THE ANTHONY’S- 2017 TRAVEL AWARDS!!

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Mykonos at dusk. Magnetic and compelling. Taken during a marvellous May sailing around the Aegean on the Star Flyer of Star Clippers. Photo copyright is the author’s

Yes folks, it’s THAT time of year again, as we pull up a chair and listen in raptored attention to the results of the greatest travel industry awards events of the year- THE ANTHONYS!!

And yes, it’s been quite a year. From the beaches of summertime Denmark to the bridge on the River Kwai, THE ANTHONYS have scoured the world of modern and contemporary travel, offering a hopefully laser like focus on the greats- and indeed, the grates- of the modern travel industry.

So, why not pop a bottle or eight of Lambrini, and dig into the twiglets as we unveil this years winners and losers, right here in THE ANTHONYS!

 

BEST AIRLINE:

EMIRATES

EMIRATES: Great space and styling, decent food and great service combine with an economy class cabin that’s soothing, spacious and genuinely relaxing. But it’s the in flight entertainment system on the back of every seat that really raises this airline way above it’s rivals. An outstanding product in an increasingly strained, restrictive market,

MOST IMPROVED AIRLINE:

delta

DELTA: No, I don’t believe that I said it, either. But yes. Seat back TV’s on 757’s and 737’s going to and from Puerto Rico? And a full, free drinks service in international economy? Check. I am often surprised by airline services these days, but rarely in a pleasant way. Kudos to Delta for realising that your fare paying customers really are something more than just human cargo.

WORST AIRLINE: and we have a tie here, folks….

BA

BRITISH AIRWAYS; For your sheer, unremitting greed in axing almost every perk once associated with flying economy in Europe, and then leaving your hugely dedicated, over worked, poorly motivated in flight staff to cope with the fallout from hordes of angry passengers. It says volumes about the mentality of those at the top of BA, and not in a good way. An airline in both free fall and denial. Literally doubling down.

AIR FRANCE

AIR FRANCE: A generally superb airborne product and in flight service is woefully betrayed by the most callous and uncaring land side customer service since Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. The airline where the spirit of Cruella De Ville meets the competence and sure touch of Inspector Clouseau of the Surete. Such a flying shame. Even Dick Dastardly’s Vulture Squadron was better run than this.

BEST RESTAURANT:

LC

LA COURONNE, ROUEN, FRANCE is a two star, Michelin rated restaurant in the Vieux Marche that dates all the way back to 1345. People gathered there to watch the martyrdom of Joan of Arc back in May of 1431, though the entertainment these days is a bit more sedate. Fabulous food and wine served with great flair in elegant, hushed surroundings that are far more welcoming than pretentious. A venue that understands the difference between style and hype. One of the finest dining experiences of my lifetime, and hugely recommended.

WORST RESTAURANT:

GF

GIRAFFE, TERMINAL FIVE, HEATHROW AIRPORT is a crowded, over priced mess. The staff are run off their feet, there’s little space between tables, and it’s hideously over priced. We’re all supposed to overlook this because it is, apparently, ‘funky’. There was probably less surrounding debris on the streets of Berlin in May, 1945. And the food? Mediocre, at best. At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask.

BEST NEW DESTINATION:

skagn

SKAGEN, DENMARK: Where the North Sea meets the Baltic, Skagen juts out like a bruised boxer’s jaw into the surf. The beach is long, sweeping and spotless and, on a sunny day, it would be wonderful. But this was June; summer wasn’t here yet. The old town is an artist’s haven, and chock full of gingerbread houses straight out of a Brothers Grimm fable. And all overlaid with that kind of effortlessly cool style that only the Danes really have. Compact, chocolate box pretty, and not at all overcrowded.

MOST OVER RATED DESTINATION:

MC

MONTE CARLO (also known as Monte Carbuncle, or even Monte Carloff): There are far nicer, considerably cheaper, far less hyped places within a few minutes’ train travel along the French Riviera (and that train journey is a sheer joy). Any place where you are expected to pay ‘only’ nine euros for a coffee- and to be grateful for the ‘privilege’- is more of a warning bell than a welcome mat. Yes, the harbour is pretty, but the rest of the place provides brittle glamour at best. Monte Carlo’s single most attractive feature remains the railway track that leads to Villefranche.

MOST MOVING EXPERIENCE:

kw

KWAI RIVER BRIDGE, KANCHANABURRI, THAILAND: Yes, part of  the infamous WW2 bridge was subsequently rebuilt after the original central span was destroyed by American fighter bombers, but it was rebuilt in the same style. The actual bridge is small, squat and brutal looking, more form over function. But, when you know it’s history, and the lost lives and suffering that spawned it, you feel it in every step. Walking over it is a humbling, mind blowing experience that would make even the very stones weep.

BEST ‘HELLO, AGAIN’ AWARD:

VILLEFRANCHE

VILLEFRANCHE SUR MER, COTE D’AZUR, FRANCE: Six years since we last met, and a brace of visits to Villefranche during 2017 felt like healing balm. The sheer style, beauty and sophistication of the place is platinum chip soul food. The beach has a few more club style resort bars now, but the old town remains the pearl of Europe’s prettiest stretch of coastline. J’adore.

BEST SMALL SHIP:

ao

AEGEAN ODYSSEY, VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY: As small and perfect as a charm bracelet, intimate, elegant and easily accessible. Outstanding service, brilliantly well thought through itineraries, wonderful food and a fantastic reference library for all those fabulous places she visits. What’s not to love?

BEST LUXURY SHIP:

SW

SILVER WHISPER, SILVERSEA CRUISES: While new fleet starlet Silver Muse garnered the bulk of the headlines, the serene and stately Silver Whisper purrs like a Rolls Royce, is as perfectly poised as Audrey Hepburn, and keeps putting it out there in sublime, under stated Silversea style. Hot Rocks dining outdoors under the summer solstice sky will always be a travel highlight for me.

BEST FIND IN CRUISING:

SS

SAGA SAPPHIRE; SAGA CRUISES: Sheer, inclusive value here is one thing, but such an expansive and open ship is usually the prerogative of only the six star market. Saga Sapphire carries just 700 passengers in total. Jars of free sweets on the upper deck, and steak for breakfast every morning if you wanted it? Oh, yes. And the interior decor is an eclectic, quirky delight that will keep you constantly engaged here.

BEST MAINSTREAM UK BASED SHIP:

columbus

COLUMBUS, CRUISE AND MARITIME VOYAGES: Elegant, expansive and pretty, with large cabins and single supplements at just 25 per cent make this ship a winner. But it’s the sheer quality of the ship herself that really shines, with vast, open outdoor decks and huge amount of sunlit interior nooks, she’s a great ship for longer voyages. And, add in the fact that you can sail round trip from the UK without enduring the hassle of flying into the equation, and the attraction becomes obvious.

BEST LARGE CRUISE SHIP:

AOTS

ADVENTURE OF THE SEAS; ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL: Vast, sassy, brimming with fun things to do for families and groups of all ages, the ship added stellar, spectacular entertainment with stunning over the top features such as the Royal Promenade and Studio B ice rink, and near flawless, extra charge fine dining venues such as Chops Grille. The outdoor cove balcony cabins on Deck Seven are among the best in class. Smaller, more intimate venues such as the Schooner Bar give parts of the ship a quiet, classy sophistication that come as a pleasant surprise for some. A great choice for the Caribbean.

That’s it for 2017, folks. Thanks so much for bearing with me one and all. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and all the very best for 2018. As ever, stay tuned….

 

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ADVENTURE OF THE SEAS PART EIGHT; SOME POINTS WORTH MAKING

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Adventure of the Seas at Kralendjik, Bonaire. Photo: @antnich

After a couple of weeks at home, and having had time to catch my breath, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this cruise experience.

While the destinations are wonderful, the holiday as whole is built around the ship. So, how did Adventure of the Seas shape up?

First of all, if you want a quiet, peaceful holiday, you are NOT going to get it on a ship carrying 3300 plus happy, pumped up passengers, especially when so many of them are young. That alone should be self evident to anyone whose IQ is actually larger than their shoe size; it’s not rocket science, people.

Yet I could find all the solitude and serenity I needed out on my cabin balcony. With just the sound of the sea as a backdrop, and a side order of cold wine and tender, beautifully sculpted sunsets to hand, it provided me with all the calm, healing balm that I needed.

Lines? Yes, you’ll find lines of people for the elevators, and they will be crowded, too- the same as in any small city. And that’s essentially what a ship like Adventure of the Seas is. Exercise a little patience, and just bear in mind that the entire ship is not your own personal, private fiefdom; you’ll always get where you need to in due course.

And sure, the buffet is crowded and noisy at breakfast times, and especially so on sea days. But the staff work miracles in clearing tables and keeping the flow moving. And do you need to eat breakfast in the buffet, anyway? Er, actually- no.

You can enjoy a far more leisurely, waiter served breakfast in the main dining room which is downright delightful, or even have breakfast brought to you in your cabin. And breakfast on your own private balcony is something you’ll never ever forget once you’ve tried it, for sure. Problem solved.

In fact, food on the whole was very good indeed, and better overall than I expected, especially on a mass market ship like this one. The extra charge ($38 per person, reservations only) Chops Grille was an outstanding steak house experience; my Filet Mignon was so tender that it almost crumbled at first touch of the knife. With ample, included sides of asparagus, mushrooms and truffle fries, plus some of the most decadent desserts I’ve ever sampled, Chops Grille was an amazing experience savoured in hushed, deeply luxurious surroundings. More of a food temple in fact, than a mere restaurant.

By contrast, the Johnny Rockets diner is pure Happy Days at sea and yes, it’s every bit as kitschy as you’d expect. It’s all streamlined chrome and screaming red booths, with tiny faux juke boxes on each table. Needless to say, there’s a conga line of burgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings and milk shakes on offer. Did I mention the cookies?

Johnny Rockets is simple, uncomplicated fun with it’s home cooked comfort food, served up with a side order of Cadillac sized nostalgia. For $6.95 on an all you can eat deal, it seemed to be open right around the clock. And, obviously, it was hugely popular with families.

The main dining room is a swish, glamorous affair. Some three storeys high, it looks like a Hollywood film producer’s idea of what a 1930’s ocean liner dining room would look like. It serves up lavish, five course dinners for those on the normal two evening sittings, as well as those opting for flexible dining times (and yes, you can choose). While the menu on all three levels is the same, it changes each evening, and such staples as Caesar Salad and Manhattan Strip Sirloin are always available. It’s as much about theatre as cuisine, but it’s a hugely enjoyable experience. It’s well worth dressing up for at least once to share a real sense of occasion with family and friends.

Apart from the buffet (which also offers a casual dinner each evening) there are also free snacks, including pizza, sandwiches and cakes available at the French style Cafe Promenade, located on the Royal Promenade. This is also a good option for a light breakfast and, while the coffee is free here, there are also speciality coffees that incur an extra price. So, too, does the ice cream from the nearby Ben and Jerry’s franchise. If you want free ice cream, there is self serve stuff available from the dispensers outside the upper deck buffet.

You certainly won’t go hungry, and nor will you be starved of entertainment options, either. From nightly street parties and parades on the Royal Promenade to ice skating spectaculars in Studio B, the Adventure of the Seas has it all. From cool jazz to colourful calypso poolside, an acoustic guitarist to a sizzling salsa band, and even late night pool parties and non stop casino action, the Adventure of the Seas literally rocked, rolled and rhumabae’d through the course of our week on board. You’d be very hard put to find a more rollicking party boat than this one, if that’s your thing.

But, for those craving simple peace and quiet, there are no shortage of quiet, intimate nooks-in particular the gorgeous Schooner Bar- that serve up nothing more than great Martinis and some stellar conversation.

I really enjoyed my time on this glitzy, stupendous seagoing resort. Adventure of the Seas more than met my expectations, and frequently exceeded them in some really delightful ways. I’d certainly do this again.

ADVENTURE OF THE SEAS PART SEVEN- THE LONG JOURNEY HOME

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Royal Promenade on Adventure of the Seas

Finally, it’s Saturday morning, and the Adventure of the Seas is back where we started in Puerto Rico, just one week ago. It’s time to go home and, inevitably, the sense of regret and loss I always feel at the end of my trip sits as uneasily as an unwanted side order on my breakfast plate.

A long couple of days lies ahead; the inevitable downside to whooping it up for a week in winter on the other side of the world. But, truth be told, both Royal Caribbean and their partner airlines do their best to make the process as smooth and painless as possible.

Thus, our luggage already awaits us ashore, and I had been able to check in for my Delta flights the night before. I’m flying from Puerto Rico back to the UK via New York, but there’s plenty of connecting time. Finding my luggage is easy once off the ship; it goes into a separate, sealed van that follows our transfer coach to the airport. We enjoy a curbside reunion under sullen, humid skies. The warmth and wonder of those islands in the sun already feels a lifetime away.

Despite my flight not being for several hours, I’m glad to be able to check my luggage right away, and all the way through to Heathrow at that. Those last few hours pass in a blur of retail therapy, a couple of beers, and the attempted consumption of an armour plated hamburger that’s as spiky as an Armadillo. And, I might add, just about as edifying.

I’ve lucked out with an exit aisle seat on the four hour flight back to JFK, and it’s on a brand new 737-900 with seat back TV’s for everyone. The plane lofts into a flaring purple twilight, and I lapse into some obviously much needed sleep. Not long before landing, some very welcome (and free) Starbucks coffee gives me that vital caffeine lift that I need. As first legs of a long journey go, this was actually a damned pleasant flight.

JFK is rain lashed, with pools of light shimmering on the tarmac as we rumble to a halt. The Delta staff on our flight have been perceptive enough to inform us at which gates our onward flights will be waiting. It takes me all of fifteen minutes to debark and arrive at the gate for my next flight.

I’m on a Boeing 767 back to the UK, and my initial dismay at being on an ‘older’ plane fades when I see the smart, obviously newly refreshed interior on this one. Again, I luck out with an aisle seat (the 767 flies in a 3-3-3 across configuration in economy) and there’s more than enough room for me to hunker down for the next seven hours or so.

Manhattan falls away below us in a rain soaked, neon smear and, before I know it, the first drinks run comes through the cabin. I cradle a vodka and orange- Delta serves free spirits, wine and beer on all international economy flights- and decide on the chicken from the three choices on the dinner menu. I flick through a choice of more than ninety boxed seats on offer to watch, and that’s before I get to the films, when the main meal arrives.

It’s hot and plentiful, with some taste to it. At 36,000 feet, it’s realistically as good as it gets. Wines on offer are white, red, rose and even sparkling. The pours are generous too, from full bottles into plastic glasses rather than the small, quarter bottles that most airlines offer. Somehow, this just seems more satisfying. And, by the time I have munched my way through the meal and then gorged on four episodes of The White Princess, sleep finally creeps up and coshes me. I sag into a gentle, three hour snooze and, as I do, we cross the Atlantic, and dawn breaks once again over old Europe’s beckoning shores.

London is sunny enough as I transit through Heathrow in around thirty five minutes on a Sunday morning- something of a personal record. Both Delta flights have been agreeable, hassle free experiences; in fact, the crew on the overnight flight in particular were outstanding. But now I’m off to Terminal Five to surrender myself to the tender mercies of British Airways for the last, short leg home.

Check in is painless enough, and I have ample time to grab some lunch at Terminal Five. It’s over priced, over rated, and served up in hugely over crowded surroundings. At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask. But, needs must; because BA will offer you nothing in with the price of your ticket, not even a coffee. Nada. Zilch.

The hour long flight passes in a blur and, before I know it, we land with a gentle bump. The warm, welcoming lights of Newcastle’s passenger terminal glint on the rain sodden runway. The air is shockingly bone chilling. Even my luggage has made it home with me; something of a win-win situation these days. I sag with genuine gratitude into the back of my taxi, and recoil from the cold, oppressive darkness looming just outside my window.

So, those are the actual, physical logistics of the long journey home laid bare. It wasn’t too bad of an experience at all; long, but not interminable. And, for once, I didn’t actually feel jet lagged, either.

SOVEREIGN HITS THE BIG 3-O

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Sovereign of the Seas. Photo credit: http://www.cruisereviews.com

Thirty years ago today, a ship unlike any other was preparing to leave the Penhoet shipyard at St. Nazaire, France. She was nothing less than the world’s first purpose built mega cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s awe inspiring Sovereign of the Seas.

Having successfully completed a series of strenuous sea trials, the 74,000 ton ship was making ready to leave Saint Nazaire on a direct crossing to her new home port of Miami. Under the command of Captain Tor Stangeland, the huge, still not quite complete ship would carry a small complement of passengers, and a full roster of skilled tradesmen who would be working flat out to complete the ship before her scheduled Caribbean debut in January of 1988.

Of course, the famed French shipyard had form when it came to building classic, almost heartbreaking beauties; Ile De France, Normandie and, of course, the Norway ex-France had all emerged from this hallowed cradle of fabulous maritime creations. Long before her proud, graceful prow ever cut salt water at all, Sovereign of the Seas could claim a rightful place in one of the most illustrious seagoing lineages of all time.

That heritage showed, too; the stern was a curved, knuckled masterpiece that perfectly echoed the magnificent Normandie of 1935. The bow, though sharper, had the same stance and vast, soaring flanks of her soon to be great rival, the SS. Norway. Indeed, those same two ships would soon be engaged in a game of maritime bragging rights on a scale unseen since the Normandie and Queen Mary in the 1930’s.

But while Norway was classic sixties luxe re-imagined in shimmering Art Deco, the Sovereign was almost relentlessly modern; a twenty five year leap forward in thinking and tastes. Unlike her adored rival, she was a ship created from scratch, tailor made to suit and, indeed, anticipate the tastes of a new age. Everything about her stressed a confident, dominant intent.

Externally, Sovereign of the Seas was a super sized version of the 1982, Wartsila built Song of America. Both ships had the same graceful, dramatic poise and stance. And, like the earlier ship, Sovereign continued the idea of having all the passenger cabins in the forward part of the ship, while the public rooms were piled up aft like a layered cake.

Again, there was the vast, open pool deck set in a sun bowl, with two pools and a pair of bars. Above it all, the imperious Viking Crown lounge sat, high and proud, wrapped around the single funnel. The similarities between the two ships were immediately obvious; they still are to this day.

But, while the earlier ship had no single outstanding internal focal point, Sovereign of the Seas flaunted a spectacular, five storey high atrium lobby that separated the cabins from the public areas. Writ large in brass, steel, marble and vast, sweeping staircases, it featured the first pair of panoramic lifts ever put into a ship. This swaggering, still impressive piece of architecture was such a stunning success that it became the benchmark for nearly all new cruise ships to this day.

The cabins were another matter; small, modular and functional, there was little real difference in size between inside and outside rooms. In those days, Royal Caribbean’s motto was ‘Get Out There’; by which they meant, into the bars, lounges, shops and casino, rather than crouching in your cabin.

Later- and in another ironic echo of the SS Norway– a string of balcony cabins would be added along the ship’s upper decks, although there was no massive structural alteration. Indeed, the ship’s proud, impressive silhouette remains almost exactly the same today as it was when new; a tribute to a truly well thought out and executed design concept.

This vast, vivacious ship was so stunningly successful that she was followed by a pair of near identical sister ships from the same French yard; the 1991 built Monarch of the Seas, and 1992’s Majesty of the Seas. All three are still sailing to this day.

Sovereign of the Seas sailed the prestige, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise itineraries out of Miami for many years, but as newer ships came on line in the mid 1990’s the great ship was relegated to the three and four night Bahamas cruise runs, mainly from Port Canaveral.

She was periodically updated and always well maintained; like her sisters, she had a rock climbing wall grafted onto the rear of the funnel. Royal Caribbean also added a branch of Johnny Rockets, the popular retro Fifties style diner. And, of course, the new balcony cabins gave her some very profitable real estate to offer prospective passengers.

Still, it was not enough. The tsunami of new buildings that her success had triggered, ultimately threatened to swamp her. Again, like the Norway before her, the Sovereign found herself unable to compete with all the bells and whistles that a whole new generation of ships were flaunting. Only so much could be shoehorned into a hull whose parameters had been decided back in 1985.

Renamed Sovereign, the still magnificent ship was transferred to Pullmantur, the Spanish satellite of Royal Caribbean, and sent to a new home in Europe. The Spanish operator offered mass market cruises to a mainly Spanish clientele, and still does to this day.

Now sporting a beautiful, dark blue hull (yet another apt Norway echo), the Sovereign sails on seven night Western Mediterranean cruises for most of the year, and allows passengers to embark in either Barcelona, or at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. Each autumn, she crosses the Atlantic to South America to operate a series of dazzling, three and four night party cruises from Santos to Rio De Janeiro. In spring, she re- crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona, to resume her Mediterranean season.

Just prior to her current anniversary, the Sovereign received an extensive dry docking that refreshed many of her public areas, as well as performing both essential and routine maintenance. Thus re-powdered, the proud old dame crossed the Atlantic, en route to South America.

I sailed on her back in March for a long weekend, and simply fell head over heels back in love with her. With her all inclusive prices and great range of children’s facilities, the ship is a big hit with her predominantly Spanish passengers. And, while the names of the public rooms have been changed, Royal Caribbean sentimentalists will find much on board that is instantly familiar.

The former Schooner Bar is almost completely as it was, ditto the Viking Crown lounge. The atrium seems frozen in a time warp, too, and is all the more appealing for it. The long, outdoor promenade decks, still lined with their original, plastic slatted, sit up and beg chairs, are the best kept secrets on the ship.

Thirty years on, it is nothing short of magical to see this gracious, still graceful ship sailing calmly on her way. Even after all these years, the Sovereign is still quietly doing what she was always built to do; providing thrilling, exhilarating seaborne travel to a whole new generation of fans.

I for one, hope that she sails on forever.