QUEEN MARY 2 SAILS ON 250TH ATLANTIC CROSSING TODAY

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The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The Queen Mary 2 will embark passengers today for an historic Atlantic crossing- her 250th such voyage since she first entered service in January of 2004.

The great liner will sail from the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn, New York, on an eight day eastbound transatlantic crossing this afternoon.

Following her arrival in Southampton on December 3rd, the Queen Mary 2 will conclude her 2015 season with three additional sailings; a twelve night round trip cruise to the Canary Islands will be followed by a return, seven night crossing to New York departing on December 15th.

Following her scheduled arrival back in New York on the 22nd December, the Queen Mary 2 will sail her customary, round trip Christmas and New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, before embarking once more for Europe on January 3rd, 2016.

Next summer, the Queen Mary 2 will embark upon the most complete and comprehensive refit since her aforementioned debut. Carried through by the SMC Design company, the work will see the installation of some forty five new cabins; thirty new Britannia Club balcony cabins, and a long overdue, dedicated fifteen single cabins.

Also of note is the transformation of the current Winter Garden into a new venture called the Carinthia Lounge. Located on Deck 7, the redesigned venue will hosts breakfasts and light lunches, as well as champagne afternoon teas, and evening entertainment.

Elsewhere, the interior of the liner will be refreshed to give her more of a classic Art Deco feel, a process should help to emphasise her North Atlantic heritage.

The refit is slated to be carried through in Hamburg over the period from May 27th to June 21st 2016, inclusive. Queen Mary 2 will then resume service with a ten night, scheduled transatlantic crossing from Hamburg and Southampton to New York.

The extent of the refit makes this the most eagerly anticipated refurbishment of the 2016 cruising season so far announced. No doubt it will also prove to be the most extensively scrutinised one as well.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

MARCO POLO RETURNS TO MONTREAL FOR 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATIONS

A very special welcome awaits CMV’s veteran Marco Polo when she arrives in Montreal next Thursday as the highlight of her 50th anniversary cruise.

The 22,000 ton, 1965 built vessel was a regular caller to the Canadian port during her days as the Alexander Pushkin, sailing for the Russian merchant marine. The ship sailed a frequent transatlantic service between Leningrad  (now Saint Petersburg once more) and Montreal from 1966 onwards.

However, this is the first time that the storied cruise liner has been back since her renaissance as the Marco Polo and, in honour of the occasion, the Canadian authorities are rolling out the red carpet for what promises to be a very special occasion.

The Marco Polo is expected to receive the full, ceremonial fire float and siren welcome when she makes her way up the Saint Lawrence into port on the morning of Thursday, August 13th. Once she has docked, the ship will then host a special, on board lunch for representatives from both Port of Montreal and Tourism Montreal, as well as some sixty local dignitaries and media people.

Following the lunch, a special film detailing the ship’s long and unique history will be screened on board.

For the 800 passengers already on board Marco Polo for the long since sold out sailing- around 500 of whom are members of CMV’s regular Compass Club repeat cruisers- the festivities will begin the night before, with a special Gala Dinner on board, prior to the spectacular fireboat serenade on arrival the next day.

So popular has this commemorative voyage proved that a second special, round trip sailing to Canada has been arranged for September. And the exercise will also be repeated during the 2016 season.

These nostalgic, round trip crossings offer almost the only opportunities anywhere to cross the Atlantic on a real, purpose built ocean liner. With a combination of long, lazy sea days and the sheer, stunning beauty of a voyage along the famous Saint Lawrence seaway, it is hardly surprising that they have sold so well.

And, in related news, CMV has also announced that their popular Astor will make a fourth, consecutive round trip liner voyage to and from in Australia in November 2016, after a trio of sell out sailings with the ship.

Marco Polo, still stylish at fifty, will receive a traditional fire float and siren welcome in Montreal next Thursday

Marco Polo, still stylish at fifty, will receive a traditional fire float and siren welcome in Montreal next Thursday

DOG-GONE! QM2 RAMPS UP THE ON BOARD ACCOMMODATION FOR 2016

Some details of next years’ long anticipated refit of Queen Mary 2 have begun to surface.

The 25 day refit will take place at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and will begin on May 27th. The ship is scheduled to leave the dock on June 21st.

No less than thirty balcony staterooms for Britannia Club passengers will be added to the ship. To accommodate an extra sixty potential diners, the area currently occupied on board by the Britannia Club annexe will be extended.

Significantly, the ship will also gain some fifteen new, dedicated cabins for singles, thus bringing her into line with smaller fleet mates, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

And, just to prove that it’s not really a dog’s life on the Queen Mary 2, the ships’ kennel complex will benefit from both a new water hydrant and a lamp post. And, in response to demand, an additional ten kennels will be installed in the ships’ aft placed, upper deck dog compound, bringing the total available to twenty two in all.

The company is also getting ready to announce further enhancements in the future. One of these will almost certainly include a massive change to the centrally sited Kings’ Court buffet area, a perennial cause of customer complaint.

More details will be posted here as they are made public.

As ever, stay tuned.

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

UNFORGETTABLE- THE QE2 ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC

Such a familar sight....

Such a familar sight….

A ship. An ocean. A state of mind. Queen Elizabeth 2 on the North Atlantic. Nothing else mattered…..

The sea is a rolling grey mess, flecked with viciously flailing whitecaps. Looking down from the windows of the Golden Lion (or the Theatre Bar if your memory goes that far back) there is a broad swathe of boiling white, foam streaked ocean stretching back as far as the eye can see. Venture outside, and the cold slaps you with an icy swipe as you stand out by the pool, watching the wake stretching back to infinity.

There’s the gentle shudder of the decks under your feet, and the subtle pitch and roll of a real ship on a purposeful voyage; a true crossing. In other words, pure magic.

In the post war era, Cunard maintained a two ship service on the New York express run with the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The advent of jet aircraft from the late fifties onwards effectively put that service to the sword. The result was that Cunard decided that one ship in future would service the Atlantic crossing, as well as working as a hopefully lucrative cruise ship in the off season.

That ship, of course, was QE2. She was built partly as a floating resort, capable of offering worldwide luxury cruises through the autumn and winter. But, every year from April through December, she would eschew that, and return to the five day shuttle runs between Europe and America that were her true heritage. For many, the Atlantic was where the Queen really came into her own.

Her hull was very strongly built; a necessity when coping with the most notorious and unpredictable stretch of water in the world. And she had to be fast- far faster than on languid Caribbean cruises. On crossings, QE2 could- and frequently did- hit thirty-two knots without killing herself.

That might not sound like much, but let’s put it in context. Nobody would blink twice at the sight of a cab passing the Empire State Building at thirty miles an hour. But imagine the Empire State Building itself, somehow uprooted from its base and barrelling along at the same speed, and you get some idea of the scope and power of the QE2. She was built to be fast and strong, and she needed both of those attributes in dealing with the Atlantic.

She was an extraordinary lady, and she certainly knew it. A diva, draped in epic moods and capable of equally epic mood swings. For so many years she was out there alone, maintaining the famous Cunard standards on that ancient route as, one by one, her competitors fell by the wayside, or were diverted to full time cruise service.

That fabulous bow

That fabulous bow

Time always seemed to be against her. ‘How long can she last?’ was an almost constant refrain, even in the early eighties. And yet, twenty six years later, the Yacht Club on QE2 was still serving up the best chocolate martinis afloat. The old girl was a real fighter; a true daughter of the Clyde. There was real steel beneath that subtle, sophisticated exterior.

And if ever a ship had heart and soul, it was surely the QE2. You sensed it when you walked into the Midships Lobby as you boarded her. There was something that hung in the air like static electricity; a sensation as intangible as it was undeniable. Only the Norway- her soul mate in so many ways- had anything remotely like it.

The old girl seemed to truly relish being out on the Atlantic, where she could pitch, shudder and roll to her heart’s content. And boy, did she ever.

Don’t get me wrong; the QE2 was wonderful as a cruise ship, pretty much regardless of where she went to. But out on the Atlantic, it was as if her true essence was totally unleashed. That was where those great engines really got into their stride. No one who ever crossed on her will forget the sensation of sitting by a window and watching the grey, foam flecked Atlantic boling along, while the gentle vibration made the ice in your drink tinkle subtly in the glass. Of such memories are legends made.

In the eighties, there would always be a full band on the Southampton quayside to serenade her and her passengers away. To my dying day, I will always remember the band of the Royal Marines, playing christmas carols on the pier as we swung loose, bound for New York on a bitterly cold December night. The sounds floating across that widening gap between ship and shore were so poignant, echoing in that sharp, clear air, that most of the huddled masses on deck that night simply forgot the cold. Our collective breath hung like Channel fog in the freezing night air.

Swinging out into the channel, speed increased. First and last nights were always classed as ‘informal’ dress nights which, for men, meant jackets and ties, with smart trouser suits or skirts for the ladies. The first night of any crossing always crackled with anticipation of the adventure ahead.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

For the rest of the voyage, it was invariably black tie for the men, and cocktail dresses for the ladies. And in no other setting was the dress code so rigorously adhered to, or just so absolutely damned right. Seeing everyone in their evening finery set a tone that everything that followed merely enhanced, from the subtle lighting to the pre dinner cocktail music. The tinkling baby grand and, of course, the fabulous, formal dining experience itself.

And that food was sublime, from first to last. It was delivered silver service, as it should be, and it fed both the man and his sense of inner contentment at the same time. While no two people ever have the same take on food- and there were always at least a handful of professional, platinum chip moaners on every crossing- I remember the QE2 dining experience as one of the greatest celebrations of food and, indeed, life, that I am ever likely to experience. It made for a longer, more languid and involved experience but, being out on the Atlantic, it wasn’t as if we had to be in a hurry to get off and go somewhere the next day.

It was an epic adventure. You had time to get to know people. The library was vast, and many comfy hours were spent there, sprawled out on a sofa. Lost both in a book, and on an ocean. There was time to enjoy afternoon tea, and a pre dinner cocktail. There were enrichment lectures, dance classes, and a vast, expansive spa complex, located on the lower decks of the ship. And, like millions of Atlantic passengers before us, we amused ourselves with each others’ company, and had enormous fun in doing so.

You could effectively forget about time outdoors, unless you hit a lucky summertime crossing. Atlantic storms tend to travel in four day cycles, and you were almost guaranteed to hit one. In spring and early summer, icebergs still loom across the waters of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fortunately, radar and ample lifeboats make these potential ship killers- the true ‘Great Whites’ of the ocean- that much less of an occupational hazard.

The Queens Room

The Queens Room

The Atlantic is no respecter of egos; the Titanic found that out. It can make a ship perform that kind of gymnastics that Olga Korbut could only have dreamed of. It took a particular form of psychopath to enjoy the crossing, and yet we came back, year after year. It was like being a member of a secretive, elusive kind of sect.

For this was our ocean, and our ship. 99.999 per cent of the travelling public flew across the Atlantic. Pah. We few, in turn, remained in helpless, eternal thrall to our great lady and she, in turn, returned the compliment. When you boarded the old girl in either Southampton or New York, it always felt as if she smiled at you. It was a totally symbiotic relationship, that’s for sure. She knew her own, and you felt it everywhere on board.

The nights passed by in a whirl. We had after dinner floorshows, piano players, and live bands. There was a popular, full scale casino, and a disco that could, with the right crowd, rock through until the early morning hours, and very often did. With everyone still in evening wear, those nights had a sense of fine style and fun that I still cherish even now. I miss them so much.

You could have breakfast in bed, while you read the news digest that was delivered with it. You could drag out lunch over two hours, or enjoy live jazz with your fish and chips. On westbound crossings, days were always twenty five hours long, to compensate for the time difference between Europe and America. It meant that you arrived in New York without jet lag, but with your baggage.

Those were languid, lazy days, and yet paradoxically, they passed at a truly blistering pace. And at journey’s end, as the fabulous Manhattan skyline splintered the early morning dawn, you knew beyond a shred of doubt that you had completed a truly epic journey.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Regret hung in the air at the end of every crossing like lingering Atlantic fog. The carnival was over. But all that did was to fire you up all over again, and make you more determined to get back on that giddy, rock and rolling fairground ride that we called ‘the crossing’. Once QE2 got her silken claws into you, she never let you go.

But, let’s face it. It’s not as if you really wanted to, anyway….

NORWEGIAN EPIC- A BRIEF RETROSPECTIVE

ImageOh, how they hated her. The traditionalists. The vocally indignant. The verbally flatulent. Norwegian Epic raised hackles- and eyebrows- like no other ship I can ever remember when she first debuted in the summer of 2010. Seems a long time ago now.

ImageHer genesis was long, troubled and controversial. It included an almost complete tearing up and redrawing of the building plans when the ship was already under construction, swiftly followed by the cancellation of a planned sister ship. The occasional dockyard fire- suspected sabotage, but never proven- was often the only thing warming the often chilly relationship between Norwegian and the French shipbuilders, STX.

ImageOf course, she was meant to elicit controversy. And boy, did she ever. Especial wrath was reserved for what became known as the ‘Top Hat’; the private area atop the superstructure for the top end penthouses, and their attached restaurants and bars. It looms over the top of the ship. The design has not been replicated in the imminent Norwegian Breakaway.

ImageThen, there were the cabins with the famous curved walls, outside sinks, and separate bathroom/toilet configurations. These also remain unique to the Norwegian Epic and, I suspect, that will continue to remain the case. Some loved them, but many did not.

ImageBut it was strange how those same critics were, and in some cases still are, reluctant to give her credit for some startlingly successful innovations. The block of small, funky interior studios that she previewed have been runaway successes, and great kudos should go to the line for making cruising far more affordable to singles. These cabins- ‘mini me’ hotel rooms- have proved so popular, that they will be repeated in the next three new Norwegian ships. I hope more of them are retro-fitted across the fleet.

ImageSo successful have they been, in fact, that the likes of P&O and- whisper it- Royal Caribbean- have even been shoe horning in small handfuls of single cabins on some of their ships during annual refits. Shipping lines, take note; it’s a start, but not nearly anything like enough.

ImageBut the first thing that struck me about the Norwegian Epic -both at a pre- launch shipyard visit, and on her inaugural press cruise- was her extraordinary breadth. It allowed Frederik Johansson, chief architect for Tillberg in Sweden, to create a run of vast, vaulting public rooms on a series of arrow straight lines that run almost from bow to stern. It also allowed the creation of many more side venues, in the shape of numerous restaurants and bars, that are sleek, tasteful adjuncts to these main thoroughfares.

ImageJohansson also toned down the interiors in comparison to the playful, exuberant palette of the earlier Norwegian Gem and her predecessors. The ship feels far richer and, in places, much more like the transatlantic liners of old. This look is especially true of the Manhattan Room, a vast, New York styled restaurant cum dance venue, with a floor to ceiling glass wall overlooking the stern. You almost expect to hear Xavier Cugat (google him, kids) and his white- jacketed dance band start blaring out salsa at a moment’s notice. It is a singularly lovely room, and will also be reappearing on both the upcoming Breakaway and her sister, Norwegian Getaway, due to debut in January, 2014.

ImageOf course, the new ship unveiled an unheard of string of restaurants. More than twenty of them, with most attracting a not exactly earth shattering fifteen to twenty dollar surcharge to eat there. Understandably, many traditionalists railed at this but, truth be told, the passengers seem to love them. As a trend, extra fee dining is here to stay.

ImageThere were the old favourites, such as French accented Le Bistro and the fabulous Cagney’s Steakhouse, as well as a much enlarged version of the wildly popular Japanese Teppanyaki. But Norwegian took full advantage of the ship’s unprecedented interior handle to try some very new, cutting edge venues unheard of at sea before.

ImageThere was an ingenious, Spiegel style circus tent, with a bite menu and at-table magic demonstrations. The aforementioned Manhattan Room (no fee here, by the way) has dinner dances, and ‘legends’ tributes to the likes of Elton John, Tina Turner and Elvis Presley. There is a fantastic Brazilian steakhouse, Moderno Chrurassica, which has been such a success that it, too, will be rolled out onto the new ships.

ImageThe vast, traditional dining rooms of old, with their two settings, have been thrown overboard. In keeping with the company’s Freestlye Dining philosophy, there are smaller venues such as the chic, uptempo Tastes in the lobby, as well as 24/7 comfort food and a typical, pub-style atmosphere in O’Sheehans, with it’s snooker tables, bowling lanes, and the best fish and chips anywhere at sea. Like the enormous, forward facing Garden Cafe, these are all fee-free venues.

ImageDining as entertainment in itself has become an evolving theme at Norwegian, and one it does very well. But the real coup for Norwegian Epic has been in the concept and creation of an entertainment handle unequalled at sea; one every bit as sensational and groundbreaking as that pioneered aboard the Norway herself, back in 1980.

ImageWhere else but in Vegas could you see performances from the world famous Blue Man Group, and without the cover charge? The Epic also has the Moroccan-themed Bliss Ultra club disco, one of the true decorative aberrations in the overall, on board style.

ImageAnother hugely successful idea has been to take the night life outdoors, with the creation of Spice H20. This huge outdoor club looks like a terraced Roman theatre, and looks out over the stern of the ship. it has proved very popular with the late night crowd and, again, it is set to be replicated in the new ships.

ImageBack inside, there is a genuine Ice Bar, complete with freezing shots and fur coats, and a genuinely elegant Martini bar called Shakers, a popular reprise familiar from the previous Jewel Class sisters. On Epic, the planners have done a largely deft, wonderful job of keeping the sedate, sybaritic watering holes away from the more full on, late night venues. All things considered, it is quite an inviting mix in and of itself.

ImageThe huge outer decks are awash with pools, hot tubs, boardwalks and water slides on a stunning scale. Think Coney Island in it’s heyday, but with an up to date, irresistible vibe that majors on fun living out in the sun. Like many other ships of her ilk in this day and age, the Norwegian Epic is not a sedate, leisurely experience during the daylight hours.

ImageThe ship still has her detractors, and she always will. But she has been a tremendous success, spending her winters cruising the eastern and western Caribbean on alternating, seven day circuits out of Miami. Each spring, she crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona to operate a popular, if pedestrian, seven day round trip cruise to Italy and the French Riviera, before returning to Miami in mid autumn.

ImageAnd, though the ship will indeed remain very much a one off, there is a lot to be said for distinctiveness in the often uniform palette of contemporary cruising. Norwegian took some huge risks in building the Norwegian Epic. Some worked brilliantly, while others did not. But the ship has certainly been an inspired leap of faith. Twenty years down the line, it will be very interesting to see just how cruise commentators evaluate this massive, often thoughtlessly maligned ship.

CRYSTAL CLEAR- CRUISING AT ITS FINEST….

Crystal is a line defined by a simple logic. Offer the best of everything, in an environment that puts the emphasis on space, style and ease, with a range of world class dining, accommodation and entertainment. Top it up with a diverse, well travelled and amenable passenger mix, and then set it afloat around the world on a yearly basis. Sounds peachy, no?

The thing that Crystal does so well is to make it all look so effortless. The vibe on board both the line’s superlative ships-Crystal Serenity and Crystal  Symphony- can be equated to a subtle, slowly rolling river. Everything appears calm on the surface but, just out of sight, things are evolving, moving and morphing to suit the mood of the moment, and to heighten the experience of being on board one of the finest ships at sea anywhere.

Take a transatlantic crossing a few years back on Serenity. Not content with merely having their own excellent, in house orchestra on board, the line arranged for no less than twenty different jazz musicians to come aboard. Rather than having all structured sessions, they formed up as impromptu duos and trios to perform as the mood took. For ten days, Serenity was suffused with the sounds of swing, dixieland, ragtime and big band as she took on the surging Atlantic rollers en route to America. It was a brilliant example of bravado on the hoof, and it made for an unforgettable adventure.

Fast forward to the same ship, four years later. This time, we were sailing the kinder waters of the Mediterranean, from Istanbul right through to Barcelona. Crystal designated this as a ‘food and wine festival’ cruise.

Anyone who has sailed on Crystal will vouch for the line’s superlative quality of food. It is arguably the best at sea. But on this cruise, the veteran epicurean chefs were joined by a conga line of renowned food and wine experts, as well as a master cocktail mixologist whose displays and sessions were- as intended- pure theatre as much as enlightenment..

But nothing beat the chef’s special galley spread, laid out one day in Serenity’s gorgeous atrium. Words alone are inadequate to do justice to the scale, variety and sheer style of this incredible feast, but hopefully these pictures will give you some idea of the glut of culinary artwork that we enjoyed.

And sister ship Crystal Symphony can also lay on the panache with effortless ease. Boarding her last year, I ordered my usual bottle of Grey Goose vodka for the suite.  But even I was awed when my stewardess asked me if I would like a daily jug of cranberry juice to go with it.

That was a routine I had established on the same ship a couple of years earlier; a couple of late afternoon Cape Cods on the balcony, with some cold lobster to pick at. After a hard day wandering the hot spots of the summertime Aegean, it was pure bliss to just kick back on the balcony for an hour or so in a cool kimono

Crystal realised some time ago that ordinary, fluffy bathrobes can weigh too heavily on some. So they added kimonos for the really hot days. That’s an amazing bit of forward thinking. It seems a small detail- and indeed it is. But it is also hugely indicative of the mindset at work behind the scenes.

Both ships are now all inclusive, but even back in the old days, the amount of free goodies was quite something. One thing Symphony did particularly well was an amazing jazz brunch, held at noon on a sea day, and always in the main dining room.

It was all there; Chateaubriand with asparagus, cold cuts, diet defying desserts and low calorie, guilt assuaging options. Music was subtle and wonderful, with a talented trio filling the room with just the right ambient sound. And even the mimosas were complimentary.

This was not just one or two drinks; the champagne flowed- freely and free- for the full, two hour duration of this double edged feast of food and sound. At no stage was anyone approached with a bar check to sign. These brunches were very popular, which is no big surprise.

Both ships also serve late riser’s breakfast until 11.30, another savvy, appreciated little touch. There is a free ice cream bar that offers up a slew of Ben and Jerry’s finest- again at no charge- with a whole raft of tempting toppings that allow you to create your own ice cream masterpiece.

The ships also each boast a beautiful little upper deck bistro, with huge windows overlooking the sea on one side, and specially commissioned crockery made by Guy Buffet. A plethora of exotic teas are on offer- everything from Darjeeling to Green Tea, via Earl Grey. Naturally, this is complemented by a vast range of coffees and wines. A central food buffet features croissants, fresh fruit and cold cuts for breakfast, and is subtly altered to suit lunchtime and early evening whims. Again, all of this is complimentary.

It’s a spellbinding little place to spend an hour or so. There are current, high end magazines in the racks to browse over a cappuccino or a latte, or you could bring a book from one of the biggest and most extensive libraries afloat. And, if many of the teas are new to you, there is the time to experiment to your heart’s content. On my cruises, one visit a day seems to have become all but mandatory.

But all of this expansive largesse would be a waste of everybody’s time and effort, if not for the Crystal staff. From room service to department heads, the company exemplifies the very best of attentive, discreet hospitality. It is personable, yet never intrusive. Crystal hire staff based on attitude; the line believes (correctly) that a ‘can-do’ attitude can be trained up to do an excellent job. This simple, enlightened policy achieves amazing results in terms of flawless, polished presentation and service. The Crystal staff are proud of their ships and the flair they encapsulate. It goes almost without saying that the real beneficiaries of this policy are Crystal’s passengers. And that goes a long way towards explaining the company’s very high repeat rate of guests.

These are only a few of the salient points that mark out a Crystal voyage as such a fantastic and memorable experience. Within the warm, welcoming cocoon of space and style that is a Crystal ship, you will no doubt find, indeed keep on finding, your very own. In the words of the company’s own theme song from the immortal ‘Satchmo’- it really is very much a wonderful world. Enjoy!