THE ILE DE FRANCE; THE GREAT GAME CHANGER

ILE DE FRANCE
The Ile De France as originally built. After the war, she would be rebuilt with just two, more substantial funnels.

I’ve been lucky enough to sail on many great, fine and famous ships in my time. But, like many other writers, I retain a kind of wistful nostalgia for the ones that ‘got away’, or went way before my time.

If I could go back in time and travel on any ship, then the Normandie would be at the absolute top of my list. But, my word, the Ile De France would not be far behind in the pecking order. And here’s why…..

After World War One, as the shattered ocean liner fleets began to rebuild, there was no desire amongst any of them to resume the great superliner races of those pre-war days.

That era- between 1907 and 1914- had seen an ever larger trio of super ships enter service for Cunard, White Star, and the Hamburg Amerika Lines, respectively. Those nine vessels were, collectively, the largest moving objects ever built.

But, by wars’ end the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Britannic were all gone. The trio of German giants were surrendered as war reparations to the victorious allies but, even then, the feeling was that the surviving big ships were no longer good economic role models.

As they rebuilt post war, all of the lines went for smaller, more cost effective new builds that were typically in the 20,000 ton range. It was a move that fitted the cautious mood of a world still reeling from the after effects of the most disastrous single conflict in human history.

But, in 1927, all of that changed with the birth of one stunning new ocean liner; a ship that would become one of the most adored and legendary vessels ever to cut salt water.

The Ile De France.

At 43,000 tons, the new French Line flagship was more than twice the size of any new build, but still not quite as large as the likes of the ageing Berengaria, Olympic and Majestic. And her knife like bow, counter stern and trio of smokestacks made her look like a hangover from the Edwardian era. Externally, she was as conventional as they come.

But her interiors were entirely another matter. Here, the French simply threw out a rule book thought almost sacrosanct for nearly a century.

Where every large liner before her had tried to emulate the look of some Gothic theme park, grand Edwardian hotel or Roman palace, the Ile De France was sheathed from bow to stern in the new, Art Deco style of interior design that was then all the rage in Europe. It was a look that catapulted her light years ahead of the opposition.

Instead of overly fussed, dark wood panelling, the Ile De France was a slick, streamlined riposte, wrought large in glass, marble, and hammered bronze. Her vast interiors boasted simple lines, elegant curves, bold new geometric furniture and avant garde carpets, right throughout the ship.

This trendy, totally different take on interior design was allied to the matchless standards of food and service for which the French Line was already justly renowned. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five different items nightly. Table wine was always free in all classes, at both lunch and dinner. The passenger lifts came complete with scarlet jacketed bellboys, who were simply there to show Monsieur or Madame to whichever part of the ship they might wish to visit.

Though most of her passengers would be American, announcements aboard the Ile De France were always made first in French. The company insisted that you were actually in France from the moment that you crossed her gangways, whether in Le Havre, Southampton, or New York.

And the travelling public loved her. Regular passengers on the Atlantic crossing were prepared to wait an extra week just to be able to sail on her, rather than the competition. In the 1930’s, she carried more first class passengers than any other ship afloat.

She never went for the speed record, which was regarded as pretty passe in the 1920’s. It would take the return of the big German liners to re-ignite the race for the Blue Ribband a couple of years further down the line.

She was sailed with great panache as well. When one English passenger mentioned to her captain that the Ile De France was ‘not the biggest’, he replied sweetly: ‘No, madame, but then neither is the Ritz’.

And, way beyond her sheer magnificence and sense of panache, the coming of the Ile De France triggered the second great era of superliner building. After her sensational debut, every line wanting to corner the cream of the North Atlantic trade had to look to their laurels.

In Germany, her success triggered the construction of both the Bremen and the Europa. Mussolini’s Italy would also launch it’s own stunning, twin riposte, in the shapes of the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia.

These four ships in their turn acted as lightning rods for the construction of the two greatest liners of them all; Normandie and her great British rival, Queen Mary.

Collectively, these seven ships would dominate the 1930’s ocean liner trade. And the Ile De France herself would sail on until as late as 1959, becoming a decorated war heroine in the process. In July 1956, she rescued the survivors of the Andrea Doria after her collision with the Stockholm off Nantucket.

If ever any ship was a true game changer, it was surely the Ile De France. Every passenger ship that followed was influenced by her in some way or another. She was a truly beloved legend, and one of the most immortal ships ever to sail anywhere.

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CARNIVAL’S POTENTIAL SALES BARGAINS

COSTA NEOCLASSICA
The recently sold Costa NeoClassica

With the Carnival Group retaining it’s pre-eminent position as the world’s largest collective cruise operator, and new tonnage coming on stream for most of it’s banner brands, it stands to reason that the operator is looking at shedding some of it’s older, smaller ships as it continues to evolve.

Indeed, that process has already begun, with the sale of P&O Cruises’ Adonia to Azamara Club Cruises, and that of the Costa NeoClassica to Bahamas Paradise Cruises. You can bet that more will follow when the time- and the price-is right.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the ships that might be up for grabs across the broad spectrum of Carnival’s huge cruise portfolio.

Holland America Line transferred two of it’s beautiful Statendam class ships across to fellow Carnival stable mate, P&O Australia. That leaves two more- Maasdam and Veendam- with the line. As new ships come on line, these twin, 1200 guest lovelies must be on borrowed time.

It could also be time up for the slightly smaller Prinsendam. HAL’s popular, 38,000 ton ‘Elegant Explorer’ would be a nice fit for someone like Fred. Olsen Cruises, an operator that has cast covetous eyes on the ship before. She would be a perfect fit in that particular fleet, too.

Over at Princess Cruises, the 30,000 ton Pacific Princess is the last of the original, eight class of ‘R’ ships still listed in the Carnival ranks. The other seven have long since been divided up between niche operators, Oceania Cruises (four ships) and Azamara Club Voyages (three ships). The latter, of course, recently acquired the Adonia, which will re-emerge from a wet dock refurbishment this August as the Azamara Pursuit.

Assuming the price is right, don’t be too surprised if the Pacific Princess finds her way over to the highly styled Azamara stable as well.

Costa, Carnival’s Italian brand, recently parted company with the popular, 53,000 ton Costa NeoClassica. So it seems logical to expect the eventual departure of her near sister, the 1993 built Costa NeoRomantica, and also that of the slightly smaller Costa NeoRiviera. Either- or indeed both- of these ships would be grist to the mill for a company such as Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

As for Carnival itself, the parent company has a publicly stated policy of only building new ships to replace existing ones. With Carnival Horizon on the, er, horizon, and Carnival Panorama now a confirmed order, that can only mean a fond farewell to two of the fleet of nine Fantasy class ships that have been the backbone of the line’s short cruise operation for the better part of three decades now.

Which two will go is an unknown, and where they might end up is even more vague. But let’s not forget that Thomas Cook was planning a start up cruise fleet, and had stated an interest in acquiring a pair of start up vessels. Taking two large sister ships would create synergies in terms of cost and operations for any new, start up company.

They could do a lot worse.

THE TITANIC; THE HOMECOMING OF HULL 401

TITANIC

When RMS Titanic plunged under the starlit North Atlantic at 2.20 on the morning of Monday April 15th, 1912, she left a sodden, terrified mass of over 1500 souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in the freezing water. As time went by, the cries gradually died out. But some would argue that they still echo, even to this day.

On both sides of the new world, stock markets plunged to the bottom in her wake. Some of the biggest, wealthiest and most famous names in the world had gone down with the ship, and their demise triggered a financial tsunami that shook the smug, supremely self confident heirs of the ‘Gilded Age’ to their very core. It simply did not seem possible. And yet it was.

But it was even worse than that; the sinking of the Titanic was a horrendous psychological blow to the nation. At the height of it’s power in 1912, the British Empire ruled one quarter of the entire world. It’s navies- both Royal and merchant- dominated the waves across the globe.

And now, the supreme technical manifestation of that empire- a ship lauded and hyped to the heavens- had gone down on her maiden voyage. With her, she took the self belief and crass self confidence of an era that believed that advances in science and engineering, bolstered by rampant, unfettered capitalism, could achieve and overcome anything.

Imagine the combined shock effect of 9/11, the Concorde crash of 2001, and the death of Princess Diana, and you begin to get some idea of the horror and sheer sense of incomprehension triggered by the Titanic disaster. In terms of confidence, nothing would ever be quite the same again.

But it impacted the place of her birth like nowhere else on the planet.

For three years, the Titanic had been an actual, physical part of the Belfast skyline as she rose from the city soil that gave her birth. She was the biggest physical structure in the city, and as much a part of it’s backdrop as City Hall itself.

Her actual building designation at the Harland and Wolff shipyard was that of Hull number 401. But the actual name was no secret. It was engraved on her bow in three foot high golden letters.

Titanic.

Over those three years, fifteen thousand Belfast men worked to build the Titanic and her twin sister, the Olympic. They grew through freezing winters, mellow springs, searing summers and early autumns alike. Like awesome twin cathedrals wrought in steel, they rose at the foot of the River Lagan, crouching in the lee of the Mourne mountains themselves.

Against the looming backdrop of their hulls, ordinary people lived, loved, were born, married and died each and every day. The Titanic was a true ‘Belfast Child’; an awe inspiring manifestation of the city and the sheer ambition that begot her. For all of her finery, her elegance and finesse, the Titanic was regarded as a living, breathing part of Belfast. She still is to this day.

The loss of the ship hit Belfast like a hydrogen bomb. How could it have happened? Was there something wrong with her construction? Some fundamental design weakness that could have been responsible? Was it just human error? The answers- together with those people best able to supply them- lay entombed in 12,000 feet of freezing ocean, lost to view forever.

Or so it seemed.

A kind of denial gradually took hold among the Belfast people; one quaintly at odds with the nickname of ‘Titanic Town’ that was grafted onto the scarred city. People gradually turned their backs on the sea, and the ship that was once their pride and joy. The here and now left little time or desire to indulge in wishful thinking.

Two world wars, Home Rule, the partition of Ireland, and more than three decades of ghastly sectarian violence kept the city always stirring uneasily, never quite at peace with itself. And through all of that, the memory of Titanic and her demise was just one more wound in the city’s scarred psyche that was best glossed over for many. If her name was spoken at all, it was usually in hushed tones.

Then, on September 1st, 1985, Doctor Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, did what many had dreamed of doing for years. He found the lost, elusive White Star liner, some 12,000 feet down in the North Atlantic.

The shattered, broken corpse of Titanic retained a kind of deathless dignity. That first photo of her bow, looming out of the murk, has become one of the most iconic images of the last century. As it flashed around the world, a resurgent tidal wave of interest in the lost liner spread like a prairie fire. People- lots of people- wanted to know more. At last, it seemed possible that some of those unanswered questions might be set to rest.

Subsequent expeditions examined the wreck in almost forensic detail. Over time, it became clear that there was no fundamental fault in the actual physical construction of the ship that had led to her demise. While some could- and did- fault the actual design, few would dispute that the same design was subjected to a freak set of circumstances that no one could have foreseen back in 1912.

These developments were followed worldwide, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the place of her birth, back in Belfast. The gradual succession of maritime autopsies vindicated the actual construction process of the ship. After eight decades of darkened silence, a sense of pride in the actual physical achievement that Titanic once represented began to resurface.

On May 31st, 2011, a crowd of several thousand people gathered on the spot where RMS Titanic had been launched, exactly one hundred years ago to the day. The day was bright and warm, and that crowd was swelled no end by an armada of press and media types from  around the globe.

In a simple, moving ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of many (including this writer) the launching of the Titanic was commemorated and remembered in a style that was at once personal, warm, and charged with emotion. On the exact moment of the launch, the entire crowd broke into thunderous applause while, out on the river, a flotilla of small boats whooped, shrieked and rang bells to celebrate the ship, and the immense achievement she still represented.

The more wistful among us could have sworn that we heard the responding echo of a deeper, more melodic boom; a poignant triple chime of answering steam whistles from somewhere across time and space.

Just for a moment, a heat hazed vision ghosted across the memory; four giant black and yellow smokestacks atop a snow white superstructure. A massive black hull; as graceful as a swan, with a gold band running its length. Two tall, elegant pole masts raked at exactly the same angle as those four stacks. Just to make her look good, they said; just to make her look good…..

It seemed to me that, on that day, the prodigal child finally came home, to be once more embraced in the cradle of the city that gave her light, love and life all those years ago. Freed from a century of lonely, freezing darkness, the Belfast Child had come back to be among her own once more.

I, for one, hope they cherish her forever.

BOUDICCA REVISTED- ANOTHER DAY AT SEA

BOUDICCA AT SEA
Boudicca at sea, seen from the terrace of Deck Seven. Photo copyright is that of the author

After a brace of days in the spellbinding beauty that is Port Elizabeth,  the Boudicca swung out to sea again, en route for Durban. After the exhilaration of our first true South African landfall, a day at sea came as a bit of a welcome respite.

In point of fact, our next port of call was to have been Richards’ Bay, with Durban being put in a few days later. But circumstances in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ itself dictated a necessary change to our running order.

The political unrest surrounding the impending impeachment of President Jacob Zuma seemed as nought when compared to a crippling drought that has blighted swathes of the country. The long, hot summer had meant no significant rainfall of any kind for months on end, and the reservoirs are running dry.

The per person allowance of water was eighty seven litres per day on my arrival in Cape Town, but by the time we returned to Cape Town that had shrivelled to a mere fifty litres. By any measure, this was a desperate state of affairs.

Of course, we on board Boudicca had no shortage  of water for our own, personal use. But the local authorities did impose a hose pipe ban on board our ship, which meant that the normal, nightly cleaning of all exterior decks had to be put on hold. The ship’s substantial acreage of normally pristine teak decks would just have to make do as best as was possible.

Actually, the crew did a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances. Hotel manager Peter Reeves and his staff toiled manfully to keep the ship clean. Both on board and ashore, the use of hand sanitisers was promoted vigourously. And those of us sensitive to the local situation certainly did what we could to keep the water usage down whenever possible.

This, then, was the backdrop to our decision to go to Durban first. We spent an indolent, somewhat undemanding day romping through a sporadically turbulent sea,  flecked with a conga line of whitecaps that kept the good ship Boudicca rocking most of the day under a benign, sunny sky.

Some people seemed surprised at the motion of the ship, which in turn came as something of a surprise to me. We were essentially crossing from the South Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. Those waters can cut up fast and loose at any time of the year, let alone in summer.

Apart from this background, the day passed in a kind of sublime, peaceful whirl. Reading for a while was followed by an informative lecture on the delights that Durban would soon have to offer. There was a lunchtime quiz in the Lido Lounge, and then some cracking fish and chips for lunch at the outdoor Ocean Grill, complete with side orders of tartar sauce and bracing sea air.

Early afternoon, and I sauntered up to the lofty, outdoor terrace at the rear of Seven Deck. A glass or two of gorgeous South African wine was mellowed by the equally splendid view of the ship’s stately wake, somehow managed to occupy a seemingly inordinate amount of my time.

There’s a kind of detached, almost Olympian feeling about lingering here- one also common to the same spot on board Black Watch-  especially with that marvellous panorama of petrol blue sky, and the majestic rise and fall of the stern in that following sea. It’s deliciously indulgent, and totally addictive.

Dinner seemed to come around at warp speed that night. A string trio swung lushly through a conga line of Cole Porter classics as passengers gathered to enjoy their pre-dinner cocktails. Early evening sunshine flooded the ship in a mellow glow, apt anticipation of the five course feast that lay ahead.

It was wonderful to find Rommel (a very fine Filipino gentleman, and not the ‘Desert Fox’ of old) acting as Maitre d’ for the Four Seasons restaurant. I knew him of old from many previous cruises aboard the Braemar, and he runs a very deft, welcoming operation over breakfast, lunch and dinner alike.

The same has to be said for the staff; dinner on any Fred. Olsen ship is a warm, intimate experience, where fine food and flawless services provides all the gimmickry that you will ever need. It’s at once both alluring and reassuring, and for many it is the highlight of the day. And little wonder, too.

Later, I sauntered up to the Lido Lounge to listen to Colin the piano player and the excellent Staple Hill duo as they serenaded us gently past the witching hour. And, with most passengers now retired for the night, there was time for one last nightcap, back out on the terrace.

And there it was again; the gentle heave of the ship and the sound of the rolling ocean, swishing by past her flanks. It came tonight with a side order of moonlight; a pale quarter strawberry moon shone fitfully from between passing banks of night time clouds. Ashore, the odd lighthouse beam shone fitfully out across the surging, pitch dark southern ocean. The air was as warm as toast.

By now, my bed was calling. The morning would see our arrival in Durban, and I had a busy day ahead…..

BOUDICCA CONTINUED; A DAY AT SUMMERSTRAND

SUMMERSTRAND
The pier and beach at Summerstrand. Photo copyright is that of the author

Having rocked and rolled around the bottom of South Africa for a day or two, the Boudicca finally made landfall at Port Elizabeth, on the Atlantic coast of South Africa.

From here, you could take any number of safaris into the hinterland, and get up close (well, close-ish)  to the exotic wildlife that is obviously a prime draw for people coming out here. Many went and did just that and, by all accounts, they had a fabulous time, too.

But I have had my fill of wild animals for now, thanks very much. Anyone who has seen Newcastle’s Bigg Market on a Saturday night will know what I mean there.  After a seemingly endless, bone numbing winter at home, I was crying out for a beach, a beer, and some genuine quality time to simply chill out. And, luckily for me, Port Elizabeth had exactly the kind of sweet spot that I was seeking.

One of the great things about a Fred. Olsen cruise is the free shuttle buses that run to a central location in each and every port of call. In this case,a  short, fifteen minute drive took us to a large ocean front casino and retail complex.

While blatantly commercial, this was a beautiful place. It came complete with ornamental lakes, ample lounging areas,  and buildings of pale blue clapboard that were instantly reminiscent of New England. It had a very relaxed vibe and, although it was a joy to just stroll around it, the real attraction lay just beyond it’s leafy confines.

Summerstrand.

My first sight of it was through one of the archways leading out of the casino complex. A sudden sliver of biscuit coloured sand drummed by surging southern ocean rollers, the place sat under a vast, cobalt sky unruffled by even the hint of a cloud. After two days of muggy, overcast weather at sea, the summer sun broke through and beamed down on Summerstrand like some benign, benevolent deity.

I was drawn to it immediately. Summerstrand and it’s vast, breezy sprawl opened out in front of me like a slowly rising theatre curtain. The sheer scale of the place was as breathtaking as the surreal, mind blowing beauty on show in front of me.

That beach winds and snakes along like some sinuous, enchanting dance. Sand dunes dotted with sparse, parched clumps of grass gave way to jagged, worn rock formations in a hundred shades of red, gold and grey as the high summer sun glanced against them.

Rock pools and secluded little bays threaded along the shoreline as surfers rode like ballet dancers on the serried tiers of rollers that crashed against this spectacular sea and landscape. Children ran in and out of the charging surf; parents with strollers ambled at leisure along the pathways that threaded throughout the entire, sun kissed expanse of beachfront.

There’s a long, concrete pier that juts out into the sea like the jaw of some sporadically battered boxer. On this day, people strolled lazily along it’s sun kissed expanse, but every now and again the ocean’s spray flung itself against it like an angry fist; a timely reminder that this was still the Atlantic out there after all.

Still, the whole vibe was remarkably relaxed and uncrowded. There was not the long run of bars and restaurants along the beach that you will find in, say, Barcelona or Miami. But I did find a pretty little place called Cubana, with slowly whirling ceiling fans, huge, louvred windows looking out over the ocean, and outdoor, umbrella shaded tables that gave some respite from the now blazing sun.

My first beer felt like healing balm; for the moment, winter was banished from my memory. A kind of gentle, gratifying calm suffused the whole scene. Glancing upwards over the rim of my Corona bottle, no sky had ever looked bigger, brighter, or better. Any latent tension that might have been knotted deep inside me, vanished like melting snow. Summerstrand may not be Heaven, but maybe Heaven is over rated, anyway.

Nor was there any profound need to rush back to the ship. The shuttles to and from Boudicca ran for most of the day. This was fortunate, because by now I was so chilled out as to be almost liquid.

Later that day, a few clouds did begin to gather in the sky. Almost marble white in hue, they drifted in state across the azure canvas of the sky like so many ghostly galleons.

And, right there and then, I knew that I had fallen in love with a big country. A place possessed of a special kind of magic that is impossible to quantify, and just as impossible to dismiss. An irresistible, intoxicating diamond of a place, set hard, fast and unyielding against a backdrop of tireless, rolling ocean.

It was January in South Africa, and right at that moment, the whole world looked a whole lot better…..

CRUISE AND MARITIME UNCOVERS THE CHEF’S TABLE

COLUMBUS
CMV’s flagship, Columbus. Photo credit: http://www.cruisemapper.com

A brand new, premium dining experience has just been unveiled aboard three of Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ most popular ships- Columbus, Magellan and Marco Polo.

Hosted by the Executive Chef on each ship, the Chef’s Table serves up an exclusive, nine course menu, especially paired with complementary wines. This is preceded by an exclusive private reception with sparkling wine and canapes, as well as a tour of the ship’s galley while it is in full evening work mode.

During the expansive nine course meal, the Executive Chef remains with the guests to expound on the thinking, techniques and ingredients that go together to create such a lavish feast- a fascinating set of insights guaranteed to feed the mind as well as the inner man and woman.

Reservations can be made on board each of the three ships at a charge of £49.99 per person, subject to availability.

AFTERNOON TEA WITH FRED. OLSEN

FRED CAKES
Afternoon tea aboard Boudicca. Photo copyright is that of the author

No, not literally with the man himself, but aboard the ships that bear his name. On sea days aboard each of the four ships in the current fleet a special, extra charge afternoon tea is served at a cost of £7.95 per person.

You need to book in advance and, for the privilege, you get to be seated in the lofty, hushed expanse of the forward facing Observation Lounge, with fabulous views out over the horizon.

There’s the genteel sounds of a background piano player or string trio to accent this most delightful of old British traditions. Served late afternoon, it’s an elegant repast, and a truly delightful way to pass an hour or so on a sea day.

So, what exactly do you get for your money?

Firstly, there’s a choice of four different afternoon teas, and these are:

Afternoon Darjeeling leaf tea

Earl Grey leaf tea

Imperial Gunpowder leaf tea

China Rose Petal leaf tea

Of course, you can also have coffee instead if you wish. I went for the Imperial Gunpowder during my recent cruise aboard Boudicca. It comes in a white china tea pot, and is poured through a strainer as and when you indicate that you are ready. It really is lovely stuff, too.

Plates of finger sandwiches then appear magically, like Christmas decorations atop a snow white table setting. The choice of offerings is here:

Smoked salmon and cream cheese on whole wheat

Wafer thin cucumber on soft white

Plump shrimp with avocado on whole wheat

Egg mayonnaise on mustard cress on white

The comes my personal favourites; a triple tiered deck of gooey delights, guaranteed to make your taste buds go into overdrive. Sample items include:

Mini eclairs, fresh berry tarts, and the pastry of the day.

And, finally….

Warm, house baked scones with your choice of thick whipped cream, butter, preserves, and honey.

You can see from the list above that all of this is virtually a meal in itself. How to make it even better? Grab an (extra charge) glass of Lanson Black Label, a Kir Royale, a Pimms, or maybe Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I went for the Lanson, and the bubbles added just thr right amount of zest to a very civilised, indulgent hour.

Any way you slice it-pun wholly intentional-afternoon tea aboard Balmoral, Black Watch, Boudicca or Braemar is a truly indulgent experience, savoured in civilised, elegant surroundings at a leisurely pace, that really gives you the time to savour one of the finer experiences in life.

And, at the end of the day, you know that you’re worth it. Cheers!