CUNARD’S SINGLE TRANSATLANTIC SAVERS FOR 2013

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

In a move that many have seen to be inevitable, Cunard has finally slashed it’s single supplements on a series of autumn and winter transatlantic crossings on the line’s legendary flagship, Queen Mary 2.

Lead in fares for an eastbound crossing now start at £749 for an inside cabin, and £899 for a balcony for single travellers, inclusive of one way flights to or from London. Fares for two start from £499 per person.

This marks a radical change for the iconic transatlantic line. When Queen Mary 2 was built to supersede the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, she made her debut with no single cabins at all. Supplements for single occupancy have traditionally been at an eye watering 175%.

With the new fares, these are now down to 150%; much more in line with normal single supplements across the cruise industry. So, after several years of intransigence, what has brought about the change?

Traditionally, transatlantic crossings have been harder to fill in the autumn and winter, when the Atlantic is usually more capricious than can often be the case in summer. And, with a huge passenger capacity of 2,760 (compared to 1,800 on the old QE2), the Queen Mary 2 takes a lot of filling. The new fares simply reflect economic reality.

What will be interesting to see is whether these very welcome single supplement reductions will be rolled out right across the Cunard fleet, both for cruises and transatlantic crossings. For now, the fares are being offered only in connection with the handful of remaining crossings between Europe and North America this year.

It is a singularly outstanding deal; no other ship in the world can match the Queen Mary 2 on the Atlantic in terms of size, speed, stability, and sheer, platinum chip prestige. The largest ocean liner ever constructed is a small city on the ocean, and offers a style and level of old world service that no other ship can adequately replicate.

The Berengaria, Cunard's flagship in the 1920's and beyond

The Berengaria, Cunard’s flagship in the 1920’s and beyond

Cabins, too, are large, with even the insides measuring up to 195 square feet. The Queen Mary 2 offers a whole raft of diversions and entertainments on her seven day crossings, together with famous, big name lecturers, The ship also faithfully replicates the formal evening ambience that was a hallmark of Cunard liners in the heyday of the post war Atlantic crossing, in a setting of sublime contemporary splendour.

Truth be told, the giant, iconic Cunarder is a far more comfortable ship than any of her famous forebears. Combined with a city stay in New York, Toronto, or even Miami, the Queen Mary 2 is one of the most compelling and exotic travel experiences on sale anywhere today. And especially at these prices, too.

I’ll keep an eye on the prices as they become available. Stay tuned.

FIVE GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS WORTH CONSIDERING…

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Tired of flying? If the thought of one more airport experience makes you start losing the will to live, that’s the time to start considering alternatives.

Rail journeys can be a truly epic adventure, especially so if it’s an itinerary you’ve always longed to go with. You’ll need more time to play with, as well as a willingness to see the journey itself as a huge part of the adventure, and not merely just as a means of getting from A to B.

With those thoughts in mind, here’s a few rail journeys that I hope might just fire the imagination…..

TRAVELLING TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

This is an absolute beauty. Start at London’s ornate St. Pancras station with a glass of champagne, before boarding one of the sleek, highly styled Eurostar expresses for a two hour journey through the Channel Tunnel, and straight into the heart of Paris.

If time allows, grab another glass of bubbly and some fine food at Le Train Bleu; it’s an atmospheric, belle epoque restaurant in the Gare du Lyon station that definitely enhances the experience. From here, you can board the TGV that will whisk you through the heart of France, before rolling slowly towards the coast, and eventual landfall in cosmopolitan Marseilles or beautiful, balmy Nice. Altogether a great way to arrive in a quite magical setting.

TORONTO TO NEW YORK

A thirteen hour transit starts at Toronto’s Union Station. Stock up with food and goodies for your journey before you go; the catering on the cross border trains is pretty rudimentary.

The route runs via the border crossing at Niagara, where everyone has to do customs and immigration, down on through the rural heartlands of New York State; Albany and Buffalo are just a couple of the famous names en route.

The scenery is highlighted by huge swathes of lush, rolling greenery, dotted with white clapboard villages that fly past in a dreamy blur. You rumble over vast, winding rivers and through long abandoned industrial heartlands, before a final, magical early evening arrival among the gleaming spires of midtown Manhattan.  Tip; pay a little extra and spring for one of the huge business class seats for extra comfort and personal space. It’s worth it.

Barcelona awaits at journey's end

Barcelona awaits at journey’s end

OVERNIGHT TRAIN TO BARCELONA

You can do this one from London, again taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris Gare du Nord. Here, you’ll connect with the special sleeper trains that run overnight through to the Catalan gem of Barcelona.

The trains have couchette berths in a number of configurations, and these also include the cost of an evening meal with wine, as well as breakfast the following day. The journey routes through the heart of France, and then through the Pyrenees into Spain proper, before eventually making the grand entry into one of Europe’s most beautiful and swaggering cities. Quite a way to go, and quite a city to savour at journey’s end as well.

AMERICA COAST TO COAST

Either east or west, try rolling across an entire, unforgettable continent. From L.A. to New York, or vice versa. Take one of the spectacular Amtrak double decker trains, complete with dining cars and separate sleeping cabins, and savour the spectacular hinterlands of mainland America.

Pit stops en route could include a few days in sassy, bohemian New Orleans, cloud scraping Denver, and even Al Capone’s old stamping grounds in classy, cosmopolitan Chicago. Roll into proud, patrician Philadelphia before ending your adventure in the forest of glass, steel and sheer excitement that is New York. Or make up your own route, and just go with the flow.

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY, UNITED KINGDOM

Short by comparison with the other options here, but sweet in its own right. Eighteen miles of beautifully meandering scenery between the villages of Grosmont and Pickering, in North Yorkshire. A scenic smorgasbord par excellence, and all savoured from the nostalgic cocoon of a real steam hauled train, to boot.

You’ll see chocolate box pretty stations and bubbling, splashing streams that meander through lush, flower carpeted meadows dotted with idly grazing cows and sheep. Some of the runs even feature evocative old Pullman carriages, and offer some seriously indulgent at seat dining options. A lovely option for a celebration on a warm summer evening.

So; there you go. Five of the best. Or just make up your own railroad adventure, and get out there. Whatever- wherever- enjoy.

RIDING THE RAILS: TORONTO TO NEW YORK BY TRAIN

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun...

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun…

Sixteen coaches of gleaming gunmetal shimmering in the summer Toronto sun, the Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered into life, and began to slowly roll out of the city’s Union Station. Sprawled out in a huge, business class seat, I watched idly as downtown Toronto’s glittering, glass and steel skyline rolled slowly past my window. It was 8.30 in the morning, and some hot coffee went part of the way to reviving me after what had been a late night out.

Having always been a fan of long distance train travel, I leapt at the chance to do this thirteen hour rail journey; a sampler that will, hopefully anticipate a much bigger, coast to coast adventure in a year or so. I was curious to try and get a handle on the pros and cons of travelling on the much maligned Amtrak network. And the price- even for a huge, spacious business class seat with a spectacular amount of legroom- beat out the cost of flying by a good way. So, not being in a hurry, this seemed as good a chance as any to try the Amtrak experience.

I made a couple of basic, elementary mistakes. Firstly, the Maple Leaf Explorer is a single decker train, unlike much of the coast to coast rolling stock. There would be no dinner in the diner, or anything remotely finer for that matter. In retrospect, I should have stocked up with edible goodies while in Toronto. Ah well, too late now. You’re off…

Once we arrived at Niagara, everybody had to dismount the train for customs and immigration formalities at the U.S. border. This was less tedious than a One Direction megamix playing on a loop, but not by enough to make you want to keep on living, It took a full three quarters of an hour. Back in my seat, I was ridiculously relieved to feel the Maple Leaf Explorer resume it’s rhythmic progress towards New York.

By now, my finely honed, Clouseau-like sense of intuition had perceived that there would be no at seat food and drink service; something unthinkable on any long distance train in Europe. So, like any intrepid explorer with a hunger for more than just adventure, I set forth in search of food.

Comfort with a capital 'C'

Comfort with a capital ‘C’

The buffet car was not hard to find. My first clue was a conga line of waiting people that was slightly longer than a Bosnian refugee column. It seemed to stretch back to infinity, and it moved forward with all the speed and enthusiasm of the condemned line at the foot of an overworked guillotine.

My impatience turned to pity when I eventually got my turn. There was one poor guy behind the counter- one- serving up micro waved food, plus hot and cold drinks, for the literally hundreds of people on this run.  He moved behind that counter like a whirling dervish; serving up slices of anorexic, piping hot, cardboard pizza and things that looked like they might once have been sausage rolls. Choices were thin on the ground, and even thinner when they emerged from being microwaved. I managed to grab some cold snacks, and the last two small miniatures of Sutter Creek Zinfandel on the train. Major sustenance would have to await my arrival in New York, several hours hence.

Fortunately, a feast of a far more satisfying kind was being served up, just outside my window.  The Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered, rattled and moaned its way through the heartlands of upstate New York,  speeding through a lush, green spread of slow, gently rolling hills and meadows, where small villages peeped almost shyly into sight, before disappearing in a smeary blur behind us.

The train rolled past small trailer parks, where children played on swings and in makeshift paddling pools. We thundered past one horse towns so quiet that even the horse was taking the day off.  Rivers came and went like drum rolls; some of them tinted an amazing rust brown by the slowly setting sun up above.

There were short, abrupt stops. Familiar names came and went. Albany. Buffalo. Names familiar from American folklore. Then on, into the clamouring embrace of the rolling emerald carpet that framed the views from my window.

The views en route were real, old world Americana

The views en route were real, old world Americana

There were old, abandoned industrial buildings, with brickwork still bearing the ghostly outlines of their trade in the form of weathered paintwork, scarred by decades of neglect and apathy. Sadness and pride seemed to be etched into every brick.

The Zinfandel had combined with the splendid, surreal scenery to lull me into a kind of languid, mellow stupor. And that train seat was wickedly comfortable; easily the most commodious and accommodating I had ever sat in. It really did put most airline business class seats to shame. The hours rolled by steadily, easily. And suddenly….

Out of the window, a jagged series of unmistakable buildings clawed abruptly at a flaring, purple twilight, their lights like the glow of a swarm of fireflies. Manhattan. Proud, beautiful, and never more alluring than at that special, magical hour of dusk. The Maple Leaf Explorer slowed to a crawl, grinding almost painfully forward, before it finally slid almost reluctantly into the floodlit, artificially lit embrace of Penn Station, and shuddered to a final halt.

Off the train, and the exhilaration of being in New York blew away the cobwebs and ennui as completely as if they had never existed. Within an hour, I had checked in to my hotel, found a nearby diner, and initiated a full frontal assault on a steak about the size of Saipan. Nothing- and I mean nothing- ever tasted so good. New York. Summer in the city. Now a new phase in the adventure could unravel.

Hey, Manhattan....

Hey, Manhattan….

It was a while before I could reflect objectively on that rail journey. I’m glad I did it, and it was a definite appetiser for the coast to coast trip I mentioned at the start. The trains making that run are huge, double decker juggernauts, with couchettes, sleeping cabins, scenic cars, and a full bar and diner service.  It’s the taste of another adventure; one yet to be savoured, from sea to shining sea.

TIME OUT IN TORONTO

CNV00015There’s a popular old adage that sums up Toronto as ‘like New York run by the Swiss’. I’m not sure how that came about, but after two visits to Canada’s capital of cool, I’d actually say that it has much more in common with Boston than New York City.

Toronto is a fun place, with lots of good stuff going on. But it is not the dynamic, 24/7 metropolis that New York is. This is no criticism; far from it. From my point of view, it’s just simply putting the city in its proper perspective.

Obviously, the CN Tower is a must do. Even for someone who gets vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb (yup, yours truly) the views from the top of the slowly revolving restaurant, some twelve hundred feet up, were absolutely thrilling.

CNV00003I wasn’t overly impressed by the food, but of course the real feast was being able to sit there, wining and dining, and watching the city far below your feet come alive in a neon blaze that flooded the horizon as far as you could see. Incredibly, there’s a wine cellar at that same level that contains no less than nine thousand bottles.

You can also go and stand on the glass floor (I declined, obviously), and the ascent and descent via the seemingly rocket propelled glass lifts on the outside of the tower is not for the faint of heart, either. But as an overall experience, it was still hugely enjoyable.

I also loved the shopping on Yonge Street- the exchange rate was decent at the time- and I also loved the fact that there are so many lakes actually flanking the edges of the city itself. Toronto is cool, clean and civilised but, inevitably, it’s greatest claim to fame means you have to leave the city behind.

CNV00062The journey out to Niagara Falls means passing through the genteel, chocolate box pretty region of Niagara on The Lake. It’s all kitschy, clapboard houses, with horse drawn carriages clopping past sturdy front porches, and window boxes overflowing with spectacularly vibrant blooms. The region even brews it’s own, totally individual ice wine. This is truly an acquired taste and, sorry to say, I didn’t acquire it.

But I did enjoy my helicopter foray out over the Falls, and hugely at that. This was even more surprising as I had to steel myself to make the ascent- that whole ‘heights’ thing again- and, of course, the entire front canopy of the ‘copter is constructed completely of perspex. But, once we got airborne, I was so enraptured of the staggering views of the Horseshoe Falls in particular, that I forgot my fears, and just snapped happily away.

CNV00106The entire flight lasted around six minutes, but it actually felt a whole lot longer. There was a lunch break in Niagara itself, a town so monumentally tacky and characterless that no words are truly derisory enough to do it justice. The best view of the town is when it is covered in the mist that often blankets this region. A Godsend in more ways than just one.

From there, it was time to see the Falls close up. Clad in a very fetching waterproof poncho, I took one of the fleet of Maid of The Mist boats that bumble out to the edges of the Falls themselves.

CNV00088At water level, the noise is indescribable. It’s a dull, muffled, continuous roar as a torrent of swirling grey water, flecked white with foam, thunders out over the precipice, and into the teeming maelstrom that we were bobbing along on. A fine, drizzly mist hung in the humid air like a damp blanket that slowly overwhelmed everything in its path. It’s a spellbinding little foray-completely safe- and it takes you over and also shows you the American side of the Falls. I was gobsmacked to see people actually walking along a path alongside the waterfront. They must have been drenched.

Later, back up on the green fields of the ever lovely Niagara, I watched like an awestruck kid as a gorgeous, graceful rainbow arced over the thundering miasma down below. I think it just took me by surprise, but it was just such a warm, uniquely wonderful moment. As if the Gods were smiling on this day of stunning sights and high adventure.

CNV00120I flew home after a couple of more days in Toronto, safe in the knowledge that I would surely have to return again, though obviously not in the winter. Oh, no. I’m strictly a patio season boy, I am….