CRUISING CONUNDRUMS; THE POTENTIAL FALL OUT FROM PUTIN

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Vladimir Putin’s Sudeten-esque power play in the Ukraine is potentially redolent with big implications for the 2014 cruise season. With the region slowly but steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, more and more lines were committing themselves to two, three and sometimes more departures in and around the region.

Most lines will now be hedging their options, or trying to read the situation as it unfolds; a stance about as practical as trying to stuff a cloud in a suitcase. And, while summer temperatures in that region can, indeed, be hot, I suspect the unwelcome heat of the moment will dampen the enthusiasm of many potential visitors over the next few months.

In the upper echelon, both Crystal and Azamara have plans to cruise the Black Sea. When it comes to adventure cruises, Voyages To Antiquity had a couple of round trip cruise tours scheduled for the Aegean Odyssey. But it is the main stream lines, such as Costa and MSC, that stand to be hardest hit by the current situation.

It may well be too early to state definitively yet just what the end result of Putin’s hard ball game will be; the principal Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta have always been popular draws. So, too, is Sochi, a city that would have been a landmark port for many after the recent winter Olympics.

Of course, Russian itineraries might already have been impacted to some extent by a gay backlash and boycott, the obvious consequence of Putin’s shocking acts of regressive demonisation, and the potential consequences of that alone could be significant. But as Russia keeps its foot firmly on it’s neighbours’ wind pipe, the residual, simmering world wide anxiety of the moment could well spread like a forest fire.

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

And it is not just the Black Sea that could take a hit. Summer time cruises in the Baltic are hugely popular, with a large number of ships- from the standard to the ultra luxury-  offering cruises that have overnight stays in Saint Petersburg as their main attractions. Some ships make a normal daytime visit, but by far the great majority stay from anything between one and three nights.

If things were to spiral further downward, and cruise lines start to boycott Russia’s star attraction, that would be hugely disappointing for many passengers. Admittedly, it would also put one hell of a dint in Russia’s local tourist economy. Not to mention triggering a sudden rush to find alternative ports, each for the most part woefully ill equipped to cope with the sudden potential tidal wave of cruise refugees.

Of course, all of this could be snuffed out as quickly and easily as a candle. Cold blooded, callous and calculating as he undoubtedly is, Vladimir Putin is not stupid. Money still talks louder than any of the sycophants whispering in his ear.

But it would be a very blase cruise line indeed that did not keep an ear to the ground, and a raft of options at least ready for launch. These are, indeed, scary times.

As always, stay tuned.

TRAVEL TRENDS TO WATCH OUT FOR IN 2014

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

With the last rites for 2013 about to be intoned, now is as good a time as any to look at some of the potential highlights on offer in what could be quite a shiny 2014. So, for your consideration, here are some of the more tasty prospects on offer across the cruise spectrum.

Expect Nile Cruises to make a slow but steady comeback in 2014. It was barely noticed, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently lifted it’s advisory on not travelling to Egypt, and the numerous river cruise operators on the Nile are gearing up to rebuild that shattered trade. Expect low initial prices, plenty of availability, and some of the most fascinating and ageless sightseeing anywhere on the planet.

The Black Sea is hugely under rated as a cruise destination, quite astonishing when you consider the wealth of attractions it can offer within a relatively short distance. With evocative names such as Sevastopol, Odessa and Yalta, the region is a historical glut. Offering such sights as the famous Swallow’s Nest at Yalta, and the field where the Light Brigade made it’s infamous, doomed charge, it should be on everybody’s ‘to do’ list at least once.

Voyages To Antiquity offer a couple of Black Sea cruises in 2014 on the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. With all excursions included in the price, and top quality lecturers on board to put the region in its proper historical context, this is definitely the way to go ‘back to the future’.

More historical reminiscence is on offer with the 40th Anniversary of D-Day in June. With lines as diverse as Cruise And Maritime, Fred. Olsen and even Holland America offering invasion themed itineraries, there will be no shortage of options to relieve the first few months in the story of Operation Overlord, and the eventual Allied breakout from Northern France.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless expansion of Caribbean cruise options gets another boost with the January debut of the new, Miami themed Norwegian Getaway. With a vibe and an on board lifestyle aimed at echoing the sultry, seductive ambiance of South Beach, the huge, new 154,000 ton ship will be cruising from Miami year round, and definitely ups the ante in terms of on board eateries, entertainment, and watering holes. She should be an absolute smash.

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Heading the other way, the enormous Oasis Of The Seas begins a brief European season in the early autumn, as she brackets a handful of Mediterranean cruises in with essential dry docking in Rotterdam. One of the two largest cruise ships ever constructed, the mold breaking leviathan is using the cruises as a series of obvious trial runs for future deployment of one of these ships in the more crowded ports of Southern Europe.

These are just a handful of the forthcoming highlights for 2014. No doubt many, many more will be unveiled over the course of the next few months or so. My advice, as ever, is to stay tuned.

OVERNIGHT STAYS IN PORT- THE PROS AND THE CONS

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

There was a time when the idea of keeping cruise ships in port overnight was absolute anathema to cruise ship owners. It meant the payment of more excessive docking fees to the local authorities, and there was always the potential revenue loss involved in passengers dining and partying ashore at nights. It was a double whammy that some lines fight tooth and nail to avoid for decades.

But there were some ports that offer such a wealth of attractions that a simple day time visit was nowhere near enough time to really see all the sights. Saint Petersburg, Hong Kong and Singapore were among an initial handful of ‘trophy ports’ where the lines were obliged to simply bite the bullet, and stay overnight. In the case of Saint Petersburg, the more deluxe lines can stay for up to three nights in succession.

As time has moved on and more new ships have come online, cruise lines have been looking to diversify right across the board. And some of the feedback indicated quite strongly that more and more passengers were in favour of more overnight stays on a cruise, especially in regions like the Mediterranean. Following the potential money trail, the lines had little choice but to play ball.

But as time went on, those same lines came to realise that certain economies of scale accrue from overnight stays. Port fees were often countered by the amount of fuel saved in being tied up at dock, and some shore excursions could even be run and sold  during the evening. And the chance of a welcome run ashore at the end of a busy working day was also a valuable morale booster for ship crews as well.  As long as a reasonable balance could be struck between these pros and cons, overnight stays could be made to work for all concerned.

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

A classic example has just been seen in the dropping by the Bermuda government of its age old ban on cruise ship casinos being open in ports. These are obviously a big source of revenue for the cruise lines, and Bermuda’s insistence that they remain closed certainly hurt the island’s cruise trade.

In the Far East, more erudite operations such as Voyages to Antiquity offer many overnight stays, including up to three nights in such fabled ports as Yangon. Saigon has evolved into a very popular overnight destination while, back in the Mediterranean, companies such as Azamara and Crystal now offer overnight stays in such idyllic spots as Sorrento. Kusadasi, Barcelona and even Monte Carlo.

For passengers, overnight calls allow for the possibility to see a destination in greater depth, and at a far more leisurely pace than that allowed by a typical ‘nine to five’ daylight stay. The possibility of being able to dine ashore at night builds in far more options- and therefore value- for potential passengers. Managed and promoted properly, cruise lines will, in future, find overnight stays to be far more of a positive benefit than an awkward accommodation. I expect to see many more in the future.

CRUISING AS AN EDUCATION?

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.

NEW ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY’S WINTER 2014-15 CRUISE PROGRAMME

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2104

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2014

Following on from the cancellation of this year’s scheduled programme of winter cruises, Voyages to Antiquity unveiled a carefully rethought season for next winter on September 9th.

A series of twelve cruise tours are scheduled between November 2014 and March 2015, and these will once again be carried out by the refurbished, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. The ship has recently benefited from the addition of some twenty six single cabins, making her a more affordable option for solo travelers interested in long range expedition voyages.

The cruises showcase a string of inaugural calls along east Africa, and each features an included three day, two night tour that takes in both Tsavo and Ambroseli national parks to savour the diverse array of wildlife this region is famed for.

In addition, there will be Indian Ocean cruises, intended to showcase such gems as Zanzibar, Mayotte, and the Seychelles and Maldive Islands,

There will also be a special India cruise, highlighting the showpieces of the fabled subcontinent, including the Taj Mahal, as well as an inclusive, five day land tour that takes in the highlights of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

After the success of her 2012 season, the Aegean Odyssey also makes a welcome return to the mystical lands of Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Here, the small size of the ship comes into its own, allowing her to dock right in the heart of such historic cities as Saigon and Yangon for overnight stays.

Most intriguing for me personally is an evocative adventure that takes in Indonesia and the Phillippines, allowing for the chance to get up close and personal to the legendary Komodo dragon, if you’re feeling particularly brave.

All things considered, this is a broad and sweeping schedule that allows passengers to take in such fabled sights as Angkor Wat, the imperious Taj Mahal and the glories of Shweydaggon, while also allowing some potentially idyllic downtime on the gorgeous blond beaches of the Maldives and the secluded, splendid Seychelles.

Aegean Odyssey operates as a comfortable, floating ‘home from home’ in the style of a casually informal country club, with a smart casual dress code. With a maximum of around 379 passengers, she offers open seating dining both indoors and alfresco, with complimentary beers and wines included at dinner.

The ship offers top rate guest lecturers on each itinerary, and all tours are included in the price of the package, as well as flights, pre or post cruise hotel stays, and all transfers. This is cerebral, in depth educational cruising, carried out in very fine style indeed.

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

It is also worth mentioning that all tours are carried out in small groups, and all passengers are supplied with ‘quiet boxes’ in their cabins. These allow you to hear your tour guides quite clearly at all times when you are off the ship exploring.

Brochure prices start at £3,150 for an eighteen day cruise tour for the season, based on inside cabins. These are fine but, if you can spring for it, I definitely recommend upgrading to one of the lovely, cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship. These are definitely worth the extra.

SMALL SOLUTIONS- ALTERNATIVES TO THE MEGA SHIPS

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.

GOING FORWARD- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY IN 2014

The Aegean Odyssey

The Aegean Odyssey

There’s a reassuring mix of the familiar and the fascinating in the newly announced Voyages to Antiquity programme for 2014, aboard the line’s small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey.

Familiar in the sense that all the creature comforts that have made the ship such an outstanding and appealing travel option are still there; things such as all shore excursions included, as well as beer and wine at dinner, plus a series of intriguing pre and post hotel stays in landmark cities such as Istanbul and Athens.

The new? That comes in the shape of new ports of call at Bodrum, and gorgeous Greek gems such as Syros and Kos. Owing to demand, the company is stepping up the number of its popular Black Sea itineraries to four in the 2014 season. One of these will also encompass the best of the Greek islands at the same time.

All told, the Aegean Odyssey will offer something like seventeen cruises from March through November, beginning with a sweeping, twenty eight day progress from Athens through to Istanbul, by way of the history and highlights of ancient Egypt. This should provide one of the most comprehensive exposes of both the Greek and Roman empires ever offered on such an inclusive basis.

These tie in with a pair of diverse itineraries that will put the focus firmly on both Athens and Istanbul. Like many options in the itinerary, these can be combined to make one outstanding long voyage.

Voyages to Antiquity is also offering some very attractive, low priced single supplements for the season. All cruises will feature the line’s usual high standard of in depth, on board lectures with experts in the fields of the history of the visited region. Coupled with the largely inclusive nature of the experience, and the sheer quality of the on board product, these cruises represent an outstanding return on the cost.

The entire Voyages to Antiquity operation is the brainchild of Gerry Herrod, fondly remembered in the cruise and leisure industry as the creator of both Ocean Cruise Lines and the legendary Orient Lines.

Aegean Odyssey is a low key, extremely comfortable ship, more than a bit akin to a floating country club. With a smart casual dress code and open seating dining either indoors or outside, she can access a great many smaller, more intriguing ports that bigger ships cannot enter. With a capacity of just 330 passengers, this is intimate, informed cruising for people more interested in feeding their minds than partying until daybreak.

GETTING TO KNOW GEORGE TOWN; THE PEARL OF PENANG

CNV00001Cruising in the waters of the Far East is far out in comparison to anywhere else you might have been. The entire region is such a vast melting pot of different creeds, religions and races that any attempt to pigeon hole it is bound to end in failure. The best thing to do is just go with an open mind, and absorb what you can.

I did a cruise out there just before Christmas, with Voyages to Antiquity aboard their stylish little Aegean Odyssey (see previous blogs). Each of the ports was a show stopper in its own right, but it was quite nice to go back to Penang after an absence of a few years.

CNV00010The capital of George Town was established by a British trader, Francis Light, back in 1786. The most obvious relic of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2008) is the squat, grey walled fastness of Fort Cornwallis, with its brooding battlements and ancient cannon still jutting out to sea.

Much of the architecture of the public buildings still has a very old English feel. The Queen Victoria clock tower in the city centre, the railway station and the many grand, overly fussed hotels give parts of George Town the look and feel of a perfectly manicured Victorian theme park. But you don’t have to look far to find some jarring contrasts.

CNV00025A series of spindly, hugely overcrowded jetties loom out into the waters of the harbour. Here, many of the local Chinese and Malay natives live, work and socialise together. Wooden boardwalks tack off at crazy angles, while small Buddhist shrines appear almost everywhere, and the scent of incense floods the humid air at certain times of the day. Here, children are educated, fed, clothed and bathed on a series of rickety piers, festooned with old tyres and capped with thatched roofs. Shops thrive, tourists come to visit. Markets abound, full of fresh local produce that attracts locals and lotus eaters alike. It’s a mad, slightly claustrophobic cacophony of sight, smell and sound, and one not easily forgotten, either.

CNV00033Wander a little further north, and you enter a neighbourhood of buildings blackened by decades of smoke from traffic exhausts and local fires.Colonnaded archways provide shade for baskets overflowing with fresh fruit, sweets and spices. Tuk tuks splutter along the woefully ill tended roads; pavements here are almost non existent, and real care needs to be taken when walking here. But the sights and sounds are fascinating; a sharp, piquant counterpoint to all the chocolate box cuteness of downtown.

CNV00034This part of town is gritty rather than gilded, but this is how people work and live every day. Stacks of bottled water wrapped in bubble plastic stand outside shop doorways, while men in boiler suits inside make shift garages try to kick start antiquated cars one last time. Roadside cafes made up of rickety, grimy tables and plastic chairs are filled to overflowing, while the local peanut stalls do a roaring trade.

CNV00038There’s the cry of a baby and a supine, uncaring cat, curled up in the shade as the early afternoon heat homes in like a laser beam. Lines chock full of washing hang limp between the shutters of gaping, blackened windows. There are shrines in vibrant, electric shades and idle, barely ruffled street awnings that yawn above hopelessly pitted pavements. Motor scooters appear like angry, maddened swarms of mosquitoes. Again, there’s the aroma of incense, hanging in the air like fine perfume.

CNV00040CNV00045It’s an eclectic, engaging slice of life but, after a while, it becomes strangely uniform, even when enlivened here and there by huge, screaming red swathes of signage in Chinese that adds a  surreal splash of colour to those gaunt, grimy walls and buildings. But after a while, enough is enough.

CNV00056Being a creature of habit, I wander slowly back to the more gentrified part of town. As I walk into the air conditioned opulence of the waterfront bar on the Queen Elizabeth II pier, I do feel pangs of guilt. It is unlikely that many of the locals can afford the prices here. But compared to home, it is still amazingly cheap. The views are outstanding, the beer cold, and the air conditioning is truly a godsend.

And, after all, I’m a traveller. And this is just how I happen to roll.

ANZAC WAR GRAVES, GALLIPOLI

ImageThe summer of 2011 gave me a rare and very welcome opportunity to visit the ANZAC war graves on the Gallipoli Penninsula, in Turkey. As an Australian by birth and a lover of military history by choice, I have always been awed and amazed by the incredible bravery displayed by both sides during what I still believe to have been one of the most brutally misconceived military adventures of the war of 1914-18.

ImageThe history of the botched landings, and the subsequent battle of attrition is well enough known not to repeat here. It would also require the labours of a more accomplished historian than myself. Suffice to say that the Australian and New Zealand forces found themselves pinned to a few stretches of narrow, open beaches for months on end, in searing heat, and confronted by a Turkish army that fought with the suicidal desperation to be expected of men defending their own soil. 

ImageFor months, the air was rent with a series of brutal artillery bombardments, as Allied warships in the bay belched flame, smoke and steel death at the entrenched Turks. Attack after attack was mounted with a bravery that defies either logic or description.Snipers ruled the day. Yet the Turks hung on and, eventually, common sense prevailed. The beach heads were evacuated in a series of brilliant feints at night; silence returned to the Gallipoli shoreline.

ImageANZAC casualties had been enormous. All told, the twenty one cemeteries on the Gallipoli beach fronts contain the remains of around twenty-two thousand men. Of these, less than half were ever actually identified. Many are interred at the famous cemeteries, such as Lone Pine. The atmosphere there has to be felt to be adequately described.

ImageWe stopped off here from the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey, during our Voyages to Antiquity cruise from Athens through to Istanbul. From the port of Canakkale, coaches and a short ferry ride took us to the site of that ancient, blood soaked battleground.

ImageToday, those same beaches where so many men lost their lives are silent, serene, and more than a little sad. A wistful kind of uneasy peace hangs over them like fine mist, but the only sound on our visit was nothing more deadly than that of gentle surf, drumming on the sand beneath my feet.

ImageAnd, of course, there are the graves. Row upon row of brilliant white markers, springing like molars from the ground. Rank after rank after rank, arranged with military precision. Even in death, the ANZAC troops were clearly expected to display a posthumous discipline.

ImageYou would need a heart of stone not to be swamped by a tidal wave of different emotions. Pride, anger and, above all, pity for a whole raft of needlessly lost youth, fetched up forever on the shores of a foreign country, far from home and loved ones. Did I cry? Hell, yes. How could you not? The sheer beauty of the scene combines with the futility of the past to knock you sideways.

ImageIt is not an easy thing to see, but the bravery of those incredible men required nothing else. We, after all, were going back to a very comfortable and well run ship. They never got the opportunity to go anywhere but right here.

ImageWhat makes it even more poignant is the obvious care, respect and gentility shown to the fallen ANZAC troops by their Turkish opposite numbers. After the war, they worked diligently with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to create a series of apt, beautifully manicured cemeteries and memorials. The result is this string of stunning last posts for the fallen thousands who flocked to the King’s colours, and died on a foreign field, far from home.

ImageSo, for the curious who might wonder about these sights, here are the pictures I took on a beautiful summer’s day, two years ago. If you are wondering whether it is worth making the journey, I would certainly say ‘yes’. The Turkish people are incredibly kind and generous hosts. In many ways, they were also dragged by events into fighting a war that they neither wanted, nor could afford. They are very conscious that the young men on both sides suffered a common fate, and they bear no animosity.

ImageMost of the physical scars that littered this once ravaged landscape have now healed. Butterflies flit skittishly through the remains of old trenches where men once fought and died. The flowers, the fauna and the sheer beauty of the place returned a long time ago. 

ImageThere is something incredibly cathartic about visiting this hallowed ground. Moving, disturbing and yet, ultimately, incredibly life affirming, Gallipoli and its cemeteries beg for your attention. Those interred forever in this peaceful, rolling patchwork quilt overlooking the sparkling sea deserve absolutely nothing less.ImageImageImageImageImage

AEGEAN ODYSSEY-A GREAT LITTLE FIND

CNV00029Gerry Herrod’s latest small ship creation is something of a finely polished jewel. At only 12,000 tons, the Aegean Odyssey is the perfect ship for summer cruises in the Mediterranean, as well as an excellent winter season spent out in the Far East.

A big, big advantage for history lovers is that all tours are included in the price. Each passenger has their own ‘quiet box’ that lets them hear their tour guide quite clearly, no matter how far away he or she may actually be. It’s a smart bit of thinking; indicative of the thought and effort that has gone into the whole project.

Most cruises encapsulate one or more overnight stays in port; perfect for a little late night people watching in Mykonos, Sorrento or Kusadasi. This allows you to get a little more ‘under the skin’ of a destination, rather than just seeing the fabled sights and relics. It’s also a definite plus when compared to the conventional, seven day ‘Meddy-go-rounds’ of the usual mega ships. These usually only stay in port until tea time and, often as not, can’t get into the kind of small, sweet places that the nimble little Aegean Odyssey can snuggle up to.

This was shown to stunning effect when we docked in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, for a three day stay last December. Sailing a full sixty miles up the meandering Irrawaddy, the Aegean Odyssey pirouetted as neatly as a swan to dock right on the front street of the capital. The ease of access was incredible; no big ship could ever have made that same berth.

Better still, each cruise includes a two night pre or post cruise hotel stay. Our Mediterranean cruise finished with two nights at the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Istanbul, and this really rounded out  a super journey. With two full days to peruse one of the most fabulous cities in the world, this is a real winner and, indeed, could be a true deal breaker for some. I could have spent the entire time in the hotel spa. Maybe next time…

CNV00018To top it all, the Aegean Odyssey herself is exquisite. There is free wine, beer and soft drinks included at dinner each night. The cabins were greatly expanded by deleting every third one of the originals, and then knocking down the walls to create much larger, more commodious spaces.

My cabin on both trips had excellent quality bedding, and a gorgeous little cove balcony worked into the hull, complete with canvas chairs and a small table. It was a sweet little spot to return to after a day’s touring the stunted magnificence of Ephesus, or the soaring limestone escarpments that litter the waters off the coast of Phuket. Sunsets were mellow viewed from here, and sometimes the opportunity to enjoy a late night cap under a blanket of stars was just too good to resist.

Food on both cruises was very good to excellent. The Aegean Odyssey offers open seating, with many passengers opting for the stunning, outdoor ‘Tapas on The Terrace’ with its side orders of warm sea breezes and mellow moonlight. Quality and presentation was of a very high standard and, as on all of Herrod’s previous ships, great emphasis is placed on the style and the quality of service. No complaints at all in that department.

That service was always deft, gracious and heartwarming. A superb Filipino staff combines with a low number of passengers- usually a maximum of three hundred and seventy- to provide a consummate, quite personalised experience. Other lines could learn a lot from this approach.

Physically, the ship is muted and tasteful; shorn of screaming colours and the trappings of the modern mega ships. Aegean Odyssey is  a quiet ship at night- you’re unlikely to find anybody up and around after midnight- but that’s so obviously not the kind of market that they aim for here.

CNV00052In short, the Aegean Odyssey is a small diamond. Beautifully styled and handsomely served, she wafts passengers effortlessly from one jaw dropping vista to another without fuss, but always with considerable style and charm.

As an in depth cruise experience goes, I can’t recommend this charming little lady highly enough.