By the turn of the 1960’s, it was abundantly clear that commercial jets had decisively defeated the transatlantic liner as the most popular way to cross between Europe and America. In just four short years from 1958 onward, the big jets had seized more than seventy per cent of the travelling trade.
For the great ocean liners, the writing was not so much on the wall as in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the Boeing 707’s and DC-8’s that could cross the Atlantic in mere hours, as opposed to days. The Atlantic liner seemed as outmoded as the dinosaur, and every bit as doomed to extinction.
All of which made the decision in 1958 of the Italian Line to build not one, but two huge new ocean liners for the trade between Italy and New York seem nothing short of incredible. Not only that, but the two vessels would be siblings, and the largest liners built in Italy since before the war.
At 45,000 and 46,000 tons respectively, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello would be floating showcases for Italian art, style and culture; ships of state in every sense of the word. In their design, they would embody a mixture of the strikingly modern and the truly backward.
For a start, they would remain strictly three class ships, an anachronism in an age where civil rights was steamrollering all in its path. And, amazingly, none of the cabins in third class had portholes of any kind.
Technically, each ship was crowned by a brace of stout funnels, wrapped in a kind of birdcage, and topped by a racy, aft facing wind deflector that resembled a widow’s peak. The purpose of this was to deflect funnel smoke away from the ship, through the sides of the caging. It is a design adapted often on modern ships these days, but it featured first on those two Italian show ponies from 1965.
Sailing against the odds from Day One, the Michelangelo and Raffaello were built primarily to give work to the Italian shipyards, as well as harbour workers and the crews that would sail them. And the Italians also managed to convince themselves that, for them at least, there was a chance that these twin superstars could defy the airborne threat completely. Why?
In the peak summer months of 1964, even older liners like the Queen Elizabeth were still sailing full between Europe and New York. Never mind that the numbers for the off season were disastrous. The Italians also noted that the 1962 built SS France- the longest liner ever built- was still sailing at an average occupancy rate of something like eighty per cent, year round. To these crumbs of comfort, Italian Line directors in Genoa added a few of their own.
Like the Greeks, the Italian people have always been particularly sea minded as a race. The jets took much, much longer to gain a foothold on the routes from Italy to America than they did in the northern hemisphere. Throughout the early sixties, their people continued to patronise liners sailing from Italy and Greece in large numbers.
And those voyages from Italy to America and back had a far more languid, indolent quality than did those crossing on the often stormy run between England, France and America. The Italian liners started from sunny Genoa, calling at Naples, Cannes and sometimes Barcelona, before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and heading north west for New York. Basking for much of the way in sunny climes, these voyages had more of an outdoor, Riviera style emphasis and vibe.
Each class had it’s own, open lido deck with a pool, surrounded by sun loungers and umbrella shaded tables and chairs. Smartly turned out Italian waiters delivered drinks and snacks, creating a dolce vita lifestyle out on the ocean. It was all very appealing and, with the Michelangelo and Raffaello, this Fellini-esque sense of style and indulgence would be taken to new heights.
Both of these graceful giants were built in Italy; the Michelangelo at the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa, and the Raffaello just across the country, in Trieste. Like all their forebears, the two sisters were strikingly beautiful creations; bold and yet, at the same time, instantly familiar to generations of seafaring men.
Each ship had the gorgeous, raked clipper bow and elegant counter stern that was virtually an Italian line trademark. Crowned by those graceful lattice funnels and painted in bridal white from stem to stern, Michelangelo and Raffaello were suave, striking ripostes to the all conquering airborne armada. Follies they may have been, but that did not detract one bit from the sheer dazzle, finery and sense of panache that both ships exuded. By any standards, they were a quite extraordinary pair.
Of the two, it was the Michelangelo that got away first. She left on her maiden voyage to New York that May of 1965, and arrived in Manhattan to a gala welcome of buzzing helicopters, spraying fire boats, and an escort of tugs that conveyed her all the way to her Manhattan pier. The new Italian flagship seemed to have made an auspicious debut.
But the Michelangelo encountered serious vibration issues at full speed, a problem that would initially also dog the Raffaello. It was cured that same December, by a dry docking that replaced the propellers. Following this, the ship re-entered commercial service.
Meanwhile, the Raffaello had by now joined her sister ship in service, crossing to New York on her maiden voyage in July of 1965. Her Art Deco interiors received a lot more critical acclaim than the more modern, sixties interior styling of the Michelangelo. At 46,000 tons, Raffaello was a full thousand tons larger than her sister. Each of these twin liners cost some $45 million to build.
Yet it was always the Michelangelo that seemed to command the bulk of the media attention. And not always for the right reasons.
In April of 1966, the Michelangelo was bound from Genoa for New York, when a huge freak wave crashed over her bow in mid ocean. The force of impact caused the forward superstructure just below the bridge to crumple like so much wet cardboard. A large part of the aluminium bulkhead was simply slammed backwards. Two passengers were swept out to sea, and another crewman died later. More than fifty passengers were injured to varying degrees during the accident.
The Michelangelo eventually limped into New York two days later. Once home, urgent repairs were carried out. All the aluminium in the forward bulkhead was replaced by steel; the same precaution was subsequently carried out not only on the Raffaello, but also on the France and the SS United States. Following repairs, the ship resumed service on the Genoa to New York run.
For a while, the two Italian liners did, indeed, hold their own against the jets. Passenger numbers were encouraging right through 1968. Both ships became a byword for style and flair. In summer, they were often completely sold out.
When either ship arrived in or departed from New York, tug boat captains had to drape white canvas sheets over their bows, so that the grimy tugs’ pushing and shoving would affect their brilliant white paintwork as little as possible. On board, all was Italian flair and finesse.Between them, the two sisters represented the only truly stylish way to sail from Bella Italia to America.
But reality was ready to intervene, stage left. As the sixties ended, more and more passengers began taking to the faster, more economical jets. Both sisters were sent on cruises, mainly down to the Caribbean in winter, with increasing frequency. Here, their true major weakness became fatally apparent.
Simply put, Michelangelo and Raffaello had far too many small, inside cabins to work as successful cruise ships. And it was a shortcoming that could only be put right at astronomical expense. A cost that, as things turned out, the Italian Line had neither time nor means to carry through.
As things got worse, strikes among both the on board crews and the Italian dockers broke out like a series of random forest fires. It became nothing unusual for the two ships to sail in and out of New York days off their advertised schedule. With that, they lost their two most vital playing cards- punctuality and reliability.
The final nail in the coffin was the massive increase in oil prices that resulted from the machinations of the OPEC oil cartel in the early seventies. Both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello had a massive operating subsidy from the Italian government. It was the only thing that kept them afloat, both financially and actually.
By 1975, this figure had ballooned to around a hundred million lire-around $150,000 a day- for each ship. The fast, powerful sister ships guzzled crude oil as if it were so much cheap table wine. The Italian government folded, and threw in its hand.
The proud Raffaello sailed from New York for the last time in April, 1975. Among the passengers on that final crossing was the ailing Duchess of Windsor, the wife of Edward VIII. That same July, the Michelangelo sailed eastbound for the last time, too.
Following their withdrawal, both ships were laid up together at the naval base of La Spezia, and put up for sale. Their future did not look good; they were far too expensive to convert into cruise ships and, by the standards of the mid seventies, both ships were far too big for such a role anyway.
Even so, the Italian Line turned down a genuine bid from the rival Home Lines, who were seriously intent both on buying both sisters, and investing the sums required to make them into modern, contemporary cruise ships.They would have been based primarily in the Caribbean. For reasons that have never been adequately clarified, the Italian Line threw this lifeline to the winds with a dismissive shrug.
Knut Kloster, the CEO of then Norwegian Caribbean Lines, also looked at the two ships. He intended to convert at least one of the four massive, laid up transatlantic liners into an all singing, razzle dazzle cruise ship for the new generation of nascent cruisers then emerging. Though impressed by both Italian ships, Kloster ultimately plumped for the larger SS France, reincarnating her as the Norway, and thus making her a legend for the second time in her career.
Eventually, both ships were bought by the Shah of Iran, to use as accommodation barracks for his armed forces. In 1976, the two sisters sailed round to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Having cost something like $90 million to build between them, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were offloaded for a total cost of $4 million.
Soon, plans began in Iran itself to reactivate the two vessels as full time cruise ships. But the Shah’s three decade old, repressive regime was itself on borrowed time. With the accession to power in Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, any realistic attempt at revival sank on the spot.
The Iranians made a bad job of maintaining the ships to any level of decency.They simply did not have the necessary experience. Both began going downhill quite quickly. And Iran’s pariah status post 1979 made the possibility of foreign experts being brought in a complete non starter.
The end was long, and drawn out, with both sister ships slowly degrading at their Bandar Abbas anchorage. In 1983, the Raffaello was hit by a torpedo during the Iran-Iraq war. She sank in shallow water and, over the next few years, divers and looters scavenged the ship. Parts of her hull still exist, just under water, to this day.
Another abortive attempt to resurrect the surviving Michelangelo as a cruise shipwas made that same year of 1983. But a specially assembled Italian survey team concluded that the ship had already endured such overall neglect that reviving her was simply not feasible.
She lingered there at Bandar Abbas, gathering rust and rotting, until 1991, when her once graceful hulk was quietly towed around to Pakistan. Here, at Gadani Beach, the ship that had once carried the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Wallis Simpson was hauled ashore and butchered. It took months to dismantle her carcass.
Michelangelo and Raffaello were bold, beautiful, and totally unrealistic. Many of their features were space age, but the thinking that charted their construction and subsequent operation was often backward and stubborn to the point of madness. Caught between the rock of the OPEC oil crisis and the hard place of the Iran-Iraq conflict, they never really had a chance.
In an age of excess, there is a very obvious inclination to scoff at the idea that ‘less’ might just possibly equate to ‘more’ under certain circumstances.
Yet in the case of the floating, 1960’s built anachronism that is the Marco Polo, this simple phrase defines the ship, her ethos, and her sheer style to near perfection.
Here is a small, intimate ship, low slung and yet highly styled. No kids. No rock climbing walls or roller rinks. No ‘art auctions’ or extra tariff restaurants.
No casino, No balcony cabins. No huge, fur and feather boa style floor shows. No hassle. No hurry.
So, what is there, then?
There are broad, expansive teak terraces that frame unforgettable views out over the ship’s wake. Comfortable, cosy, beautifully decorated lounges that are ideal for relaxing. Menus tailored to the tastes of British passengers.
Of course, all these are a given. That being so, here are some personal observations from being aboard the Marco Polo in mid June over the course of a six night cruise to the Scottish Isles and Faroes.
Some people seemed surprised that the aft outdoor pool was not filled throughout the voyage. Many of those actually seemed to forget that we were not on some voyage to benign summer climes, but actually heading north, out into the North Atlantic. Not exactly an ocean famed for either it’s warmth or friendly disposition to all things maritime.
In point of fact, we were half way to Iceland itself at the northern apex of our cruise, when we reached the Faroe Islands. Out in the big, open ocean, the Marco Polo rolled slowly and ponderously. Leaving the pool empty was a wise decision under the circumstances.
And it was often cold, too. Almost glacially so in the Faroes. But, in those climes, I don’t see how anybody could have expected otherwise. After all, this was not the Riviera.
But the play of light on water in these fast, far northern climes was utterly compelling. Even at 1.30 in the morning, the golden afterglow of the recently set sun cast an ethereal, blood red sheen across the rolling gunmetal expanse of the ocean. It was a sight so powerful and overwhelming that it made you forget the cold almost entirely.
As we rolled sedately in the Atlantic, the drawers in my cabin continually came open and shut for a couple of hours on end. But with her deep draft and long, classically styled hull shape, the Marco Polo shrugged off this assault with an easy grace that no other ship could muster. After a while, you simply learned to ‘move’ with the ship.
Overall, a sense of calm, easy contentment suffused the Marco Polo as she sailed these legendary waters. There was no hysterical over excitement or hyperbole; in the fevered, often frantic world of the modern, resort style cruise ships, the Marco Polo is nothing less than artfully applied balm.
So there was nothing to really jar the senses or chafe the soul. Relaxation was on the menu every day, pretty much.
So yes, ‘less’ truly was ‘more’in the case of the Marco Polo on this northbound foray with a Nordic accent. Calm elegance, wrapped in a cocoon of sixties style, met solid comfort in an intimate, inimitable classic of a ship, the likes of which we are extremely unlikely to ever see, or indeed, savour, again. She truly is a scintillating, singular ship; a quirky, slightly eccentric old gem that will captivate anyone with even an ounce of romance or appreciation of the classic, old style of ocean voyaging.
And- because she is, quite literally- in a class of her own, she becomes ever more compelling and addictive as the years go by. For anyone intrigued by the idea of such a ship, my advice would be to sail her while you still can.
The Shetland Islands today owe much of their historical lore and character to Viking occupation, Dutch herring fisheries and, most notoriously, as a centre for gin smuggling on an almost industrial scale from the 1740’s onward.
Remote and anything but readily accessible, only some twenty five of the two hundred islands that comprise the Shetlands are inhabited to this day. Standing hard and fast against the surrounding, storm tossed North Atlantic, their shores were littered with the smashed hulls and cargoes of wrecked trading ships over the course of many centuries.
Today the taut, compact capital of Lerwick presents a proud, no nonsense stance to anyone arriving at the tender anchorage from offshore. Grey granite houses, known as ‘Lodberries’, sit right along the water’s edge, with slipways and waterfront garages standing right on the fringe of the sea itself.
The harbour itself is a beguiling brew of sturdy, brightly coloured trawlers, their masts and decks buzzed by squadrons of wheeling, screeching seabirds, and small, immaculate yachts that rise and fall with almost imperceptible grace on the Atlantic tidal swell. Ashore, row upon row of imposing, slate grey houses and shops loom above narrow, winding, flagstone paved lanes. Between these serried tiers of buildings, rows of brightly coloured pennants wave idly in the summertime breeze.
Above the waterfront, the petrified stone carcass of Fort Charlotte glares balefully out across the harbour, just as it has since the seventeenth century. The upper level of the grey stone battlements is softened by a rolling green carpet, studded with a huddle of ancient cannon, their forever open mouths gaping across the still, silent waters of Bressay Sound.
Strolling along the rugged, jagged sweep of coast, dry stone walls flank a backdrop of gently rolling hills and surging, steel grey Atlantic rollers that flail the series of pebble stone beaches that crouch warily along the coastline. Here and there, the remnants of more recent conflicts rise up from the sea like so many jagged, gaping wounds. A long since abandoned concrete torpedo pillbox here, a windswept, open observation point there.
The whole twisting, tremendous hinterland is studded with idly grazing sheep and cattle that pay the tourists little, if any attention. Those same tourists struggle gamely along the series of footpaths and nature trails that feed through the whole landscape like so many veins through a supine body. The sense of silence and peace here is almost overwhelming.
Back in Lerwick, houses and shops display the stepped roof faces so typical of medieval Denmark, in particular. In fact, the Danish royal yacht- Danneborg- was actually docked next to the fish quay; a trim, tidy white little Faberge egg of a ship, dressed in gold scrolling and with her gangway guarded by a sailor wielding a ceremonial drawn sword.
As a centre for fishing and seafood in general, it seems a bit obvious to say that the fish and chips in Lerwick were delicious, but they truly were. On an overcast but still warm day, Lerwick came across as a sturdy, intriguing little stalwart, suffused with the history of it’s Viking heritage, putting on something of a game face as it welcomed the modern day Vikings that surged ashore from the Marco Polo, these days armed with nothing mote lethal than shopping bags and credit cards.
Lerwick, and the Shetlands in general, has a kind of robust, no nonsense warmth and a palpable sense of pride; one that is well deserved. The islands, while proud of their past, are not backward looking. While conscious of their history and place in the world, they are not overwhelmed or solely defined by it.
Bumbling back out across the Atlantic on the tender, I watched with genuine sadness as the winding, grey tinted facade of Lerwick diminished to toy town size. Directly ahead, the lithe, graceful silhouette of the Marco Polo loomed large, as pristine as a perfectly primped swan.
All too soon, we found ourselves once more cocooned in the warmth and welcome of our rather splendid ship. Beneath our decks, the engines hummed a gentle reassurance. As I nursed a Cape Cod outside on the terrace behind Scott’s Bar, the sun peeped almost shyly out from behind a couple of airship coloured clouds. In our wake, Lerwick vanished from sight like a slowly falling souffle. Ahead, another adventure filled the belatedly brightening horizon with fresh new promise.
I’ve just returned from a short but intensive six day voyage aboard the stately old Marco Polo, one of my favourite ships still in service. Having sailed serenely through her landmark fiftieth anniversary last year, the ship is still going quietly about her business- charming and beguiling an entire new generation of fans, many of whom were not even born when she first cut salt water as the Alexander Pushkin.
Our six day cruise began in Hull, and terminated at Port of Tyne. In between, the Marco Polo surged north and west into a surreal, half realised hinterland of small islands in the Shetlands, Faroes and Orkneys. Cast adrift in the North Atlantic, small groups of these windswept outposts huddle together like some kind of circled wagon train, seeking protection from the elements that can batter them with almost visceral ferocity in the long, dark winter months.
But they take on a very different character during the long days of mid summer, when the glow of the sun is still visible below the horizon at one thirty in the morning.
A sea of brightly coloured gorse and heather breaks out like some incurable rash all along the low, rolling hills of the islands. Fields full of buttercups appear overnight. The sky- a vast turquoise canvas unhindered by large buildings or forests of skyscrapers- takes on an almost overpowering aspect.
It’s a region where the influence of long gone Celtic and Viking communities still hangs in the air. Huddled, recently uncovered settlements and Bronze Age artifacts sit in a kind of uneasy silence amid the modern vices of 21st century technology. The past hangs over these ancient waters like some kind of ceremonial shroud.
In towns like Lerwick and Kirkwall, ancient, narrow, flagstone lined streets are filled with coloured bunting that dances above sightseers and shop owners alike, plying their trade in converted houses where smugglers once piled their plunder. The local inter island ferries flit in and out of harbours filled with small yachts and fishing craft. Old stone fortresses crowned by serried ranks of silent cannon stand guard over headlands where the Scottish and Danish flags still whip snappily in the breeze. And the cry of the whooping, screeching seabirds is the constant soundtrack to everything, playing in the background as if on a loop.
Lobster pots stand in serried, haphazard piles atop gnarled stone quaysides along the jagged green slash of the coastline. Long, sun kissed, white capped Atlantic rollers surge and flail against rugged pebble beaches draped with bits of flotsam, washed up from who knows where. Small houses, sometimes made from clapboard, others from no nonsense red sandstone, dot the rolling hills where sheep and cattle enjoy the long, lazy days of summer.
And all of this surreal, show stopping finery was savoured from a ship that, in herself, is an epic work of art. Tiny by modern standards, and yet as ornate and exquisite as a Faberge egg, the Marco Polo rode the wild, sometime stormy Atlantic waters with the ease and poise of a lady who has seen and done it all, many times before. Eyes popped and jaws dropped as this sublime floating anachronism dropped anchor off the small yacht harbours of the islands, swinging languidly at anchor like something out of a sixties Bond movie. Improbable, elegant and unforgettable, the Marco Polo left nothing but a sense of wonder in her wake.
Back on board, all was instantly, reassuringly familiar. There was the welcome chance to renew former acquaintances among the officers and crew. Time between shore visits to slouch gratefully back into a favourite seat and enjoy a fondly remembered view with a book, a drink, or even both. Time to succumb with almost pathetic gratitude to the age old rhythm and lifestyle aboard a well run ship. No water slides. No aqua parks or rock climbing walls. No children and- most blissful of all- no pressure to do absolutely anything.
Over the next few blogs, I’ll recount some of the highlights of this voyage to the far isles. Here’s hoping that you can stick around for the adventure.
If there is one thing that almost everybody treasures from a cruise at some stage, it is one or more of the professional souvenir photos taken at events such as embarkation, or the formal night meet and greet with the captain. And, as such a cruise might be a once in a lifetime experience for some people, these can be great memories; milestones that chart the story of their lives. So far, so good.
But I fear it has now gone way beyond that. Way, way, beyond that.
At lifeboat drill on a recent cruise- an event that should be carried through with at least a certain amount of attentive sobriety- I was gobsmacked to find a squad of on board photographers, taking people’s pictures as they stood at their boats stations, clad in their orange life jackets.
This, after loudspeaker instructions from the bridge had specifically asked passengers not to take food or drink to their lifeboats stations. This, after the same message had been repeated three times….
If lifeboat drill-the most serious and important exercise conducted on board any ship- is to become yet another excuse for photographers to ply their trade yet again, then what else on board is actually sacrosanct these days? If this can be dumbed down to just yet another glorified photo opportunity, then whatever next?
And-I have to emphasize- this is far from the only time that I have seen this ghastly, banal business in operation.
I mean, can you imagine the passengers of the Titanic being refused passage to the boats until they had posed for a ‘celebratory’ picture portrait? Maybe with a canvas backdrop featuring a large iceberg, perhaps.
Over the top? Maybe. But, for sure, it’s a pointed nod to the direction in which we are heading.
It isn’t simply boat drill. Throughout any large ship- on almost any night- large, CGI backdrops will be erected in the public areas to allow for passenger portraits. A steady procession of them will line most of the public walkways, and often on more than one deck.
Prime locations, such as processional stairways, will be roped off to ‘non participants’ in this neon pageant. Not only is this this mildly inconvenient- it’s downright rude. What is the priority here; passenger comfort or photographer’s prerequisites? And I also have concerns that there might be the makings of a safety risk here in the unlikely event of an accident.
Then, of course, there are the photographers who swoop down like dive bombers at dinner tables. Annoying barely begins to cover it.
Don’t mistake this as a rant against the people actually taking these pictures; they work their socks off, and do a job prized by a great many. But the fact remains that shipboard photography these days has become all intrusive, all pervasive, and totally out of control.
Look at the size of the average photo gallery on any mega ship today. It is usually the size of a Zeppelin hangar. Vast acreage is given over to displaying a tsunami of petrified rictus grins, staring down at us from wall to wall, end to end.
Surely, in the digital age, there is a better way of doing this? Couldn’t on board photography be arranged as a required service, rather than allowing it to become something that pokes it’s intrusive tendrils into every aspect of shipboard life?
From embarkation to getting off at every port. From cocktail parties to formal portraits, restaurant pictures and fancy dress costumes, it often now feels as if the entire ship is now seen as nothing more than a backdrop for the benefit of the photographers. And it is high time to draw a line.
For sure, I’m aware of the revenue incentives that cruise lines see in on board photography, and the sums realised are a big part of on board passenger spend.
I’m not arguing for an end to shipboard photography services. Not by any means. I’m appealing for a bit less of the in your face, over the top, all pervasive pressure that we are being brow beaten into accepting as the norm. It isn’t normal. And it isn’t nice.
Continuing to fine tune it’s operations in Asia-Pacific in Australia, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced plans to deploy the Norwegian Jewel out of Australia over the winter of 2017-18.
The 93,502 ton, 2,376 passenger ship, built in 2005 and recently extensively refurbished, will leave Vancouver for Sydney via a forty day redeployment voyage, beginning on October 3rd, 2017. En route, the ship will offer a string of Hawaiian and Polynesia itineraries.
Beginning on November 12th with a five day sailing to Tasmania, the Norwegian Jewel will offer seven round trip cruise itineraries from Sydney, including one nine day voyage, and a series of ten to sixteen day sailings between Australia and New Zealand.
This first season will end on February 20th 2018, when the ship will leave Sydney on an eighteen day itinerary to Singapore. Following this, Norwegian Jewel will sail on an as yet unspecified series of cruises to Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China.
The lack of a specific return date to America for the Norwegian Jewel is being interpreted in some quarters as evidence that the ship will then switch to the Chinese market, but I personally think that such a move seems unlikely without a substantial- and as yet unconfirmed- refit to equip her for the Chinese cruise trade.
As ever, stay tuned for updates.
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