BOUDICCA- CAPE TOWN LANDFALL

TM
Table Mountain, also known as the Tafelberg to native Afrikaans

While this entire, exotic sea safari had a score of memorable moments and sights, it was the grand finale of arriving in Cape Town, and then spending three days and two nights there, that had really sealed the deal on this epic adventure in the first place.

Our final South African landfall was achieved with careful, studied grace. At around noon, Boudicca came within sight of land, as a string of jagged, seemingly arid peaks and hillsides shimmered in the searing mid day heat. And the realisation of how close our last, most spectacular landfall now was, just made the adrenaline flow like tap water. I stood there as though welded to the deck, with my jaw scraping the tops of my shoes.

Table Mountain emerged from this vivid, moving dreamscape like some vast aircraft carrier that had just come swaggering over the horizon. And, while some of the world’s most famous sights flatter to deceive in terms of scale (think New York’s Statue of Liberty, or Copenhagen’s diminutive Little Mermaid), the vast, looming bulk of Table Mountain-or Tafelberg, to give it the actual Afrikaans name- truly was every bit as impressive as it had always been billed.

As we slowed and swung inland and the harbour pilot came bustling on board, the great, brooding brute of a mountain seemed to be coming straight at me. Massive, black and menacing, it flooded the horizon in both directions, fanning out like some relentless Roman phalanx of old. Before I knew it, Boudicca was slowly nudging up to her berth amid the Cape Town harbour bustle, and our final South African landfall had been quietly achieved.

Table Mountain and I had an appointment in the morning, one I had made at the age of just six years old.  Now, saddled with my pronounced fear of heights, I still had to honour that long held appointment. My feelings were well and truly mixed; it felt like watching somebody that I truly despised going over a cliff in my brand new Rolls Royce Corniche.

To put it into perspective, the famous, flat top summit of Table Mountain extends for almost two full miles from side to side. It shears a full 3,558 feet into the cobalt blue South African summer sky from the ground. Famously, it is  a haven for a whole raft of fabulous fauna and brush and, as part of the larger Table Bay National Park, it is a world renowned sanctuary for local wildlife.

But these are mostly materialistic drum rolls; actually ascending that implacable old brute is something else entirely, and I have wanted to do it ever since I was a kid. On our included shore excursion from Boudicca, a coach took us on a slow, winding drive that embraced at least a part of that climb. But then we got to the brace of cable cars that make the greater part of that ascent, and that was when my own, very personal moment of truth arrived.

Noe those cable cars are both circular in shape, with windows large enough to afford fantastic views of both ascent and descent for those with nerve enough to face it. What I hadn’t counted on was that each of those cable cars also rotates as it makes the journey. It was a realisation that did not improve my resolve by one jot but, none the less I got into a summit bound car, sat in the middle, and prayed to God that I would not make an idiot of myself.

I need not have worried; that ascent was gentle, and spellbinding to such a degree that my normal fear of heights vanished like so much winter snow. I was too fascinated by the entire, unfolding panoply of glinting, jagged peaks, arrayed against that sparkling blue seascape, to indulge in fear of any kind. The sum effect of that whole majestic, magnificent panorama was like being awake in some particularly vivid dream.

And we got lucky that day, too; ‘no ‘table cloth’  of fluffy white clouds obscured the view from that vast, surprisingly uneven summit. You could quite literally see for miles. And what views they were, too.

Below us, the entire, magnificent sweep of Cape Town lay splayed out like the contents of some fantastic toy box. Buses looked like tiny bugs, scuttling along cotton thin tracts of road, moving up and around hair pin bends. Around my feet, lizards ran helter skelter for some cover from the mid day sun, and small, furry Jerboas scuttled for the shade of any nearby rocks.

On the mountain itself, deep, jagged ravines tumbled unstoppably down into the sea, their slopes studded with pine trees that seemed to cling on desperately for dear life. Random, dislodged boulders stood like so many upturned molars that had somehow been uprooted many centuries ago. At once both mighty and mute, they gave some kind of perspective to this lofty, sprawling expanse of legendary real estate, where the sky and the land really do seem to commune. It is impossible to remain unmoved by this stunning natural wonderland; for me, Table Mountain has more real magic than all of Walt Disney’s theme parks put together.

The descent was gradual, graceful, and tinged with more than a bit of exhilaration. I had come to the mountain, and the mountain had not prevailed. The realisation of a fifty plus year old dream is a summit of another kind and yes, I felt pretty good about myself right at that moment.

Back aboard Boudicca in the late afternoon, and I’m sitting outside at the Marquee Bar on Deck Nine, nursing some glacially chilled South African Chardonnay. The demisters are on full, forming a calming, welcoming cloud of blissfully cooling haze around me. Almost instinctively, some thoughtful crew member distributes fresh fruit skewers that seem like manna from Heaven.

Above me, Table Mountain looms just as before. But now the damned think looks much kinder, more mellow; almost benign in fact. And, if I didn’t know better, I could have sworn that the grizzled old brute was smiling at me.

So it would have been rude, very rude indeed, not to raise my glass and toast it back. And rudeness, while always a no no, is even more so when you’re a guest in somebody else’s country.

Advertisements

BOUDICCA AROUND SOUTH AFRICA: AN AFTERNOON AT THE OYSTER BOX HOTEL

OB

When touring the vast, open expanses of South Africa, the mind logically conjures up images of great, open game reserves and majestic, prowling wild life, or the fabulous beaches and stunning, mountainous beauty of Cape Town, Fransschoek and Stellenbosch.

So it came as something of a delightful change to tour the rugged, beautiful coastline of Umhlanga, just a short, fifteen minute drive from the port of Durban, where the Boudicca lay docked. It’s a special, quite splendid places, where the massive rollers of the Indian Ocean drum the shore line that winds along and below Durban’s most exclusive suburbs. Our coach rolled past a mesmerising series of gorgeous vistas, where winding mountain roads sit in the shade of vast, jagged escarpments that loomed sharp and black against a powder blue sky. It was muggy that sultry summer afternoon, and it gradually grew slightly overcast, but we had an appointment with some serious, platinum chip hedonism that made the journey well and truly worthwhile.

The Oyster Box Hotel sits atop a gently sloping promontory like something straight out of a Walt Disney fable. It’s a glorious, exquisitely detailed little wedding cake of a hotel, all white exteriors, black and white chequered floors, glittering mirrors and vast, impassive chandeliers that hold sway above a scene straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. You expected Hercule Poirot and a full, Palm Court orchestra to appear at any given moment.

The gardens leading down to the hotel’s private beach are perfectly primped, immaculately manicured, and wonderfully alluring. At water’s edge a small, red and white lighthouse stands against the flaring, burnt umber smear of the setting afternoon sun. There’s a vast, azure blue swimming pool, and an avalanche of perfectly poised comfortable furniture to just sag into. There’s space to breathe and grace to achieve a state of pampered, indolent bliss.

And, if I had succumbed to all of this, I would have missed out on Afternoon Tea. And that really would have been a shame.

A vast, colourful spread of everything imaginable, from prime cuts of meat to seriously decadent macaroons, was rolled out like some startling, multi hued carpet under those vast chandeliers. Cakes the size of small coastal cities loomed like Table Mountain over a sea of exotic fruits, cheeses and pastries that easily constituted a full meal in its own right. It all looked too delightful to devour, but too decadent to resist. Truth be told, I folded like so much wet cardboard, and went at it like a cavalry charge.

And it’s all done with such subtle, understated taste. Naturally, there’s a glass of vibrant, frothy bubbly served first, just to set the tone. The tea ceremony- and ceremony it is- is  hushed, casual decadence served up with a smile, and there’s no shortage of choices, either.

Once seated and ministered to in one of the gorgeous little salons that adjoin the main lobby way, people simply went and helped themselves to the open glut of goodies that lay just across the hall. Some of them did so repeatedly; at least one man I saw made more round trips than the QE2 did Atlantic crossings. It was almost as if he’d actually done it before.

Naturally, there was perfectly chiming piano music drifting around in the background, and a battery of smiling waiters and waitresses serving both us and the guests lounging outside on the terrace, as they watched the steel grey rollers of the Indian Ocean drumming the beach from over the rims of their tea cups. It’s at once both serene and surreal; the whole experience fosters an air of languid, lazy contentment that’s plainly visible across everybody’s faces.

One lady was heard to remark that it was ‘just like the Ritz’ but, in truth, the Oyster Box has a stance and a feel more akin to Reid’s Hotel on Madeira; a little oasis of primped, platinum chip prestige where the views out over the ocean are as much a feast for the sense as all the gooey, garrulous gluttony draped out under those chandeliers just indoors.

Leaving the Oyster Box was almost physically painful, but my mood brightened as we returned to the harbour, and Boudicca hove back into view. Twilight had begun to descend like a slow crash dive across Durban’s busy harbour, and Boudicca was now lit up like some shimmering, brilliant Christmas tree, with her serried tiers of lights dancing across the ink black waters of the port.

Her single, beautifully sculpted funnel stood sharp and proud against the dying light of the day, looming like some kid of welcoming beacon for the returning bus load of sated Oyster Box refugees. Already, dinner was in the offing, and the first passengers were sauntering into the run of bars along Deck Six for their pre-dimmer cocktails.

Soon enough, there was the gentle rumble of the engines coming to life, and the subtle splash of our morning ropes being dropped into the water from the quayside as we stood slowly out into the starry evening. From somewhere, a piano rolled into some scarce remembered refrain, as car headlights along the coast glowed like a swarm of agitated glow worms. From on board, the ship’s siren boomed out across the bay with a warm bellowing roar that elicited a string of responses from the freighters, tugs and fishing boats that sat shackled to the nearby quays.

Another adventure was dropping slowly, gracefully astern, but I knew that others- perhaps even more quirky, exotic and beguiling- lay just over the same horizon that we were now surging towards.

 

CELESTYAL MAJESTY GREEK ISLANDS AND TURKEY CRUISE

MAJ

 

 

M/V Celestyal Majesty, 40,000 tons, passenger capacity approximately 1400.

Built by Wartsila shipyard, Finland in 1992 as the Royal Majesty for Crown Cruise Line. Sold to Norwegian Cruise Line in 1997 and renamed as Norwegian Majesty. 1999, lengthened with the addition of a new midsection. 2008: sold to Louis Cruise Lines and, after a brief stint as the Louis Majesty, was chartered out to Thomson Cruises as the Thomson Majesty. 2017, returned to owners Celestyal Cruises (nee Louis Cruises) and renamed as the Celestyal Majesty.

ITINERARY:

Monday, April 23rd: Piraeus, Athens: Dep. 1100

Monday, April 23rd: Mykonos: Arr. 1745 dep. 2300

Tuesday, April 24th: Kusadasi: Arr. 0700 dep. 1230

Tuesday, April 24th: Patmos: Arr. 1645 dep. 2200

Wednesday, April 25th: Rhodes: Arr. 0800 dep. 1800

Thursday, April 26th: Heraklion: Arr. 0700 dep. 1230

Thursday, April 26th: Santorini: Arr. 1630 dep. 2230

Friday, April 27th: Piraeus, Athens: Arr. 0700

 

AZA-MAZING FUTURE PROSPECTS FROM AZAMARA

AZJ
The gorgeous Azamara Journey

Not simply content with becoming a three ship fleet as of September 2018, deluxe, all inclusive boutique cruise line, Azamara Club Cruises, is embarking on a veritable raft of new adventures for the up and coming 2020 cruise season.

Firstly, all three of the line’s trio of svelte, 30,000 ton sister ships- Azamara Journey, Azamara Quest and Azamara Pursuit- will rendezvous for the first time ever in the spectacular natural setting of Koper, in Slovenia, on October 8th, 2020. One of the line’s famed, late night AzAmazing Experiences will be the spectacular prelude to all three ships setting sail in unison for Venice. This alone should be an auspicious, first time event.

But it’s the scale- and the statistics- of that 2020 season itself that are truly spectacular. Guests contemplating/anticipating the all inclusive Azamara experience might want to contemplate some of the following:

  • Ninety-two cruises in total, offered across all three ships
  • No less than forty-one maiden calls
  • 170 overnight port stays
  • 303 late night port stays
  • Forty full, country intensive itineraries

With a three ship fleet, the range and depth of offerings is significantly enhanced, too. For the first time ever, Azamara Club Cruises will offer some exclusive South African itineraries-ideal for ships of this size- that include truly immersive travel programmes highlighting the extensive wine regions around Cape Town, and the exotic Zulu culture on offer from Richards Bay. Among other options will be game drives, and even overnight stays ashore in some of the more auspicious safari parks.

Equally evocative in it’s own way is an eighteen night maiden foray to stunning Hawaii, and the picture perfect idylls of French Polynesia such as Tahiti and Bora Bora.

And, of particular note to true platinum chip sybarites, Azamara Quest will embark on the line’s second world cruise on February 20th, 2020, embarking in Cape Town and ending in Southampton.

How to get the best out of all three ships in one go? You might want to consider the quite remarkable, 42 night voyage from Athens to Copenhagen. It commences on May 26th, 2020, and literally allows you to travel on all three of these celebrated siblings.

Now that’s truly living……..

CELESTYAL MAJESTY PART EIGHT: THE BOTTOM LINE

Concluding the Greek Islands adventure…..

MAJ

With our short but sweet four night cruise a bit of a distant memory, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the whole, overall experience. At the time of travelling, it’s so intense, so full on, that any realistic evaluation is hard to come to.

Of course, it’s destination heavy, with a potential six ports of call over some four days. Most of those calls are four or five hour snapshots, but they do give you enough time to get a flavour of the places themselves.

Think of this cruise as being more like a tapas menu, rather than a full, sit down, five course meal. Pick at the bits you want, and simply recharge for the rest of the time. For instance, we didn’t get off the ship at Heraklion- not out of any disrespect for the port, but simply because we felt the need to rest and recharge after a full day spent on Rhodes the day before. And, with the imminent ‘Grand Finale’ coming up at Santorini just a few hours down the line, some quality down time spent on the ship was definitely a wise decision.

The beauty here lies in the flexibility of your choices; you can take or leave places- much like sampling a tapas plate- and thus build the kind of trip that appeals to you personally the most. Even on a short trip, this is still your leisure time. Pace it to suit yourself.

THE SHIP:

At around 40,000 tons, the Celestyal Majesty was the perfect sized ship for cruising the more intimate waters of the Greek Islands. Food in the main dining room was served open seating, just as it was at the two main, upper deck buffets. The food  options in all three venues are broadly similar.

The food was fresh, plentiful, and with very good taste in general; it also had a pronounced Mediterranean accent at times, an obvious- and appreciated- attempt to showcase the varied, vibrant cuisine of the region that we were sailing through.

There’s also a more exclusive, extra charge restaurant that offers bespoke dining in a more intimate environment. Located on Deck Five, Le Bistro costs around 20 euros a head. My recommendation? Try the surf and turf; at that price, it’s an absolute steal.

Though the ship was not short of entertainment venues, we almost inevitably graduated to the aft located Polo Club each night, where the top notch entertainment and spot on bar and waiter service kept us happy until the small hours of the morning on most nights. On any cruise, most passengers find one particular, late night bar that they keep going back to, and this one proved to be ours.

Deck space was plentiful on our short trip. We never had problems grabbing either a table, or a couple of sun beds. On sea days, if the upper deck does get crowded, you might want to head down to the promenade on Seven Deck, where you’ll find no shortage of sun loungers stacked near the shade of the lifeboats. It’s a great spot for watching the passing scenery unfold.

We had a cabin on that same deck, and the location is hard to beat. It was an outside room, with twin beds that can convert to a double if needed. There’s a shower and toilet, and ample wardrobe space. In all, these come in at around 170 square feet, and they are more than fine for these short cruises.

You also have the option of going for the smaller outside and inside cabins on Deck Three and Deck Four; these are cheaper but, obviously, you lose a bit of floor space. On the other hand, you’re probably not going to be in that room for very long, in any event. And, as the on board dress code is smart casual to match the itinerary (and the feel of being in the Greek Islands) you won’t need to pack a lot, either.

There are also a few balcony cabins on Deck Eight, and a handful of luxurious, quite roomy suites with balconies forward on Deck Nine. If you’re celebrating a special anniversary- or just looking to maximise your chill out time on board the ship- then one of these could well be a sweet little treat.

Overall, this entire package is pretty damned compelling. It has warmth, charm, excitement, history, hedonism, and a certain degree of effortless elegance about it. And it’s all quite beautifully presented. Highly recommended, as it gifts you so much in such a short space of time. More, in fact, than a great many people get to see over the course of an entire lifetime.

In one word? Delicious.

 

CELESTYAL MAJESTY PART SEVEN: AN EVENING ON SANTORINI

SANTORINI
Santorini at sunset

Our final port of call appeared on the horizon to embrace us in mid afternoon. Quite literally, as it turns out.

The Celestyal Majesty first slowed, and then deftly threaded her way between the twin, outstretched arms of the headland of Santorini. In fact, we were sailing through the gap where a catastrophic explosion had blown out the entire side of a vast, brooding volcano, one rumoured to be the site of the legendary, ‘lost city’ of Atlantis, many centuries ago. The glass waters that we sailed through with such supine calm had long since flooded the entire crater of this mute beast.

The evidence of Santorini’s violent past was literally all around us. A two hundred and seventy degree wall of volcanic rock loomed ever larger above the ship, the rim encrusted with what looked like frosted ice at intervals, sat atop some vast, improbable wedding cake. In fact, these are the twin towns of Thira, the capital, and Oia, arguably the prettier of the two.

As we nudged ever closer, the late afternoon sun glinted against that implacable facade, turning the stone grey monster into dazzling shades of red, white, burnt umber, green, and even gold. Long shadows glanced across this ancient bay that had been born of such mercurial violence. I mused idly that our ship must have looked like a toy from up on the lofty heights of Thira.

Soon we’re in a tender, bumbling across the sparkling briny towards a gaggle of motor coaches that sit hunched in the shade of a sun splashed quayside. We board, and begin a slow circuit of the lower half of Santorini, one that gradually takes on a spectacular ascent.

We motor past vineyards clinging grimly to the hillsides, and on past a brace of black, volcanic sand beaches that form a stark contrast to the stunning blue hue of the Aegean that laps almost apologetically at them. Onward and upwards, around spine tingling hair pin bends whose latent terror is only partially neutered by the stunning sky and seascapes now unfolding all around us.

But oh, my, the summit of Santorini is worth all of this…

We debark to see a trio of silent church bells, suspended in a white tower that stands sharp and proud against the early evening sky. There are the inevitable water sellers, and the spine tingling fragrances of hibiscus, jasmine and oleander. A couple of old Tavernas boast rickety wooden tables and chairs in a riot of different colours; they seem to be well patronised by the locals.

And now it’s time for what may well be the ultimate promenade; a gentle saunter among the lofty, brilliantly white washed streets of Oia. There’s a mishmash of tourist shops and high end stores, plus restaurants and bars on parapets that actually seem to be suspended directly above the volcano itself. There are thousands of people, mingling and milling about in these winding, communal tourist traps. Yet the jaw dropping, heart stopping views come without a price tag.

Down below, a haphazard jumble of stone washed white houses, hotels and bars seems to run helter skelter, right down into the Aegean itself. It looks like one vast, riotous explosion of light and beauty that tumbles ever downward at it’s own pace. But it’s the details that really stay in the mind.

Here and there, a small pool nestles in the shade of a courtyard. Some places have over water Jacuzzis. Every so often, the brilliant blue dome of a local church splinters the gorgeous skyline. Some have deck chairs, situated in perfect solitude. Here and there, an ornamental wheelbarrow or similar style of sculpture stands sharp and clear against the evening twilight.

And as the sun begins to sag lethargically behind the caldera, the tone becomes more hushed, awed even. Those brilliant white buildings become a shade of blush, rose red as the sun kisses their smooth facades, casting the entire scene in a wash of gorgeous, powder pink light. On the horizon at Thira, the first evening lights begin to blink like startled glow worms, shining down on the water so far below.

It’s an impossibly mellow mood and moment, with a cold beer to hand, and the best seats in what amounts to the most perfect gallery box ever crafted by Mother Nature. But no man made opera house on Earth can put on a show as spectacular as this one. It’s almost as if Mother Nature is trying to atone for what she did to this beautiful island all those centuries ago.

Somewhere, a startled dog snarls a sleepy growl at an overly friendly tourist. I can vaguely hear the opening bars of My Cherie Amour kicking in from somewhere nearby, as the setting sun glances almost shyly on the waters of the caldera. And the Celestyal Majesty does, indeed, look like a toy boat way down there. Her lights are beginning to come on, and she looks like some incredibly alluring water beetle down on the darkening waters.

An hour later, and our tender is racing back across the ink black briny, kicking up a girdle of foam as the sudden, immense bulk of the ship looms almost directly above us. Now wrapped in that same darkness, the hillside lights of Thira and Oia twinkle like stars, smiling down on us. The air is still as warm as toast and, back on board, one last night of food and fun awaits.

CELESTYAL MAJESTY PART SIX: A SPRING AFTERNOON IN RHODES TOWN

ROT

With our morning in Lindos done and dusted, it was time to return to the air conditioned calm of the Celestyal Majesty for lunch.

We grabbed a quick, but much needed bite at the upper deck Piazza San Marco, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. And, while many people simply elected to stay on the ship for the afternoon, our proximity to it’s beating heart made a wander around old Rhodes Town an irresistible prospect.

Even though most of the big cruise ships had yet to arrive in the region, Rhodes Town was thronged with tourists from across a whole raft of nationalities. It’s a busy, vibrant, buzzing place to visit at almost any time of year and, like any place full of tourists, Rhodes Town has plenty of tourist traps.

Some of the fakery on sale varies from fabulous to farcical. You can buy a ‘genuine’ Rolex, or a ‘real’ suit of armour, as previously worn by one of the Knights Templar themselves. Presumably, the property of one careful owner….

There’s some hustle for sure, but it’s mostly pretty good natured stuff along those winding lanes full of open fronted shops that flank the serpentine, snake like paths that run through the town like it’s very life blood. There are bars, restaurants and cafes everywhere, with their owners only too happy to extend an invite to passing tourists to come and sample their wares. And it often works, too; scores of sunburned tourists sag gratefully into seats in these honey traps like so many puppets with their strings cut. The ground around their feet becomes a slowly rising tide of shopping bags. Food, cold beer and the deadly local ouzo appear table side, as if by magic. The bustle is contagious, and it seems almost borderline mayhem. But for the cafe owners and waiters, it all runs as perfectly as a Swiss watch; they play this moving, milling throng like conductors of an orchestra.

All of this colourful, cosmopolitan carnage could absorb your attention like a sponge, if you didn’t look above it, beyond it.  But, when you do, you get to see the real Rhodes Town; the city of myth and legend whose very sinews still stand all around you like so many random exclamation marks, just as they have done since the Fourteenth Century.

Above the street that contains the huge, rebuilt palace of the Grand Masters, a pair of vast, crenellated twin towers scowl across the ages like ancient guard dogs. They jut out like angry, clenched fists at the head of the winding, cobbled lanes of the old town, where the Knights Templar once fought to the death against the invading Ottoman Turks. Rhodes did not fall easily to the invaders; the Knights fought with the desperation of men who felt that they had no way out, though ultimately their surviving rump was granted safe passage to Malta.

A cat sleeps on the seat of a motor scooter left standing in the shade of some ancient, stone stairway that leads up to a jagged line of battlements, seared almost blinding white by centuries of exposure to relentless Aegean sunshine. Children eat ice cream and chase each other around a centuries old fountain that dominates a square long since flooded with cafes, bars and restaurants. The louvred stone arches of a long since vandalised old church stand in the shade of clusters of fragrant wisteria blooms and citrus groves. Rows of gnarled olive trees provide shelter for old men as they enjoy an afternoon playing chess. From somewhere nearby the wheezy, almost whimsical gasp of a battered old accordion fills the streets of old Rhodes Town like some kind of musical sleeping sickness.

Above it all, those old stone walls stand silent and mute, as if in lofty disdain at the antics of the throng, gazing open jawed up at them.  It’s the timeless embracing the tireless; history embracing those in search of it, while leaving the impostors firmly in the shade.

And oh my, the ice cold beer is so damned good. It comes served up in glasses shaped like wellington boots in some bars, which the tourists naturally love for the photo opportunities. Borderline tacky maybe, but a lot less so than buying a ‘genuine’ suit of armour in a side street where those who actually wore the real deal lived and, in many cases, died fighting.

Rhodes Town is no one thing; it never was, and never will be. It’s a random jumble of history, hedonism, excess and beauty, wrapped up in the kind of setting that Walter Disney could only have ever dreamed of, and all laid out like some marvellous feast for the senses under a benevolent, springtime sky. In all, a town that stays with you long, long, after you actually leave it behind.