A TALE OF TWO MARYS….

QUEEN MARY 1936
The Queen Mary arriving in New York on her maiden voyage, June 1st, 1936

Sometimes, maritime history conspires to throw up some pretty beguiling co-incidences. One just such is unfolding today. In two venues- Hamburg and Long Beach, California- two very different ships are celebrating awesome chronological milestones.

Two ships, separated by several thousand miles and seven decades, and yet inextricably linked by a heritage that is anything but common. Each has become a legend. Each was an improbable piece of construction, in and of her own time. The survival of each continues to inspire awe, pride and, in some cases, sheer disbelief.

It was on May 27th, 1936, that the brand new Queen Mary set out on her hugely anticipated maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She emerged, shining and pristine, from the blood bath following the shotgun marriage of Cunard and White Star. A bloodbath that was actually necessary for her existence in the first place.

It is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world were on the new Queen Mary. The new Cunarder was a thrilling diversion for a world already twitching nervously at the bellicose sabre rattlings of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. That May day, hopes flew as high as the flags that festooned the great three stacker as she was warped majestically into mid stream.

QUEEN MARY 2
The superlative Queen Mary 2 is about to go ‘under the knife’ in a German shipyard

Fast forward to today, and the arrival of the Queen Mary 2 in Hamburg for her first major structural alterations since her maiden voyage in January, 2004. Over the next three weeks, Cunard’s mighty flagship will undergo a substantial refit and refurbishment, the sum total of experience gained over a decade of highly successful operation, both on the Atlantic and as a cruise ship.

To date, this is the most significant update for the ship that, even before her launch, had already become known as simply QM2. But, like her dowager ancestor resting quietly in Long Beach, Queen Mary 2 is anything but simple.

Even at the conception stage, the ship seemed extraordinary and unfeasible. A 154,000 ton ocean liner in the 21st century seemed like a sure fire way to bleed a company dry. Only the deep pockets and forward thinking of a company the size of Carnival Corporation could ever have wrought such a fantastic creation from the realms of fantasy into hard, solid reality.

Yet here she is, braced for her first major surgery. Fast in the hands of Hamburg workers who, over the next few weeks, will give her the upgrades, the alterations and the amenities that will make an already extraordinary ship into something even more compelling.

In an exquisite irony, part of that refurbishment will include the embellishment of Art Deco detailing and carpets, deliberately designed to evoke the elegance of the original Queen Mary. I can think of no ship better suited to wear such finery anywhere.

Like her exalted predecessor, Queen Mary 2 will continue to cross the Atlantic between Europe and New York, weaving her own, enduring legend in a series of fantastic, processional voyages that will gradually embellish her own status as time unfolds. She will become as enduring as any Queen before her.

Two ships. One heritage. Each, in it’s own way, still taking people on a series of fantastic voyages. Fast in her berth in Long Beach, the dear old Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified time capsule, taking people from all over the world on a trip back into the hey day of the transatlantic liner.

As for Queen Mary 2, she continues to embrace and enhance those proud old traditions in a stunning, modern style, one shot through with a hefty dollop of elegant, enchanting nostalgia. A ship that is part of a fleet, and yet paradoxically one that is, in so many ways, truly out there on her own.

Each of these two extraordinary ships is like an emotional lightning rod, marking not just our passages across the ocean, but through time and history itself. Long may both continue to reign in their respective spheres.

Long live the Queens.

 

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DISNEY CRUISES ANNOUNCES THREE PRONGED NEW CRUISE PROGRAMME FOR 2017

DISNEY MAGIC
Disney Magic will return to New York sailings in fall 2017

Disney Cruises had announced it’s return to east and west coast USA cruising for autumn of 2017, with a series of voyages based out of both New York and San Diego, as well as a return to cruising out of the Texan port of Galveston.

On October 21st 2017, Disney Magic will sail one seven night cruise to the highlights of Maritime Canada and the US east coast. Slightly earlier, another five night itinerary sails an abridged version of this cruise on September 27th. Slated ports of call for the company stalwart will include Bar Harbour, Charlottetown, and Saint John, New Brunswick.

Eschewing cooler autumn climes, the Disney Magic will also offer a series of escapes to the highlights of the Bahamas. Passengers on each of the half dozen seven and eight day sailings will be offered a complimentary day pass to Walt Disney World Park in Orlando, inclusive of round trip transportation.

From Galveston, sister ship Disney Wonder will operate some eight, seven night round trip cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas. The first cruise sails on November 10th, and the last departure is a December 29th New Year’s Eve itinerary. Ports of call on offer include Cozumel, Key West, Grand Cayman, Falmouth,  and Disney’s own private island experience, Castaway Cay.

Prior to these sailings, Disney Wonder will make a welcome return to the west coast of the USA, offering a series of sailings out of San Diego. Ranging from two to seven nights’ duration, the season starts with a two night sailing to Ensenada on September 15th, with repeat runs on September 22nd and October 13th, respectively.

A special, three night run on October 5th will also include a day at sea.

In terms of the seven night round trips, the Disney Wonder will offer a pair of voyages to the three ‘greatest hits’ ports of the Mexican Riviera- namely Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. Dates for these are September 24th and October 15th, respectively.

The remainder of the short season in Pacific Mexico is rounded out with a quartet of four and five night sailings to Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada, before the ship makes a return voyage to Galveston, via the Panama Canal, to operate her Texas itineraries.

Nice to see Disney getting a bit out of its normal comfort zone, and it will be interesting to see how the New York fall sailings fare in terms of bookings.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

YORK’S UNHOLY SITE OF MASSACRE-CLIFFORD’S TOWER

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
York’s medieval Clifford’s Tower still sits atop the site of the appalling massacre of the town’s Jewish population in March, 1190, It remains one of the bloodiest tragedies in British domestic history

When we recall the ghastly mass pogroms against the Jewish people, minds turn inevitably to recent history, and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

But one particular event right here in England should really give us all pause for thought.

In the year 1190, at the height of the Crusades, antagonism against Muslims spilled over to fester into a growing resentment of the Jewish population in England. Propagandists fanned these flames to a murderous ferocity.

One of the largest Jewish populations of that time was centered around the city of York, the biggest city on the east coast between London and the Scottish borders.

Then, in 1189, Richard the First- the famous Lionheart- was crowned King of England. Almost at once, an ugly (and untrue) rumour began to circulate that Richard had ordered the massacre of the entire Jewish population in England.

Plenty of people were only too happy to play along with this. Some were in debt to Jewish money lenders, and many of these suddenly saw a permanent way to settle their accounts. Tension and anxiety rolled across the entire country like poisonous fog.

To try and alleviate the situation in York itself, some one hundred and fifty Jewish people were offered shelter in the castle of York itself, which sat on the same imperious mound now occupied by Clifford’s Tower. In those days, the castle was a mostly wooden construction that dominated the city, much as the current tower still does.

Somewhere down the line, trust completely broke down between the Jewish people and their erstwhile hosts on the royal side. In the fear fuelled atmosphere, desperate people on both sides took desperate measures.

The Jews simply locked their hosts-cum-gaolers out of their own castle. Enraged, those same officials summoned up massive military reinforcements.

They were joined by a swelling mob of howling, baying locals, many of them whipped up by both the propaganda and the desire to settle old scores. They soon flared up into a hate filled host. Almost inevitably, this soon ran out of control.

Inside the tower, the encircled Jews realised that there was, quite literally, no way out.

On March 16th, 1190- the eve of the Sabbath before Passover-a rabbi urged the huddled, terrified castle inhabitants to kill their own families. Many did just that.

Husbands killed their wives and children before killing themselves. Under promise of an amnesty, some of the survivors came out, only to be slaughtered on the spot by the mob. In the final act of this ghastly tragedy, the wooden castle itself was set on fire and burned to the ground.

This horrific event remains one of the darkest stains in British history, and one of the least well documented. Hardly surprising.

The current tower, rebuilt in stone shortly afterwards, would see more historical gore. In 1537 Robert Aske, who had led the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ against the Reformation organised by Henry VIII and his secretary, Thomas Cromwell, was publicly hanged on top of the castle dungeon.

Today, the grim, blood soaked citadel is still a sobering site; a subdued monolith, suffused with the memory of that terrible day in 1190 when over a hundred terrified people were slaughtered simply as a result of religious bigotry and financial expediency.

EMPRESS OF THE SEAS- CUBA BOUND IN JULY?

EMPRESS OF THE SEAS
The Empress of the Seas

Sources at the inaugural celebrations aboard the new Harmony of The Seas are reporting that senior RCCL executives have said that the Empress of The Seas- recently refurbished at considerable expense- could be deployed on round trip cruises from Miami to Cuba, perhaps starting as early as July.

Formal clearance has not yet been given by the Cuban government, but all of this seems to have the making of a done deal. Ostensibly preparing for a season of short, three to five day cruises to the Bahamas and Cozumel, actual itineraries for the 1990 built ship are only being doled out on a month-by-month basis.

At 48,000 tons and with a capacity for 1,602 passengers, Empress of The Seas is the perfect size for operating quite immersive Cuba cruises. In fact, she is the only ship in the RCCL fleet that is currently capable of doing so. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the ship’s return to Royal Caribbean was announced after eight years’ sailing with Pullmantur, the company’s Spanish derivative. A Cuba itinerary for the ship was almost immediately anticipated.

During her refit to return her to the RCCL fold, Empress of The Seas was gifted with a new Chops Grille steak house, a Boleros Latin Lounge, and also benefited from a remodelled casino and freshly refurbished cabins.

Cabins on this ship are relatively small when compared to her more modern fleet mates. But if, as I expect, the ship is deployed on cruises that include a full two or three nights’ stay in Havana, then they should work out just fine. For many years, Empress of The Seas operated just such a similar itinerary between New York and Bermuda, and she was tremendously popular in this role.

Interesting times, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

ROYAL VIKING LINE- THE ORIGINAL DELUXE CRUISE LINE

RV SKY
The legendary Royal Viking Sky, seen here after her lengthening in 1982

Today, there are a handful of sybaritic, top end cruise lines that promise their guests the sun, the moon, and the stars on a golden platter. Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, Seadream and Silversea come most readily to mind.

All of the above are absolutely high end, incredible experiences. But, while they all compete with one another for the cream of the trade, one thing that all of them have in common is their original source of inspiration.

That source being the legendary Royal Viking Line.

Founded by the suave, patrician Warren Titus in 1972, and with head offices quartered in San Francisco, the line pioneered an almost identical trio of superlative sister ships, designed to take top end cruising to a stratospheric level. The plan was simple, but sweeping; create an environment of casual, spectacular ease and luxury that embraced the best of everything, from food, cabins and service through to stunning, far reaching itineraries. Wrap all of this up in a trio of incredible, swan like vessels, and garnish with real Scandinavian hospitality and flair. Titus thus laid the corner stone for the line which, even today, evokes unashamed awe and nostalgia as the true progenitor of luxury cruising.

First out of the stocks was the Royal Viking Star, in the summer of 1972. She was followed by the Royal Viking Sky in the summer of 1973, and by the third ship- Royal Viking Sea- in December of 1973.

The actual physical appearance of these three vessels was nothing short of stunning. Always immaculate in shades of bridal white, each boasted a graceful flared bow, and fine flowing lines topped amidships by a single funnel, one that owed a lot of influence to the rival, much larger QE2.

The three sisters were all of around 21,500 tons as new, and all were delivered from the Wartsila shipyard in Finland. Designed for epic, long distance cruising, the three sisters carried only around 550 passengers each- 200 or so less than similarly sized vessels of the day. And, although balcony cabins were not yet then in vogue, the on board space and accommodation was, quite simply, spectacular for the size of the ships.

Their clientele revolved largely around wealthy retirees, often from the Pacific Coast of North America. These were people used to expecting- and demanding- the best of everything. On Royal Viking, they were indulged and cossetted in a way that had never been seen before, on ships that were intimate enough to have everything imaginable, and yet still small enough to slip into the most secluded, sought after ports in the world. From Papeete to Portofino, these spectacular, modern day Vikings became a familiar, much treasured sight. Within a short time, Royal Viking gained a stellar reputation as the only real way to cruise. All three ships were so popular that they often sold out many months in advance.

This led to some dramatic cosmetic surgery for the trio. Beginning with the Royal Viking Star in 1981, and then followed by Royal Viking Sky in 1982 and Royal Viking Sea in 1983, each ship was taken out of service, cut in half, and then joined together with a new, ninety three foot long new mid section.

These extensions had the effect of raising the gross tonnage of each ship to 28,000, and allowed the ships to cater for a new total of 750 passengers each. Despite this, the three sisters were still able to accommodate all passengers at one seating for dinner, an industry ‘first’ that set the tone for almost every luxury line that followed them.

If anything, the additional length made them more beautiful and yacht like than ever. Still venerated and utterly sophisticated, the three ships went back to their own series of fantastic voyages. But change was in the offing.

In 1984, Royal Viking Line was bought out by the legendary Knut Kloster, as part of his plan to make Norwegian Cruise Line an international conglomerate. Grand as it was, the plan was way too early, and beset with logistical and financial hurdles. Disenchanted, Warren Titus left the company in 1987. But, by that stage, the visionary Kloster was already envisaging a big new build for the fleet. The first, in fact, since 1973.

When she emerged in 1989, the 39,000 ton, 850 passenger Royal Viking Sun had the same general appearance as her smaller siblings, with the exception of her superstructure. This was now garlanded with rows of the newly in vogue balcony cabins, and topped by a shorter, more squat funnel. Big things were expected of this new Viking flagship when she first appeared.

Kloster also gifted the line a small, luxury mega yacht, the 10,000 ton, 1992 built Royal Viking Queen. With all outside suite accommodation for just 212 passengers, she was at that time the most spacious cruise ship afloat anywhere.

But this bullish expansion belied the fact that Kloster’s overblown operation was now in deep financial trouble. Simply put, it had grown too big, too soon. By 1994, the whole operation was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink.

By now, even the sybaritic Royal Viking Line had lost a great deal of its shine. Newer rivals such as Seabourn and Sea Goddess ate voraciously into its former core passenger base. After twenty two years, Royal Viking Line was finally wound down as a company in 1994.

But the impact of Royal Viking on high end cruising has been seismic. Many of the senior staff on their ships have now transferred to the likes of Silversea, Oceania, and even Crystal.

And it is testimony to the original strength, excellence and adaptability of their design, that all five original Royal Viking ships still remain in service today. The original trio in particular are still utterly unmistakable. Over time and tide, they have evolved into some of the most graceful and elegant vessels still sailing to this day.

Today, Royal Viking Sky survives as Fred. Olsen’s Boudicca, having there rejoined her sister ship, Black Watch, the one time Royal Viking Star. Royal Viking Sea, meanwhile, sails on as Phoenix Seeresien’s magnificent Albatross.

Fittingly, Royal Viking Sun graduated to Holland America Line, sailing for them to this day as their ‘Elegant Explorer’, the beloved Prinsendam. And, still sybaritic to this day, the former Royal Viking Queen remains in service as the elegant Star Legend, of Windstar cruises.

In Royal Viking, Warren Titus created far more than a salubrious brand. He created a legend, one echoed today in the service, cuisine and stance of every de luxe cruise ship in service across every ocean on the globe.

For that, and for the memories that this great institution created over the better part of two peerless decades of excellence and indolence, Warren Titus deserves to be ranked right up there with the likes of Albert Ballin. To this day, Royal Viking remains a byword for the best of everything in luxury cruising. And history will only further embellish that reputation over the years to come.

 

EGYPTAIR MS804- SOME MUSINGS….

EGYPTAIR A320
An Egyptair Airbus A320 on the ground

With intense sadness and sorrow for those most affected,  I sat horrified as the demise of Egyptair flight MS804 impacted like a small earthquake on Thursday morning.

The Airbus A320 was near the end of a routine flight from Paris to Cairo, when it dropped from 37,000 feet into the sea just off the Egyptian coast. Some fifty six passengers and ten crew- sixty six souls in all- were lost.

No one knows for certain yet just exactly what happened to make this plane drop like a stone from the usual cruising altitude to an early morning immolation in the Mediterranean. Not that it has stopped a tsunami of expectation from people trying to sound more informed and knowledgeable than they actually are. Inevitable, yet depressing.

Heartbreaking, too, for the huddled groups of friends and relatives ensconced in a Cairo airport hotel, waiting for news that, when it comes, can only ever be bad. Their suffering beggars any true comprehension. And all of this in the grip of a world wide media circus.

Obviously, people want answers. And, for those of us in the travel industry and market who spend large parts of our time flying through these self same areas, the sense of unease such an accident- if it was that- engenders, can be as poisonous as anything from a WW1 battlefield.

For me, it’s a little bit personal, too. I’ve been on five Egyptair flights over the past couple of years, from London out to Cairo, Luxor, and back again.

On all five journeys, I felt comfortable with the level of security, and actually enjoyed the flights. The on board hospitality was genuine and reassuring. And, though no flight is ever truly a joyride, I have endured far worse. No, Egyptair got me there and back, and with the minimum of pain. There was nothing alarming whatsoever about any of those journeys.

So, I feel quite deeply for the airline staff, many of whom will have had friends and relatives on the downed MS804. I feel for Egypt as a country, where their primary industry of tourism, on which so much depends, is already in the guillotine basket. Between  the reality of an internationally unpopular government at home, the looming horror that is Isis, and a basket case economy, there must seem to be little, if anything, to hope for right now. And then this crash.

It is, as many commentators have bruited, very strange indeed for something to go so catastrophically wrong when a plane is in the ‘cruise’ sector of the flight. Although about to commence descent for a final approach into Cairo, MS804 was still at its optimum cruising height when the fatal accident occurred.

Usually, the most dangerous moments for any flight occur on take off and landing. For a plane to just suddenly fall from the sky at the height MS804 was flying at is, indeed, as rare as it is horrifying.

I’m not getting into speculation on what might have happened yet, because I am simply not qualified to. I am no aviation expert. Possible terrorism of some kind will always be a lingering concern, unless (and until) it can be ruled out. The pilot seems to have been vastly experienced and, of the ten staff on board the plane, at least three of them had some kind of security role on board.

Obviously, incidents like this tend to make many of us rethink our plans. Do we really feel safe travelling at all? Maybe we would be better off rolling ourselves up into a ball, hedgehog style, and just sit out the remainder of our time in limbo, effectively safe but essentially shackled?

What I do know, however, is this.

All of us are on borrowed time, and few indeed know when the meter will run up empty. I also know that, so far as any of us are aware, we get one crack at this life. In short, this is not a dress rehearsal, people. It’s actually the main event.

And, while we can’t determine the quantity of our time here we can- up to a point- determine the quality.

There are forces at work in this world- and obviously the likes of Al Qaeda and Isis come to mind- who would love nothing more than to see what they regard as western barbarism reduced to a mass of cowed, terrified souls who collectively dare not travel outside of their own borders. You don’t have to be a Harvard graduate- or, for that matter,  an aviation security expert- to see that. It’s not rocket science, people.

Thanks, but no thanks.

I, for one, intend to keep on flying, sailing, travelling and, in general, living it up, for as long and as far as I possibly can. It’s actually minimal bravado really,  because I know that the risks of anything actually happening to me out there are so slight. Still, in the back of my mind I know the possibility is there.

I think of it as a kind of cognitive arthritis. It exists; there is nothing I can do about it, but it’s more annoying the painful. In short, I can live with it. Unlike a really well crafted Margarita, which I will never, ever, be able to live without.

Afraid to fly Egyptair again? Absolutely not. I am far more terrified of the possibility that Mariah Carey might actually somehow get a new recording contract.

Those loved, lost souls who perished so tragically yesterday were just ordinary people, going about their business. Maybe, like me, they carped and moaned at the security lines as they waited to go ‘ airside’ at Charles De Gaulle airport yesterday. Maybe, like me, they were genuinely thrilled at the prospect of boarding a flight for somewhere exotic. Maybe, like so many of us, they just wanted to get home to their loved ones. In so many ways, they were ‘us’, just as we are ‘them’.

I can think of no better way to honour those souls than to keep right on enjoying the highlights- and enduring the hassle- of modern air travel. Because, while you cannot always outrun the million to one chance of an accident, or always swerve the malignant intent of a handful of malevolent, murderous psychopaths, you can- quite literally- rise above them, and keep reaching for the things you need to see.

That’s life. That’s beautiful. Let’s see that it stays so. Over and out.

 

HOLLAND AMERICA RETURNS TO BERMUDA IN 2017

VEENDAM AT HAMILTON
The MS Veendam docked on the front street of Hamilton, Bermuda

In a move sure to be welcomed by those preferring a more intimate style of cruise experience, Holland America Line has announced that their popular Veendam will make no less than six round trip cruises from Boston to Bermuda in 2017.

The trips leave Boston on May 13th and 20th, June 10th and 17th, and July 8th and 15th, respectively. Unlike the larger ships that berth for three days and two nights at the Kings Wharf complex on the north west corner of the island, the Veendam spends three full nights alongside in the city centre of Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda.

This gives her guests a considerable advantage in terms of central location and accessibility, and a full twenty four hours longer to enjoy the grace, tranquility and sheer beauty of Bermuda itself.

The 57,092 ton Veendam was built in 1996, and named by the actress, Debbie Reynolds. She carries some 1,350 passengers, served by a crew of 580. Though now one of the smaller ships in the Holland America portfolio, the Veendam is, in fact, the perfectly sized cruise ship for Bermuda voyages.

The Veendam will also offer some interesting summer cruises to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and other ports along the perennially popular coastline of Maritime Canada. These can be combined with one of the Bermuda cruises to make for one particularly exotic, fourteen night long adventure.

Combining the old world charm, excellent service, fine cuisine and elegance of the intimate Veendam with the sheer beauty and allure of Bermuda has proved to be something of a resurgent success for HAL. And, as an elegant counterpoint to the increasing number of mega ships unloading passengers at Kings Wharf, these intimate, indulgent cruises are sure to be just as popular as those offered over the three preceding seasons.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.