Currently en route to Florida after a summer season in Europe, Royal Caribbean’s 138,000 ton, 3,114 passenger Explorer of the Seas is due to arrive in Miami on Tuesday, November 19th. She will sail later that same day on her first, five night cruise of the winter Caribbean season. And, when she does, I will be on board her.
Though no longer among the largest ships in the huge Royal Caribbean fleet, the ‘Explorer’ is still a very impressive vessel in her own right, packed full of good things to enjoy on board, and suffused with a raft of dining venues, from casually inclusive to spectacularly indulgent. For a short, five night cruise around the warmer, more welcoming waters of the winter time Caribbean, she is the ideal ship.
The run itself is pretty pedestrian, with visits to the Mexican Caribbean resorts of Costa Maya and Cozumel bracketed by a day at sea in either direction. That said, departure from Miami is always something of an exultant, exhilarating flourish, as the ship passes downstream alongside a palm splayed motorway. It’s noisy, exuberant stuff; a bit brash for sure, but tremendous fun all the same.
The ship herself entered service in September of 2000, as the second of five, near identical Voyager class sisters. At that time, these still impressive sister ships were the largest of their kind anywhere; the conception and creation of the five ships was then the biggest passenger ship building project in maritime history.
From the four story high, four hundred foot long Royal Promenade to the vast, three story main dining room, these ships can seem almost limitless at times. With their upper deck hot tubs cantilevered out over the sides of the ship, numerous bars, and even an ice skating rink and a flow rider, the ‘Explorer’ packs in a wealth of activities, and an entertainment handle that takes some beating.
Of course, it’s more about fun than finely honed finesse; glitz dressed up as glamour for sure. These ships have more in common with Vegas than Villefranche. Chock full of head turning diversions, they are suffused with a wall of rollicking, near round the clock sound that encompasses everything from calypso to cool jazz, dixieland to pounding disco, and every other musical genre in between.
This, then, is the preamble to the coming cruise. Explorer of the Seas, a behemoth decked out in bridal white, is an awe inspiring promise writ large in steel, marble and brass. Non stop casino action, huge, lavish floor shows, and acres of open deck space sprinkled with numerous swimming pools frame out this finely styled, vast. floating resort on the briny. Twenty thousand cocktails above the sea; a seventeen story high seagoing cathedral. Caesar’s Palace at sea.
So, we’ll be welcoming you on board right here in the next few days. Pack your sunscreen. Check your winter blues. Might be worth contemplating a new liver. Oh, and clothes a size or so bigger than the norm. Because, let’s face it, that Chateaubriand and all of those Creme Brulee are really not going to eat themselves, are they?
It’s a more or less constant refrain these days. We are perceived to be forking out more for airline tickets than ever before, and yet we seem to be getting less in return. Flying-and airports in general-are becoming more of a hassle, year in and out.
The most baleful recent exemplar of this practice is the various add ons that are now manifesting themselves even on long haul routes. Swingeing in flight service cuts combine with sharp-sometimes razor sharp practices- to make buying flight tickets online an obstacle course of epic precautions. Even the most mainstream flight websites are now rife with disingenuous lead in fares that are, in reality, merely the tip of an often much larger iceberg.
The worst practice is now the deceptive lead in fares for long distance air travel. These are now often quoted as flight only, and luggage is factored in as an extra, often quite eye watering charge at the end. For instance, a round trip flight from Newcastle to Florida in 2020 can come in at what seems an eminently reasonable £350, but the additional charge for just one 23 kg case can add around an additional hundred pounds on top. Given the poor strength of the pound against both the dollar and the euro, this makes for quite some sucker punch to the prospective long haul traveller. And this practice is now in force right across most global flight routes, and on most major carriers.
Why this Machiavellian sleight of hand? Why not simply put the baggage costs onto the total air fare as before, instead of trying to dupe people with illusory, head in the cloud lead in fares that simply do not stack up on the ground?
Some websites now allow for the option of bringing ‘up to 23kgs’ of hand luggage ‘free’. But we all know fine well that getting such sized bags into already crammed overhead lockers-let alone first hauling them through security- is like trying to thread a supertanker through the Panama Canal; a complete non starter. And, surely, the idea of some infirm old granny trying to lift an eye watering 23 kilos of luggage without any kind of assistance is a complete non starter just on health and safety grounds? Does anybody actually think this stuff through?
From a legal point of view, this is no doubt all above board. But is it proper? After all, at one time in this country it was perfectly legal to hang a starving nine year old for stealing half a loaf of bread. That hardly made it right to do so…..
Air travel has lost a huge amount of its romance and lustre in the last two decades. The terrible events of 9/11 and just afterwards triggered a seismic, almost manic series of enhancements-some practical, some pathetic-to the existing, arcane airport security protocols. But even the most extreme of these were done with the best of intentions, if not the best delivery. While we can pick at little things when passing on the journey from landside to airside, most people would probably concur that change had to come. They will bow to the inconvenience, and just accept it. Which, on the whole, is fair enough.
But the stratospheric rise of the budget airline has triggered a reaction not too many people foresaw; a retrenchment at airlines like BA, where rampant nickel and diming on domestic and European routes is now the company mantra. Gone are the much appreciated, early morning bacon sarnies on the domestic routes down to Heathrow. Like the drinks napkins once offered as a routine gesture in Economy, they have simply flown the coop.
On European flights in Economy, the free drinks and food that once made BA such a stellar, popular and inclusive choice have gone, too. Passengers are now ‘invited’ to purchase snacks from a select menu; one that often as not runs out of options before staff can actually cover everybody on board. Processing payments for food and drinks (you are also ‘invited’ to use your BA air miles via the mobile app on your phone for these) takes the harassed, already over worked flight staff twice as long to process as in the free regime days.
The result? A lower standard of service (which is not by any means the fault of the hard working flight staff, by the way) and an at least fifty per cent chance that any product you are willing to pay for might have run out when the food and drink trolleys do, eventually, get to you. And, of course, the teeth gnashing, tortuous fact that you are now obliged to pay at all for items that, for decades, were literally part and parcel of your travel experience.
Now, this nefarious, ne’er do well policy of nickel and diming people for food and drinks has not yet come to the long haul BA fleet, but who is to say that it will not, in due course? Is what has come to pass on the short haul routes merely the precursor to larger, more swingeing cuts eventually envisaged right across world wide BA Economy flights? Is the corporate guillotine at BA ready to fall on the heads of the hordes of travellers that still make this once great airline their carrier of choice? Going on present form, and the hang ’em up by the heels and empty their pockets mentality of senior management at BA, things do not look good….
Sure, there are long haul budget carriers-such as Norwegian- that do, indeed, charge for all food and drinks in their Economy cabins. But look at their flight prices, vis-à-vis the same choice of destinations offered by any of the major carriers, and the saving is so substantial that it easily outweighs what you might-or, indeed, might not-spend on food and drinks over the course of a flight. It simply isn’t horses for courses, though some airline execs have certainly tried to paint it in exactly that light.
Seat sizes, too, remain a lightning rod for animated discussion. Often as not, economy class seats on most airlines-but especially on the budget operators- would leave even a particularly small pygmy in a state of agonised contortions over the course of even a relatively short flight. It is the airborne equivalent of battery farming; enclose as many adults in as small a space as possible, and then assault them with scratch cards, extra price food and drink, ‘duty free’ items, and even airport and hotel transfers. Here, transport meets coercion and outright extortion, in surroundings so cramped that there is, quite literally, no escape.
If you wonder why air travel has lost so much of its once glamorous cachet, there it is. The inclusiveness of it all, the hospitality element, has gone down the plughole. Passengers are, quite literally, human cargo, to be milked like so many rows of subdued, stationary ATM machines.
It’s not smart. It’s not clever. And, perhaps most depressingly of all, it’s not going to change any time soon, either.
The art and ability involved in preserving the surviving handful of great, seagoing ocean liners is an often thankless task. Tethered to shores sometimes far from their familiar, beaten paths, these ships can often become bottomless money pits. Sometimes, their management ends up at the mercy of corporations with as much understanding of these ships as a maggot would have of the first moon landing. Seldom are the long term omens truly good; many a fine vessel has fallen by the wayside of ill informed investment opportunities and a short sighted, fast buck mentality.
Yet, against this backdrop, a stellar trio of vessels of the first rank have somehow contrived to survive as combination hotel and restaurant venues. First, and still largest is the venerable old Queen Mary, which has now spent more years tethered to her Long Beach, California pier than ever she did at sea, in both war and peace alike.
Still not yet truly out of the woods, the Queen Mary has endured far more of a roller coaster ride in retirement than ever she did in the worst Atlantic gale. Bankruptcy and morally bankrupt cabals of eminently dubious businessmen have been more of an active hazard to the great lady than any of Hitler’s U Boats ever were. The greatest and most stellar achievement of her long, illustrious career may very well be the fact that she is still there at all; the Queen Mary today remains an Art Deco sheathed Grande Dame whose very poise and presence still has the power to draw awed gasps from even the most blithe passer by.
Her successor as Cunard flagship, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has herself now gone into retirement in Dubai. After almost a decade of tortuous vacillation and seeming indifference on the part of her new owners, the longest serving of all the great Cunard liners re-opened her doors to the public last year. The sighs of relief could almost be heard as far away as Long Beach.
QE2 was originally slated for a drastic ‘re-imagining’ by her new owners-itself a disastrously bad turn of phrase-that thankfully never came to pass. Those given initial custody of her had as much understanding of her history, heritage and future potential as a race horse would have of a rumba. The result was years of vacillation, vague half starts, and downright disingenuous statements. Having bought her, these people simply could not decide what best to do with her. QE2 was like a glittering bauble with no Christmas tree to decorate, lost in an unforgiving, arid environment.
Despite all of this, after a near decade of uncertainty, the great ship is now once more open to the public, offering some three hundred former first class cabins as bespoke hotel rooms. The interior upgrades have been surprisingly sympathetic; the greatness and sheer, breathtaking beauty of the most illustrious Cunarder of them all has been largely preserved intact, a great grand memorial to an age that is now largely itself a historical footnote.
But, perhaps the most successful of these restored, re-purposed ships of state has been the legendary SS. Rotterdam. For, while that brace of charismatic Cunarders cited above have both found exotic exile in remote, sunny lands far from home, the beloved former Dutch flagship really has come home. Rescued from under the very blade of the scrapper’s knives at almost the last moment, the Rotterdam came back to her namesake port, achieving far colder waters and a much warmer, welcome return than her exiled counterparts.
Restored to her original colour scheme from October of 1959, the perfectly primped Rotterdam boasts the most authentic, unchanged series of interiors of any of these three surviving scions. At around half the size of the other two ships, her maintenance costs come in at considerably less. Since her re-opening in the middle of Rotterdam harbour, the ship has been a considerable success.
The one thing that all three of these ships need to ensure their continued, profitable survival is the self same thing that they needed during their seagoing days-constant on board footfall, and free flowing revenue. It is no good expecting the hardened cabal of die hard ocean liner fans to be able to do this on their own; imaginative ways have to be found to create revenue streams, such as conference incentives, the creation of novel and compelling banqueting experiences, and nostalgic, themed events. In those respects, these ships are, in themselves, a series of unique selling points.
Even in a static role, each ship allows for a kind of virtual time travel, without the need to ever again brave the open, combative waters of the Atlantic. Each one is like a portal into another age and era, when things were done differently, and ships were more about transportation than tortuous, on deck party games and sinuous, winding water slides.
I can only hope that this storied trio can at some stage be joined by a fourth vessel. Of course, I mean the SS. United States, still sitting in rust streaked, mouldering splendour at her berth under the Walt Whitman bridge in Philadelphia.
Stripped internally bare and just barely alive, the ship that still remains the fastest ocean liner ever built today exists in the maritime equivalent of a coma. Her interiors have long been ripped out and, while she looks quite dilapidated, the ship herself is still structurally quite sound; a beautiful blank canvas, ripe for re-purposing into the fourth member of a great, timeless quartet of monumental, former cathedrals of the sea.
Her loss would be an act of cultural vandalism akin to levelling Penn Street Station, or even the Empire State Building. The United States typified the post war, ‘can do’ spirit of 1950’s America like nothing else, either before or since. Long before the first Saturn Five rocket ever clawed at the sky, the United States was already out there; America’s foremost, instantly recognisable global flag bearer in those last, halcyon days before the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam war burst that optimistic, overly inflated bubble forever.
In America, the mothballed hulks of countless warships still survive in preserved splendour, from the USS Constitution of 1812 right through to the solid, brooding bulk of the mighty USS Missouri out at Pearl Harbour. Quite right, too.
But I would argue that the SS. United States is at least worthy of preservation as any of these. And, in some cases, even more so. Surely, with a profitable potential future in front of her and a storied past that still staggers the mind behind her, she is worth saving. Her salvation would have a value that would transcend any simple, financial consideration by light years.
Think about it; a quartet of powerfully preserved, almost miraculously intact ocean liners. Four distinctly individual, undeniably dramatic, emotional lightning rods that link us to a rich, resplendent past; a time when these ships were not merely the pride of the shipyards and the men that built and sailed them, but indeed the prides of their respective nations. History, heritage, wartime heroism, afternoon tea on the promenade decks at the height of a wicked, winter crossing…..
Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth 2. Rotterdam. United States. Ships of dreams in their own right. The last survivors of a fleet of fabulous, long gone ocean liners that still cut an elegant swathe through the very salt water of our dreams. And yet, they still exist in reality. And, for that, and for posterity, too, those in a position of power to preserve, burnish and embellish these unique, glorious testaments to human ingenuity and maritime excellence, have an unwavering, unshakeable responsibility to do exactly that.
It’s official; Cruise and Maritime’s flagship, Columbus, will undertake a fourth,. consecutive world cruise in 2021. The full, four month global odyssey departs from London’s port of Tilbury on January 6th, 2021, and returns to the Essex port on May 6th of that year.
In between lies an almost literally globe spanning odyssey that charts nearly thirty-five thousand miles in all. The Columbus will visit no less than thirty-eight ports of call in twenty four different countries, and will transit both the Panama and Suez canals en route.
Leaving the UK winter in her wake, the Columbus makes a run for the rum and reggae suffused shores of balmy Barbados, before transiting the newly enlarged Panama Canal. The ship then heads straight out across the Pacific, to the pearls of French Polynesia, with both timeless Tahiti and the lush, beautiful expanse of Bora Bora as standout stopping off points.
Columbus then continues on to the ‘greatest hits’ of the Antipodes at the height of their summer, with calls in both Auckland and Sydney. The ship then shapes course to the north, cruising the Great Barrier Reef and then drawing a bead on the fabled ‘Lion City’ of Singapore.
From there, the Columbus meanders through the mesmerising seascapes of the Far East, with calls into Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Thailand’s dreamy, peaceful Phuket.
Next comes the shores of sensuous Sri Lanka, before the Columbus makes landfall on the idyllic, sun splashed highlights of both the Maldives and the Seychelles. Africa proper is achieved via landfall on Mombasa, before a string of stunning landfalls on the shores of South Africa itself.
For the first time ever, Columbus drops into Durban, East London and classy, cloud kissed Cape Town, before swinging out across the vast expanse of the South Atlantic to make landfall on Brazil’s east coast; shimmering, salsa fuelled Rio de Janeiro is a dazzling appetizer to calls at both Salvador and breezy, palm splayed Recife.
Surging northwards, the Columbus heads for the Portuguese outposts of the Cape Verde islands, collectively the furthermost part of old colonial Europe. One last African tryst in frantic, bubbling Casablanca- the literal translation of the name is ‘White House’-paves the way for a penultimate port of call in stoic, storied Lisbon, before the voyage ends back where it all started in Tilbury, some four months earlier.
Hard as it is to pick out highlights in such an epic adventure, some standouts do become apparent; overnight calls in Tahiti, Mombasa and Cape Town are spectacular enough, but even those are crowned by a full, two night stay in Sydney at the height of the Aussie summer.
Lovers of sea days can anticipate an especially alluring, nine day crossing between Cape Town and Rio, with only a day’s visit to Tristan de Cunha, a remote British outpost in the South Atlantic, to interrupt the relaxed, indolent rhythm of a long, lazy voyage between a brace of fabulously compelling continents. Lovely stuff.
In addition, a number of sector voyages will be on offer as fly cruises, ranging in duration from thirty to seventy five nights in all.
Prices for the full, 120 day voyage start at around £8,999 per person, based on two people sharing an inside cabin.
Hi people, it’s Myrtle Lardburger here again, with another guest blog for Anthony’s website. We were a bit unsure about travelling again, after last year’s unfortunate experience in Scotland-on-Sea. However, when the chance came to visit Egypt on a Nile cruise, Herb and I threw caution to the wind and we were straight there, right back in the saddle! Yessir!
Sadly, it was just the two of us going this time. The kids are so busy; Fergie-Diane has her ballet dancing championships this year, and Dwayne-Pugsley has just been made Secretary of State For Defense, or something like that. Our dear friends, Abe and Patti Fartle, were also unable to join us. But, being the troopers that we are, Herb and I saddled right up, and socked it to them again!
Those of you that follow my writing may recall that I am actually something of a culture buffer. Herb always tells me that I’m one of life’s naturally beautiful people; I mean, I’ve even eaten sushi in Santiago, for crissakes. So, Egypt should have been a piece of cake, really.
I am particularly fascinated by the story of Queen Cleopatra, so imagine my surprise when our guide-Rommel- told me the true story of how she died. They always tell you that she was killed by a snakebite. Well, actually it was three of them.
She drank them in the bar of the Rameses Hilton, fell drunk off a bar stool, and broke her neck. Apparently, Mick Jagger was sitting on the stool next to her at the time. So much for history then, eh?
I don’t mean to be rude to foreign cultures, but the Egyptoid people are so annoying. Everywhere we went, people kept holding out their hands, and yelling something about ‘bad teeth’? My kindly meant advice that they should brush and floss more often was simply ignored. I like to think of myself as a kind and giving person, but there are limits to my generosity.
I was surprised at how many people from other countries were visiting Egypt at the same time as us. We saw literally hundreds of Chinese, all of them wearing those dainty little face masks that cover their noses and mouth. Smart people, too. Somebody must have told them that Herb had the sprouts at dinner last night…..
We went to visit some temple at a place called Aswan, which was named after the famous lion in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. This was situated on an island, and we had to go out there by boat.
Imagine my delight when Rommel told me that we would be travelling on Cleopatra’s actual royal barge. I mean- imagine little old me sitting on Cleopatra’s actual throne! It should have been such an adventure. But no….
Damned thing came spluttering to a halt half ways across the water. Threw out more black smoke like a Louisiana fog. The captain tried hitting the engine with a hammer, Rommel gave it a kick and, next thing I knew, poor Herb fell over the side.
Before he could climb back in, three other boats tied up on him, and my poor husband found himself up to his chins in screaming Chinese school children. I bet Cleopatra never had a day like that. Jesus, no wonder the poor woman turned to alcohol. It’s all so, so, tragic.
We also saw some kind of great temple complex at a place called Karnak, which Rommel tells me is pronounced as ‘Car-Knack’. As with so many other things in Egypt, this is a work in progress. It’s very nice and, once they get the roof on and a nice carpet laid down, it will really be the business, maybe as good as anything in Las Vegas, even.
We also visited the temple of Tat, who is the God of ancient Egyptian antiquities. In fact, there are several temples to Tat, most of them at the entrances to some old piles of stone that no one ever got round to clearing away. Sadly, this is typical of Egypt.
The people take their worship of Tat very seriously indeed. They come running at you, waving priceless Egyptoid artefacts that still have their original price tags attached. There’s lots of shouting, screaming, yelling, and waving of arms in the air. Just like those poor Chinese kids the other day, when Herb got back into the Cleopatra’s barge, and they all fell into the river. Durned if I’ve ever seen so many crocodiles move that quickly in my life.
Anyway, we did kind of enjoy our time in the Middle East. The Egyptoid people are very interested in learning about other cultures, and some of my related tales about our exotic travels left them with their jaws scraping the tops of their sandals. Sharing my knowledge with other people is a gift from God that I am happy to expand upon.
Because Herb and I like to fit right in with the locals, Rommel managed to score us some really swanky togs. I bought a one piece outfit- it’s called a Jambalaya- that I was told had been made from one of Pavarotti’s old hammocks. And, bless him, Herb bought me a new stretch kaftan from the famous and very popular Egyptoid couturier, Jabba, whose clothes are very much in demand. Apparently, Jabba makes everything himself, right there in his own little hut.
So, that’s Egypt ticked off the list. Would we go back? Well, maybe when they get that Car Knack place finished properly. Just watch this space, and keep on dreaming!
The River Tyne in early March is not noted for it’s gentle waves and benign climate.So, imagine my surprise, then, to find myself waddling down the seaward side gangway of Fred. Olsen’s stately Boudicca to climb into a small boat that looked for all the world like a pilot fish sitting alongside some supine, basking whale.
I’m togged out in a full survival suit in fetching shades of coal black and bubonic yellow, topped off with a life jacket, and with matching gloves and a woolly hat as accessories. Getting into all of this was one awesome sartorial challenge. I suspect that it might have been easier getting into the Siegfried Line….
But all of this was for my own good. Those awesome little boats are called RIBs (literally Rigid Inflatable Boats) and they are the latest set of enhancements to be added across all four ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet. Each of them has been gifted with a brace of these beauties and boy, can they ever barrel across a flat stretch of water. As I was just about to find out.
The idea is simple; enhance the already very considerable allure of the Fred.Olsen brand of small ship cruising by adding the RIBs. At any given time, these give the ships an opportunity to get a handful of intrepid adventurers right ‘up close and personal’ to the silent, soaring walls of rock that frame the great fjords of Norway, or to make landfall on some sublime, serenely dreamy Caribbean beach. And, with the four ship fleet literally exploring almost every known corner of the globe on a yearly basis, the opportunities to get even more immersed in some truly wonderful, spine tingling experiences are brilliantly obvious.
Imagine motoring around the massive, imperious rock formations that shear up out the seas off Phuket, or getting right up close and personal to some immense, glistening iceberg as it calves, crackles and sheds massive fragments of glistening ice into what looks like a sea of glass. How about getting right up close to Sydney’s awe inspiring bridge, before actually sailing under it? Or even motoring at speed past the secluded manor houses and chateaux that line the banks of the sinuous, spectacular River Seine?
Most- but not all-of these adventures are quite likely to unfold on more benign waters than a River Tyne still gripped in the last, strangulated grasp of a raw winter Wednesday. Likely as not, there will be no need to shoe horn yourself into the second skin that I was sporting, as I moved to where my own little RIB boat was bobbing up and down in the slate grey swell. The sky overhead frowned down at us; fleets of great, grey clouds loomed above our heads, looking like inbound zeppelins on a bombing raid.
But, before you even get this far, there is a full safety briefing, and a mock up of the actual seating aboard the RIB. Each and every passenger has to demonstrate that they are fit and able enough to climb on and off these, before even being allowed to proceed any further. And each RIB comes complete with a brace of fully trained crewmen, capable of dealing with every aspect of the RIB experience.
The RIBs themselves each have two rows of seats running from fore to aft, complete with sturdy back rests, and a set of hand grips to which I was soon to become very attached indeed. Not since my white knuckle donkey ride to the top of Santorini’s cloud scraping caldera a few years back have I held onto anything with such grim determination.
We shuffle into our allotted seats with a sense of dour, determined resolve. Once everyone is seated the lines are cast off, and the boat splutters and rumbles into life. Boudicca begins to vanish into the Tyneside mist like some anxious, perplexed wraith. Spray flails the air as we begin to romp across the sullen, spitting briny. But, my word, this stuff really is exhilarating.
Waves flail at the walls of the harbour breakwater like angry, foaming fists as we surge towards it. A stout, grimy trawler waddles past us like some drunken dowager of old, while seabirds screech and then wheel all around it. As we increase speed the boat shudders, jumps and races along, with hissing girdles of foam curling around her flanks like so many angry slaps.
Now then rain drums down, knifing into us as we nose out past the breakwater. To port, the stunted remains of ancient Tynemouth Priory loom out of the mist like squat, truncated fingers. In our ears, the roar of the motor feels more like a heartbeat as the RIB remains purposefully on track. The boat can turn on a penny; it’s ability to nip, swerve and shimmy is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s an exhilarating, adrenaline pumping run that really does take destination intensive cruising to a whole new level. As we raced back into the sanctuary of the Tyne, the RIB gradually slowed, like some shattered steed that had run itself into the ground. The roar of the engine died down to something like muted burbling, even as the welcoming, solicitous bulk of Boudicca loomed out of the mist to tower over us once more.
Secured and reassured, we trooped dutifully back up the gangway, shedding our sodden protective skins at what seemed like warp speed. There was piping hot coffee to welcome us back, and a series of awed, befuddled glances from some of the other people on board. Their eyes said it all: what were you even THINKING , being out there on a day like this?
For me, what I was doing was trying something radically different, something that was as exhilarating as it was rewarding. And, if this little taste of RIB riding got to me quite so much, then what must it be like to do something similar, sans wet suits, in the calmer, far warmer waters of, say, the Caribbean?
As an adventure, this is definitely one that should be on your bucket list.
The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.
As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;
“I have given you a new Normandie!”
That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.
From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.
No pressure there, then…..
So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.
Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.
Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.
Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.
Where the Francedid gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.
Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.
At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.
This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.
But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.
Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.
The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.
But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.
And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.
Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.
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