ABOARD THE RIVER BEATRICE ON THE DANUBE

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The River Beatrice at Durnstein, Austria

While the art of cruising down almost any river is truly relaxing, certain elements aboard some boats combine to make the experience even sweeter. Having just spent a week on Uniworld’s sybaritic River Beatrice sailing between Budapest and Passau, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the sheer luxury of the hardware and soft furnishings on board, together with the all inclusive nature of the Uniworld experience, went a huge way towards creating a level of pampered indolence that enhanced the overall vibe quite considerably.

How so? Let me run through a few salient points here…

The white. twin level entrance lobby, with its vast central chandelier, made a stunning focal point.But it was the little glass jars full of gummy bears and other sweet treats, free all day long, that gave it a kind of slightly naughty, kid-at-the-sweet- shop feel. I must have snaffled at least two handfuls of those gummy goodies, each and every day. My bad. Bite me.

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Room #317 aboard the River Beatrice

The cabins. Roomy for a river boat at some 150 sq feet; all white accents around a Savoir double bed that was a dream destination in its own right. Small marble bathroom with a strong, potent shower and L’Occitaine goodies on tap. Ample storage space, fluffy towels and bathrobes and, best of all, floor to ceiling glass doors that opened onto the scenery drifting past your window. How wonderful to nurse a nightcap there- like a little window box opening onto the stars. Snug, spotless; utterly sybaritic.

The restaurant. Open seating for all meals, served as a mixture of buffet and waiter service for breakfast and lunch, and a slightly more formal, five course affair at dinner. Menus featuring superb local produce- freshly caught fish and many fresh, local vegetables. And, quite simply, the best Wiener Schnitzel that I have ever tasted anywhere. Pre-dinner treats also appeared in the lounge bar every night.

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Partial view of the lounge on the River Beatrice, looking ft from starboard

The lounge bar; an elegant, horseshoe shaped expanse of floor to ceiling glass walls, with its own bar, dance floor, and super comfy sofa and chair groupings. The duo that played in here every night were simply the best I have ever heard on any river cruiser.

The deck furniture; plump, cushioned sunbeds with adjustable awnings overhead. Tables and chairs sprinkled along the entire, narrow expanse. Perfectly primped topiary that added a touch of raffish class to a place where every bit of furniture constituted a genuine hazard to activity of any kind. Peachy.

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Upper deck of the River Beatrice on a sunny day in Budapest

The service- right up there with any deluxe boutique hotel that you can imagine. I was totally amazed to find the lounge bar in the capable hands of a barman I remembered from the Queen Mary 2, no less. Attentive without being intrusive, genuinely nothing seemed to be too much trouble. The Uniworld staff- from top to bottom- were friendly without ever becoming overly familiar.

Little things matter; the free Wi-Fi was such a boon, as were the free bicycles that we carried along with us. And the size of the boat- long and narrow as she was- meant that we could tie up almost anywhere. Often as not, we simply rocked up in the middle of town, literally steps from all of the sweet spots.

So- to coin a phrase- these are just a few of ‘my favourite things’ aboard the low slung, highly styled little jewel box that is the River Beatrice.

Nice, no?

RIVER CRUISING THE TITAN TRAVEL WAY

P1010582.jpgOver the last few years, the growth in the popularity of river cruising has been nothing short of phenomenal. Companies such as Viking, Uniworld and AMA Waterways have raised the excellence and elegance of the river cruise experience to a level that would have been undreamed of even a decade ago, especially along the waterways of western Europe like the Rhine, Moselle, the Rhone and, of course, the Danube.

In terms of the UK market, there is no doubt in my mind that Titan Travel UK offers the most all inclusive, comprehensive and well thought out packages of any river cruise operator. They literally offer a bespoke, door to door service from first to last that amounts to nothing less than a kind of cocoon, one that smooths all the normal daily irritants of long haul travel neatly out of the way. And, while the overall price that you pay might look high at first glance, the real value becomes clear once broken down into it’s constituent parts.

The route I took was a Danube cruise aboard Uniworld’s stunning River Beatrice, sailing from Budapest to Passau, via a string of amazing stops along that mighty river. To join this cruise meant flying from Heathrow to Budapest, and then flying back from Munich a week later.

Being based in the north east of England, the journey to and from Heathrow usually throws up certain logistical hurdles. Not so with Titan, however.

I was picked up-bang on time- from own own front door by a uniformed driver in a very comfortable vehicle, and taken to Newcastle Airport. There I checked in for a short shuttle flight to London. So far, so good.

Once at Heathrow, uniformed Titan staff showed me to the car that took me to my included, overnight airport hotel. As I had an early flight to Budapest next morning, Titan included the overnight hotel stay too, as well as my hotel to airport transfers in the morning.

On arrival at Budapest, more Titan staff assisted us with our bags and our bearings, ushering us onto a comfortable coach that literally stopped at the gangway of the boat itself, right on the edge of the Danube. The entire boarding procedure took five minutes, from start to finish.

The great thing about the cruise itself is that Titan uses only the best quality river cruisers. They charter a number of the cabins on each of the top notch river cruises, and allocate these to their booked clients. Our sweep down the Danube on the River Beatrice included a choice of two or more free excursions in every port of call, complete with the use of ‘quiet boxes’ and the services of a highly knowledgeable local guide.

Uniworld is a truly all inclusive product, with all food and drink- top quality stuff, too- folded neatly into the fare. Even the breakfast buffet featured inclusive Jacquart champagne for those all important, early morning Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. The level of service, care and attention is easily the level of a highly styled boutique hotel.

At the end of a brilliant week long adventure, we were collected from the boat at Passau for the two hour drive to Munich Airport where, once again, uniformed Titan staff whisked us through the hubbub of one of Europe’s major international airports. Hours later, after I had alighted from my return shuttle flight to Newcastle, my driver was already waiting to take me home. Painless.

What you have in effect here is a stress free product; a kind of magic ‘flying carpet’ that simply delivers you smartly, with a minimum of fuss, into the centre of everything you want to see, and then wafts you home again at the end.

For older people with perhaps limited mobility, or those unsure of the often contradictory procedures involved in international travel, Titan offers a service that is a byword for both quality and, more important, reliability. For many, this kind of calm, personal service is somewhat akin to a comfort blanket. And, for anyone travelling from another continent, this kind of all inclusive service is one that is surely worthy of your consideration.

SHOES-A BUDAPEST MEMORIAL

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The Shoes Memorial, Budapest

One of the highlights of my recent Danube river cruise aboard Uniworld’s stunning River Beatrice was a brace of days spent exploring Budapest. As one of the joint capitals of the former Austro-Hungarian empire (the other is, of course, Vienna) Budapest is literally studded with swathes of monumental architecture. The sheer collective opulence on display is almost overwhelming.

And yet, the most moving of all Budapest monuments is riveting for its sheer, stark simplicity. Spread along the banks of the Danube itself, not far from the great Parliament building, are some sixty random, scattered pairs of shoes. Cast from bronze, they face outward, toward the Danube where their wearers spent their last, fear fuelled minutes before being shot by members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian equivalent of Hitler’s SS. Though the great majority of this poor, doomed mass of humanity was of Jewish origin, there is no doubt that some personal scores were also settled in those dark, dying days of world war two.

It is a truly moving tale and, as such, it merits some historic context.

By March of 1944, it was obvious to most savvy people that Germany was going to lose the war, and probably sooner rather than later. No one was more conscious of this than Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary. Coerced into a military alliance with the Third Reich, the Admiral- with one eye firmly on his own self preservation- began making tentative overtures to the western allies for a peace deal. Unfortunately, Hitler got wind of these, and acted rapidly to forestall them.

That same month, German troops and armour began pouring into Hungary, ostensibly to ‘protect’ their wavering ally from the Russian hordes already looming in the foothills of the Carpathians. Horthy was allowed to remain in power, as what amounted to little more than a German puppet. But his reprieve carried one major, awful condition…

Prior to 1944, the estimated one million Jews living in Hungary had been protected from the racial excesses and genocidal policies of the Nazis. As such, they represented the largest concentration of unharmed Jews still existing within the boundaries of the now terminally contracting Third Reich. All of that would now change.

To Budapest came the the psychotic, ice cold Adolf Eichmann. Soon, conga lines of trains began rolling, fully laden with generations of doomed Jewish families, towards the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Under Eichmann’s meticulous eye for detail, this death machine ran with pitiless efficiency for four months. And then, something happened that surprised everyone.

Horthy over ruled Eichmann, and halted the deportations.

Ever the realist, the Admiral was once again acting to save his own skin. Just days before, an announcement was made via the Allied leaders, to the effect that any enemy leader found guilty of abetting mass genocide would pay the severest penalties. With an Allied noose no doubt metaphorically tightening on his windpipe, Horthy simply stopped the trains from running.

At that time, Adolf Hitler had his hands full, attempting to stem a rising tide of military disasters in both western and eastern Europe. But, by September, he had somehow managed to gain a breathing space. And his baleful, disapproving eye returned to an unexpectedly truculent Hungary.

By now, Russian troops had simply steamrollered through Bulgaria and Romania. Hitler’s eastern allies had collapsed like a house of cards. And, once again, Horthy- knowing that Hungary was next- began making peace overtures to the western allies.

Again, Hitler learned of this and, as so often before, he simply reverted to gangster tactics to get what he wanted. Horthy’s beloved son- a renowned international playboy- was kidnapped by German commandos. Rolled up in a carpet, he was literally unravelled at Hitler’s feet. A mortified Horthy was told that his son was now a ‘guest’ of the Third Reich. Naturally, there were certain terms that related to his continued well being.

Chief among these was the Admiral’s immediate resignation. Horthy folded like so much wet cardboard. In his place, Hitler appointed Ferenc Szalasi to rule the nation.

Szalasi was the leader of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian equivalent of the Nazi SS. Deeply anti-Semitic and blindly obedient to Hitler, Szalasi and his thugs could be relied on to implement every order from Berlin with hateful zeal. Indeed, their enthusiasm for their grisly work earned them the approval of the returning Eichmann himself. Soon, the death trains began rolling out of Budapest at a manic rate.

By the time he took power, Szalasi was the ruler of a country that had already been one third overrun by the Red Army. As that same army gathered to lunge at Budapest in overwhelming strength, large German panzer formations- desperately needed elsewhere- poured in to shore up the creaking Hungarian front.

From that same October onward, some of the largest tank battles of the entire war took place on the plains of Debrecen, just outside of Budapest. Time and again, desperate German counter attacks threw the Russians back, only for yet more new Russian units to press forward. The end result was inevitable. On Christmas Eve 1944, the Red Army surrounded Budapest, and began fighting it’s way into the city. Trapped inside with the terrified population, some 70,000 German and Hungarian troops prepared to face the red tide looming all around them.

With the railway lines to the death camps now closed forever, the Arrow Cross began rounding up the surviving Jewish population with savage determination. Many of these were simply marched down to the Danube, near the famous chain bridge. There they were made to take off their shoes and stand on the water’s edge. There, the Arrow Cross simply shot them, watching the bodies fall into the Danube. Of this pitiful, huddled mass, those who did not die instantly simply froze to death as they drifted down the icy, fast flowing river.

Meanwhile, the Germans outside Budapest mounted a major effort to relieve their trapped comrades in the city. In early January 1945, the first counter attack took the Russians by surprise, and made rapid headway. That first attempt came so close to success that the encircled troops could hear the gunfire of the attacking columns. Then, with success within their reach, Hitler halted the attempt. That same success had emboldened him to launch a larger, more ambitious offensive that ultimately failed massively.

Another attempt in mid January also came very close to a breakthrough but, once again, interference by Hitler snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Red Army’s noose around the city began to tighten. Inside, the German and Hungarian defenders now knew that the game was truly up.

That knowledge simply intensified their rage towards the Jewish population. Knowing that they could expect no mercy from either the Russians or their fellow countrymen, the Arrow Cross and the SS- men who knew full well that they were on the cusp of death themselves- turned their own fear and savagery on the remaining Jews of Budapest.

By mid January, the Russians had fought their way through much of the flat, industrial Pest half of the city. Typically, Hitler ordered resistance to the last man. For the terminally deranged Fuhrer, Budapest had become as much of an obsession as Stalingrad some three years earlier, and the ferocity of the fighting there was every bit as vicious. In all, some eighty per cent of the buildings in Budapest- one of the most beautiful cities on earth- were either damaged or, more often, totally destroyed. Even today, the beautiful buildings of the Castle District are still pock marked with hundreds of bullet holes.

That same mid January, as the remnants of the German and Hungarian garrison retreated across the Danube to make a final stand on the heights of Buda’s Castle District, the Arrow Cross embarked on one last round of shootings. The retreating German and Hungarian troops blew all the bridges across the river as they went. Even by their reviled standards, the actions of the Arrow Cross that day were especially pitiless.

Running short of ammunition, the Arrow Cross got creative. They forced two people at a time to stand back to back, bound them together, stood them on the river bank, and simply shot the nearest one in the head. As both toppled into the river, the weight of each corpse simply drowned anybody that might have survived the shootings.

It took the Russians until mid February of 1945 to finally reduce the enemy resistance. By that time, Budapest was a shattered, blackened corpse of a city. And of Hungary’s Jewish population of one million people, more than 600,000 were murdered by the Nazis and their disciples in the Arrow Cross.

As for Szalasi himself, he had fled Budapest just a few days before it was surrounded, and he maintained leadership of a Hungarian rump government until the end of the war. Taken back to Budapest after being captured in Munich by American troops, he was put on trial by the post war, Soviet installed Communist government, and hanged in public-aptly in Budapest itself- on March 12th, 1946.

Today, the Shoes Memorial stands as a taut, jarring, moving memorial to the estimated 10-15,000 victims of the Arrow Cross. Inaugurated in 2005, it features some sixty pairs of shoes in all shapes and sizes, including those of children.

Since I was first in Budapest, many of these shoes have become tiny shrines, with small stones, candles and flowers used to fill them. If there is a more pitiful, yet simply powerful memorial to the sheer, mindless brutality of evil, I have yet to see it for myself.

LUXURY LINER ROW- THE HEYDAY OF THE GREAT LINERS

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‘Luxury Liner Row’ along the west side piers of Manhattan, with the Queen Mary (at top), Michelangelo, Raffaello, and the SS. France. The presence of the QM, plus the two Italian sisters, dates this photo as between July 1965 and September, 1967

Although the great transatlantic liners were almost always associated with the west side of Manhattan in New York, it was really in the 1930’s that what is now known as ‘Luxury Liner Row’ truly came into its own.

In the early 1930’s, as the size of the average ocean liner grew from around 50,000 tons to a new generation of 80,000 tonners, it became obvious that the old piers in Manhattan would no longer be long, wide or deep enough to accommodate this new generation of ocean monsters.

The harbour authority envisaged the creation of a trio of massive new, two story piers, along the west side of Manhattan, near 48th Street. These new complexes would allow passenger traffic access directly from the west side highway.

Known as ‘finger piers’, each of these enormous creations jutted out a full 1200 feet into the Hudson River. They were able to accommodate the largest ships of the day. And, inevitably, the biggest and most prestigious liners on the transatlantic run gravitated to them like moths to a flame.

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Luxury Liner Row in the Sixties; L to R; the United States, SS France. Michelangelo and Raffaello (or vice versa) and the Queen Mary

Aptly, the first of these terminals to open-Pier 88- made it’s debut on June 3rd, 1935, just in time to accommodate the legendary Normandie at the end of her record breaking maiden voyage. It was her moment of greatest triumph, and in due course, the scene of her great tragedy. The burning and capsizing of the Normandie at this same spot in February, 1942 remains one of New York’s saddest spectacles to this day.

Across the slip, Pier 90 became synonymous with the rival Cunard Line. Until their last days in 1967 and 1968 respectively, both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth used Pier 90 for each New York turnaround, a tradition carried on by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in her turn.

Even the German liners left their traditional berths at Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the river, to gravitate to Manhattan. By the late thirties, it was nothing unusual for six or seven of the world’s largest liners to be seen sitting, side by side by side, along the waterfront. From a passing car, their looming prows seemed almost close enough to touch.

This was the era when those astonishing aerial photos of those epic convocations- the famous ‘stack ups’- began to hit the newspapers and newsreels around the world. On any given day, one might see the likes of the Rex, Europa, Normandie, Berengaria and Ile De France in brief repose. Some of those photographs have gone down as among the most celebrated in the entire history of travel.

Even in the sixties and seventies, when air travel had long since supplanted the ocean liner as the obvious main means of travel, the great ships would still converge at those same, west side piers, almost as if huddling together for mutual support from the chill winds of economic reality. At any given time- especially in the summer- you might see the France, the United States, the Queen Mary and one of the great Italian sister ships, Michelangelo and Raffaello. 

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The QE2 docking in Manhattan

In due course, this doomed, gilded rump would be joined by the Queen Elizabeth 2. Eventually, that last great liner would have the piers to herself. She would often sit in solitary splendour at the foot of West 48th street, the waters all around her rippled by the memories of her long gone fleet mates. As she sailed, her siren would boom out across the concrete canyons of Manhattan. In her wake, an entire fleet of ghosts could almost be heard replying in kind.

Of course, the arrival of the large, purpose built cruise ship proved to be the salvation of the piers. It was no accident that the Norway, the reborn SS. France, tied up at her old French Line Pier 88 at the conclusion of her ‘second’ maiden voyage. Her arrival was epic enough in itself, but few savvy souls missed the exquisite symmetry of her Manhattan homecoming.

Now branded as the Manhattan Passenger Terminal, the trio of great, historic piers have been sympathetically upgraded and updated to accommodate a new generation of cruise ship, many of them far bigger than their old Atlantic forebears.

Of course, new, purpose built cruise terminals have sprung up, too. Cape Liberty in New Jersey; Red Hook in Brooklyn. Slick, spick and span and state of the art, they make the whole embarkation process a breeze.

But they are not the real deal….

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The Norwegian Gem at Pier 88, Manhattan

Even now, nothing beats the thrill of departure from those great old Manhattan piers of yore, where the benign shades of the Liberte, the Conte Di Savoia and the Ile De France still bask in the summer sunshine, just across the slip from where thousands of excited passengers embark on the ships of Norwegian Cruise Line to Bermuda and the Caribbean. The piers still have what they always had; location, location, location….

Here, the great monolithic bulks of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are almost close enough to touch; and the pace and buzz of the Manhattan traffic is an exhilarating, endlessly addictive thrill. And the sudden sight of the giant bows of a cruise ship, gradually rising above you, quite literally, at the bottom of the street- is as much of an adrenaline surge now as ever it was.

Boarding the QE2 at Pier 90 verged almost on a religious experience for true travel lovers. And the procession down the west side of Manhattan, even to this day, is so magnificent and compelling that it draws almost every passenger out on deck. Try a glass of champagne on deck, as the siren booms out and you glide past that vast forest of glass, steel and concrete called Manhattan, and you’ll feel the same, age old magic as those voyagers from the past, setting out on business, or on their summer vacations to Europe.

While everything seems to move forward, some things in travel remain as subtle and understated as ever. Boarding the Norwegian Breakaway for Bermuda at Pier 88 feels every bit as epic and monumental as embarking on the Normandie for Europe did from the same pier, a full eighty years ago.

Those celebrated mass gatherings of the great liners remain like so many touchstones, emotional lightning rods if you will, that connect us to what seems to be a more evocative past. But the good news is; sailing from those same piers now will still thrill and inspire generations of ocean voyagers for decades to come.

 

 

LOOK TO THE SKY- NORWEGIAN GOING TO CUBA?

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The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Speaking during the inaugural voyage of Regent’s new Seven Seas Explorer,  CEO Frank Del Rio said that he was just ‘waiting for the phone to ring’ before inaugurating a series of Cuba sailings with ships from right across the Norwegian/Regent/Oceania Cruises portfolio.

One source states that the Cuban born Del Rio actually named the Norwegian Sky as being the ship to probably start regular, year round Cuba cruises beginning in 2017. Other sources say that he refused to name any specific ship.

Assuming that the right ship has been identified, it would mean the 78,000 ton, 1999 built Norwegian Sky forsaking her usual, year round itinerary of three and four night Bahamas cruises from Miami. With several alternative dining venues and a reasonable number of balcony cabins, there is no question that the Norwegian Sky could work well as an immediately available start up ship, though it seems doubtful that Norwegian would completely abandon the lucrative, short Bahamas cruise run.

How might it work? Probably, the Norwegian Sky would sail on seven night, round trip cruises to Cuba from Miami. The ship could spend two, or even three, nights docked in Havana, where the revenue stream to be tapped from shore excursion sales must be extremely tempting to Norwegian Cruise Line. The ship could also offer one, perhaps even two calls at ports such as Grand Cayman and Key West.

In any event, it would be gratifying to see this still beautiful ship running on something more demanding than short, pedestrian jaunts around the Bahamas.

Stay tuned for updates.

UPDATED: BLACK WATCH ‘UNDER WAY FOR SPAIN’

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Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Having landed her passengers in Funchal, Madeira a few days ago, the fire damaged Black Watch is under way once more. The 28,000 ton, 1972 built ship left Madeira today for the Spanish port of El Ferrol, on the north west coast of the country.

Repairs will be needed to cabling in the engine room that closed down three of the ship’s eight diesels. It is understood that the Black Watch will take on supplies when she arrives in El Ferrol on Saturday, and will also undergo further evaluation by specially flown in experts at the Navantina dockyard located there.

After this, it is intended that Black Watch will proceed directly to Tilbury for any necessary further repairs. Although no exact time scale has been released for this- an unrealistic expectation until Navantina has completed due diligence- the fact that Black Watch is bound for Tilbury, rather than a dry dock in Southampton or on the continent, seems to point to the damage not being overly serious, with most of the major repairs being carried through by Navantina at El Ferrol.

Thus far, only the following July 8th cruise-a nine night voyage to the Norwegian Fjords- has been formally announced as cancelled by the line.

Some seven hundred passengers had to be evacuated and flown home on three specially chartered planes when Black Watch suffered her engine room fire. All of these will receive a full refund of their cruise fare, or the option of re-booking a comparable cruise in the same grade of cabin for free, plus a certificate for twenty per cent off any future Fred. Olsen cruise.

Stay tuned for updates.

UPDATE 8/7:

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has issued a statement on the Black Watch, in which it says that it ‘fully expects’ that the 1972 built ship will sail on it’s next scheduled cruise- a twenty six night Arctic itinerary on July 17th.

The nine night Fjords cruise, due to sail today, was cancelled as outlined above.

If so, it would seem to confirm the earlier prognosis laid out on here that the damage is not as serious to the ship as first thought.

Stay tuned for any further relevant updates.

 

 

NEXT BLACK WATCH CRUISE CANCELLED OWING TO FIRE DAMAGE

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Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Fred. Olsen Cruise Liner has formally announced that the next cruise of their popular Black Watch has been cancelled as result of recent fire damage sustained on her recent Canary Islands cruise.

The ship limped into Madeira, with damage to her engine cable systems. The fire was confined to the engine room, and all other on board systems remain operational.Some seven hundred passengers were flown home from the Portuguese island. At present, Black Watch remains in Funchal while technical teams assess the damage.

The July 8th sailing- so far the only one to be cancelled- was a Norwegian Fjords itinerary operating out of Tilbury.

At present, it is impossible to guess what the knock on effect might be to the remainder of the 2016 itineraries for Black Watch. This writer is currently scheduled to be aboard the 1972 built, former Royal Viking Line veteran, built as the Royal Viking Star for a short Fjords itinerary out of Rosyth.

As soon as updates become available, you’ll find them posted here. Please stay tuned.