some very personable ‘ladies of the sea’…

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

If you want small scale ships with a real, retro look, you could consider Cruise and Maritime. The flagship is the elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo, joined for this year by the Discovery. This is nothing less than the former Island Princess of Princess Cruises. The trio is rounded out by the Astor, which will be undertaking some quite wonderful cruises ‘down under’ for the Australian market this coming winter. All of these ships are in the 22,000 ton range- a truly sweet size.

Smaller and distinctly cerebral, VTA’s lovely Aegean Odyssey and Swan Hellenic’s cute, deft Minerva serve up history and harmony in equal doses. You might think the price tag is steep, but when you look at the actual, sheer inclusive nature of both lines, the value is undeniable. It’s also worth noting that VTA has a number of single cabins, and very reasonable solo occupancy supplements in addition on most sailings.

Of course, most UK passengers know all about Fred.Olsen. Our American friends might remember the beautiful, seaworthy Black Watch and Boudicca better as the legendary Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky, respectively. These beautiful twins tip the scales at a svelte 28,000 tons each, and each retains the contours, character and sheer charisma of such platinum chip, vintage tonnage.

Rounding out Olsen’s popular quartet of British accented perennials is the 24,000 ton Braemar, and the still elegant, 43,000 ton flagship, Balmoral. The latter ship is still fondly remembered as the legendary Crown Odyssey, the last purpose built ship for the now long defunct Royal Cruise Line.

Common to all of the Olsen ships is a large number of single cabins, very good service, and excellent food. They do tend to attract an older age group if that’s an issue for you, but the itineraries are well thought out, and the ships themselves offer some of the best value of any line afloat.

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Looking for something quick, cheap and really cheerful? Louis Cruises offer three and four night cruises out of Athens and Cyprus this summer on the venerable Orient Queen, once the pioneering Skyward of Norwegian Caribbean Lines, as it then was. These are intense, high density itineraries on a 16,000 ton ship that has no balcony cabins, if that’s a deal breaker for you. As an exhilarating weekend break, these short cruises are very hard to beat.

Portuscale Cruises has emerged from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and four of the original quintet of rebuilt classics should be back in harness next year. The 16,000 ton Athena becomes the Azores, while the 15,000 ton Princess Danae becomes the Lisboa, and the veteran, 6,000 ton Arion is already back in service as the Porto. The legendary, 9,000 ton Funchal is also due back in service this year.

These ships are real floating time capsules; authentic mini liners offering the closest experience to the true classic liner voyage experience available anywhere today. They are often, but not exclusively, put out to charter. Any opportunity to sail one of them should be grabbed with both hands. They cannot last forever.

And you might be surprised to learn that the mega ship colossus that is Costa is hiding a little secret, in the shape of the foxy little 28,000 ton Costa Voyager. She spends winters cruising the Red Sea, and with her intimate size and styling, she is sure to evoke memories of the string of similar sized Costa beauties that once existed, now long since vanished.

At sea on Portuscale...

At sea on Portuscale…

So, hopefully, there’s some food for thought here. Even writing this blog has been a revelation. Some of these ships had slipped from my memory as completely as if swallowed up by Atlantic fog. Finding them again has been a voyage of discovery in its own right. Happy sailing.