IN PURSUIT OF RETRO; CRUISE SHIPS GO BACK TO THE FUTURE

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Artist’s impression of Saga’s new Spirit of Discovery. Picture credit: Saga Cruises

There’s been a bit of a quiet revolution going on among some of the cruise lines in the past few years. After years on end of new, looming floating tower blocks, each more staggering in scale than the last, there has been  a subtle, yet definite return in some quarters to a more classic style of ocean liner look.

Don’t get me wrong- this is not some wild eyed rant against the new generation of floating resorts. I understand and appreciate the rationale that has brought them into being, and you cannot argue with their continuing success in sheer financial terms. Rows of balcony cabins are now de rigeur on modern ships and, as a lover of my own private space outside, it ill behoves me to start casting aesthetic aspersions.

And yet it’s nice to see a slow but steady return to a sense of ageless, elegant exterior styling. Take a look at the ship in the above illustration as a prime example.

Slated to enter service in 2019, the 60,000 ton Spirit of Discovery is the first of a brace of sister ships being built in Germany for Saga Cruises. That raked bow, sleek hull and single, proud funnel is a deliberate tribute to a pair of former Saga beauties of the past, the much lamented Saga Rose and Saga Ruby. And, with cool, classic interiors more reminiscent of the Art Deco era overlaid with elements of country club casual, these new ships are fine examples of how modern design can still accommodate contemporary tastes.

Of course, Disney Cruise Line can rightly take credit for this ‘back to the future’ look. Their quartet of large, retro vessels are a deliberate nod towards the likes of the old Queen Elizabeth and the Normandie. So much so that the company even went to the extent of building a virtual carbon copy of Southampton’s old, now long gone 1940’s Ocean Terminal to service them at their home port of Port Canaveral. And again, under multiple layers of ‘Mickey Modern’ embellishments, the decorative theme of all four ships is a distinctive Art Deco style.

Now, that same line has announced plans for a trio of even larger sister ships. Here’s hoping that this tremendous new trio adhere to the strong, hugely popular retro theme that has been hitherto so successful for them. With the new generation of screamingly advanced Virgin new builds looking like a trio of giant, floating steam irons, some calm, classic constructions are to be warmly welcomed.

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Another flank view of the elegant new Spirit of Discovery. Picture credit: Saga Cruises
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COMING SOON- THE CHI-TANIC

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Under way- construction on the ‘new’ Titanic replica is well advanced

Like some fantastic, improbable sea monster rising from the depths of a deathless legend, a familiar shape is fast assuming solid form in a Chinese shipyard. A name at once suffused with horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour.

Titanic.

Now firmly under way in a part of China’s Sichuan province, construction of the static, full scale replica of the ill fated juggernaut is expected to be completed by 2019. And, unlike the bombast fuelled hype that surrounded Australian business man Clive Palmer’s moribund attempt at recreating the ship, this Titanic is very much in the realms of the here, the now, and the oh-so-real.

While all Palmer managed to achieve was laying down dinner plates in restaurants at a series of very fancy press launches, the actual keel plates of the ‘Floating Ritz’ are rising again, day by day, in China. The latest illustrations show construction cracking on at a rate of knots perhaps unseen since the fateful night of April 14th, 1912, as the original ship surged towards her nemesis.

While the replica Titanic will be the centre attraction of a massive, man made theme park, the owners have been very astute in securing the services of a world renowned team of Titanic experts to give the project both credibility, depth and expertise; something that Clive Palmer singularly failed to do.

The current project cost has been estimated at around £105 million, and will include the recreation of three hundred first class cabins, to be sold as hotel rooms. The original lavish, opulent interiors will reappear, in the exact scale and stance as those of 1912. There is talk that at least one boiler room will be recreated down in the bowels of the hull, and also possibly the engine room.

There will inevitably be those who cry indignation at any attempt to recreate the central component of such a notorious event as the Titanic disaster. But this ship will not be making any attempt to sail. And yet, paradoxically, this land locked colossus will, indeed, take people on a voyage of discovery back into the past.

For, in terms of interest and fascination, the genie has long been out of the bottle in connection with the Titanic and her story. You only have to look at the phenomenal success of the Titanic quarter in her former builder’s yard at Belfast, to realise just what awe, fascination and sheer sense of wonder are carried by those seven, simple letters. Those who decry the Chinese project are entitled to their point of view, but they are very much swimming against the tide of human curiosity.

In truth, the fateful voyage of Titanic has never actually ended. She has always continued to sail in the minds of men, racing heedlessly across the calm, starlit Atlantic towards her chilling rendezvous near midnight. It was- and still is- a story so staggering and implausible that not even the combined talents of Gene Rodenberry, Steven King and Jules Verne could have conjured up anything so fantastic as the real life events of April 14th-15th, 1912.

It seems to me that this actual, physical reincarnation of the Titanic could act as a kind of emotional lightning rod for those who continue to be fascinated by the ship, one that complements the stellar achievements still being rolled out at Titanic Belfast. And yes, I would have preferred to see the replica displayed in state at the place of her birth, but that’s not how the dice has rolled.

So I expect this now rapidly looming replica to arouse awe, appalled horror, and outright admiration in different people, according to their temperaments. But the point is that the original Titanic herself aroused exactly the same sentiments in many, and some of those even long before her eventual, aborted maiden voyage.

I continue to watch this project with fascination, and I know that I am far from alone.

SCENIC ECLIPSE- THE EXPEDITION BOOM CONTINUES

SCENIC ECLIPSE
SCENIC ECLIPSE

The burgeoning expedition cruise ship circuit looks set to reach a new plateau next year with the introduction of the all suite, all inclusive new Scenic Eclipse.  Purpose built for cruising to regions such as Antarctica and the Amazon, this new vessel pushes the boundaries in terms of sumptuous, on board amenities and sheer, personal indulgence.

Time was, you really had to be prepared to ‘rough it’ on an expedition ship to Antarctica. It was almost exclusively the preserve of chartered Russian ice breakers, hired by companies such as Quark. The vessels were as sturdy, uncompromising and yes, as spartan, as the incredible scenic smorgasbords that they pushed and crunched their way through. It’s safe to say that on board product delivery was not top of the bill on these ships, and equally safe to say that many loved them for that simple, no nonsense approach. They wore that perceived discomfort like a badge of honour.

My, how that will change….

Scenic Eclipse will carry just 228 passengers in all suite, all balcony accommodation, with a 1:1 crew ratio to match. When the ship is in Antarctica, passenger numbers will be limited to just 200. There will be no less than-count them- nine separate, all inclusive dining venues, and the ship will be completely all inclusive. There are indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs and, naturally, the Scenic Eclipse will carry her own helicopter, submarine for sightseeing under the ice, and an on board fleet of zodiac motor boats.

You’ll be able to scuba dive, or take specially prepared picnics ashore in some of the more temperate waters where the ship will cruise. You can take out a kayak or an e-bike, have unlimited wi-fi usage, and even have your clothes unpacked and repacked by your own, dedicated butler.

So, does all of this lavish indulgence (and I personally think that nine restaurants for a ship of this size and capacity is way over the top) mean that expedition cruising has ‘gone soft’? Will the exploits and memories of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen be decried by the prowling presence of the sort of ship previously associated with a particularly well heeled Bond villain?

I guess it depends where you stand, but to my mind, the answer is ‘no’. There is no written rule anywhere that expedition cruising has to be either uncomfortable, or almost puritan in its scope and intent. The notion of progress is hog wired into our very DNA, after all. And, for all his seafaring prowess and derring- do, I dare bet that Christopher Columbus would have found crossing the Atlantic far more pleasant on the Queen Mary 2 than on the doughty, plodding little Santa Maria. Thrill seeking need not automatically equate to lack of style or space. I am more than happy to survey the great, jagged, blush tinted ice floes of Antarctica up close and personal, as long as I can sit in a hot tub with a glass of something warm and reviving to hand.

Scenic Eclipse? Sounds more like a scenic sunrise to me. As always, stay tuned for updates.

THE SAGA EXPERIENCE-GROWN UP TRAVEL AT SEA

saga sapphire
SAGA SAPPHIRE

For lovers of grown up travel, Saga Cruises is an option that should certainly be on your personal horizon. With just two ships- Saga Sapphire and Saga Pearl II- the line offers a level of elegance and inclusivity aboard their brace of intimate, well served ships.

With just 720 and 500 passengers respectively, Saga Sapphire and Saga Pearl II are sold exclusively to UK passengers over the age of fifty. They feature many single cabins, and public areas that are more refreshingly genteel than screaming glitzy; they have tone, rather than torrents of on board diversions. Your search for a rock climbing wall will disappoint you in the end.

Instead, the line puts the emphasis firmly on good food that is actually outstanding at times, and on low key, high quality live musical entertainment at night. Expect a pleasant piano bar rather than a pounding disco, and cool, late night jazz instead of a frantic casino. This combination of high quality food and live music runs through both ships like a continuous thread.

Saga also offers the marvellous boon of free, chauffeur driven travel from your home direct to the ship, or the options of free rail, coach or even air connections to the port. This seamless packaging of essentials comes as standard, and is an inestimable boon to the line’s prospective guests. The line also offers free travel insurance for each trip, or a per person fare reduction for those already in posession of their own; again, quite forward and thoughtful thinking.

Saga also offers free wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner each evening, as well as free wi-fi and paid gratuities. Taken as a whole, this all amounts to something of a comfort blanket for people that might not otherwise be happy with the idea of voyaging off into the relative unknown, and it’s certainly a key factor in their success. When I visited Saga Pearl II recently on a sold out sailing, more than fifty per cent of the passengers were repeat guests.

interestingly, both ships feature small, indoor pools- a rare treat these days. The upper decks are sprinkled with gorgeous wooden loungers with royal blue padding, and there’s no shortage of umbrella shades tables and chairs. In such an intimate setting, it’s all conducive to raising relaxation to the level of an art form.

And- coming in 2019- is a new flagship, in the form of the currently building Spirit of Discovery. The new ship comes in at around 60,000 tons, and looks like nothing so much as a retro throwback to the great transatlantic liners of the 1930’s, with it’s proud, raked bow, gleaming back hull and a single staunch, graceful funnel. With tasteful, airy interiors more reminiscent of a grand country house rather than a glittering Vegas resort at sea, this new ship looks set to raise the bar on this style of cruising, offering the best of modern luxury in a setting that’s restful, retro indulgence at it’s best.

The one downside is that her introduction will see the departure of Saga Pearl II from the fleet after a final, glorious, fifty four day foray out to South Africa and back.

I’ll be looking at the Saga product in more depth during a short cruise on Saga Sapphire next month, and you’ll be able to read about it right here. As ever, stay tuned.

HOWZAT? CRUISE AND MARITIME STUMPS UP CRICKETING LEGENDS FOR MAGELLAN IN OCTOBER

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CMV’s Magellan. Photo credit: http://www.shipspotting.com

In an obvious attempt to bowl over a legion of new fans to cruising (pun wholly intentional), Cruise and Maritime Voyages has arranged for a crack team of former international and test cricketers to join Magellan  for her six night Medieval Cities and River Seine cruise from Tilbury on October 24th this year.

Leading the batting at a series of themed Q and A sessions will be such luminaries as David Gower, the former England captain; Chris Cowdrey, Alan Wells, John Lever, Ray East, Don Topley, and Ken McEwan. All things considered, quite a swathe of talent from the glory days of both Essex and Kent.

MC and umpire duties will be the responsibility of Nick Hancock, the former host of the long running They Think It’s All Over sports quiz show.

The six night sailing on Magellan is a coastal cities voyage, with calls at the classic trade centres of Amsterdam and Antwerp, plus a visit to Honfleur, the famous French fishing village famous for it’s associations with impressionist painters such as Monet and, as the highlight, an overnight stay in Rouen, a gorgeous, half timbered city remembered mainly as the site of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom in 1431.

Additionally, Magellan will serve up some splendid scenic river cruising, along the sixty mile expanse of the River Scheldt leading to Antwerp, and along the long, lazy sprawl of the River seine, en route back to Tilbury.

Travels With Anthony will be on board for the cruise, so expect more dispatches from the front closer to the time.

NORWEGIAN SUN TO CUBA IN 2018

NORWEGIAN SUN
Norwegian Sun

It’s double up time for Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cuba offering. The line has just announced that the 78,000 ton, 2001 built Norwegian Sun will join near sister, Norwegian Sky, on the four day Florida to Cuba cruise circuit, effective as of May 7th, 2018.

Norwegian Sun will first undergo a seventeen day refit in Victoria, BC, to bring her in line with all the latest ‘Norwegian Edge’ innovations, after which the ship will transit through the Panama Canal to her new home port at Port Canaveral.

Once there, the ship will sail four day Cuba cruises that each offer a night in Havana, plus an additional call in Key West- a must for any of you Hemingway fans out there. The Norwegian Sun will also offer shorter, three night cruises to Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay, this effectively mirroring the sailings of Norwegian Sky from nearby Miami,

It would be perfectly possible to do these two, consecutive cruises together, or even to ‘switch’ between the two ships mid cruise, and thus get two for the price of one.

As always, stay tuned for updates

FLYING EMIRATES; SOME IMPRESSIONS

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Emirates A380. Photo credit; http://www.emirates.com

Anyone that knows me even vaguely will assure you that I find the whole experience of modern air travel to be a generally degrading and dispiriting experience that I would prefer to live without. However, being a travel writer makes that about as practical as becoming a vegetarian piranha. It’s a necessary evil that has no panacea.

I’ll qualify that opening statement slightly. It is generally airports in general that depress me, with their soul destroying (yet unavoidable, largely) check in and security procedures. In flight is usually at least tolerable, largely depending upon the length of the flight and, of course, the hospitality (or lack thereof) of the carrier.. I don’t have unrealistic expectations on the whole and, unless someone else is paying, I generally turn right at the end of the air bridge.

But flying from my local airport of Newcastle to Bangkok on Emirates back in late February really surprised me very pleasantly. This was a flight of two haves; Newcastle to Dubai on an Emirates 777, and then on to Bangkok aboard a giant, state of the art A380, often referred to as the ‘Super Jumbo’.

Check in at Newcastle was brisk and efficient, with no less than half a dozen check in staff working manfully to get us all sorted. Boarding was easy enough, and I’ve flown enough 777’s in the past to know the form.

I scored a window seat in a row of three. The Emirates 777 has a 3-4-3 configuration in Economy and, while the interior of the plane was very light and restful, the seat felt quite hard and lumpy. However, this seemed to lessen as the flight progressed, though that might have been the vodka kicking in as well, I suppose.

But the entertainment was superb; an in house set up allows access to literally hundreds of comedy, radio and dedicated movie channels, as well as documentaries and even full boxed sets.

A dinner menu was brought around, offering two choices for the main of three different courses. The food- with real cutlery to boot- was restaurant quality, and some of the best I have ever eaten in flight. Drinks came around on a regular basis, and staff on the whole did a fine job with an attitude that was polite, without being servile. Eight hours did, indeed, quite literally fly by.

That ended with a bump once we landed at Dubai. The gate for my connecting flight to Bangkok seemed a million miles removed from our parking place, way out in the sticks. Not really knowing Dubai Airport, I was a tad concerned about the connection time. But, as events transpired, it was simply me being over cautious; everything went fine in the end.

The Airbus A380 is a quantum leap over it’s venerable predecessor as ‘Queen’ of long haul travel, the Boeing 747. Ceilings have extra height; the aisles feel wider, and even the seats had a seventeen inch television screen on the back. The luggage racks were cavernous, and bigger than some puddle jumpers I’ve flown on. And never before have I had to climb a step to use a bathroom in more than thirty five years of flying.

With light coloured decorative tones throughout, and a far more comfortable and cocooning seat than on the 777, the Emirates A380 really did feel like an exhilarating quantum leap in terms of comfort and cleanliness. My six hours on board were punctuated with bouts of sleep and a sense of sheer, overall fatigue that did not really allow me to appreciate this marvellous, oh so silent monster as much as it no doubt deserved.

Again, service was slick without being subservient; smiles seemed genuine, and although food was limited to a take off snack and an early morning arrival breakfast, it was still exhilarating to revel in the space and grace of the A380. More pointedly, I was reminded of a time when flying could, indeed, be fun, and I was offered the first, faint hope that, in the case of flying Emirates, some of that fondly remembered anticipation and sense of occasion that flying engendered, might just be on the horizon again. Seamless, lovely stuff.