CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART ONE; THE JOURNEY TO PIRAEUS

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Celestyal Crystal

To say that I had been looking forward to this seven night trip on the Celestyal Crystal was something of an understatement. For, while I’m an avowed fan of Celestyal Cruises’ intimate, Greek accented product, this was going to be a completely different experience to anything that I’d ever had with them before.

The line is known mainly for it’s short, port intensive three and four night sailings around the Greek Islands and Turkey. Typically, these allow for a few hours each in a whole raft of ports, gifting you short but delicious snapshots of each. Like a kind of floating tapas menu, the line lets you opt in and out of each one. But, of course, time is at a premium, so you always have to try and use it wisely.

But not on this itinerary. Oh, no….

On this seven night run, we would be gifted a full twenty-four hours on Mykonos, almost forty-eight hours on Santorini, a full fifteen hours on new itinerary addition, Milos (about which a lot more later)  and even a full twelve hours in Heraklion. In short, a vast amount of leisure time that cried out to be exploited to the full, and most definitely not just another whistle stop tour around those gorgeous Aegean Island gems.

But first, I had to get to Athens. And, for the first time ever, I was going to use the scheduled services of Aegean Airlines, from London Heathrow’s Terminal Two. I had read a lot of good reviews about Aegean, and so was quite keen to try them out for myself.

The airline flies trim, tidy Airbus A321’s on the three and a half hour journey from London to Athens. Economy Class seating was three across down two sides, bisected by a service aisle in the middle. A handful of Club Class seats up front had about the same legroom, but with the middle seat removed in each row,

Legroom was fine for me (I’m about 5′ 6″ by the way) though the blue leather seat itself felt a bit uncomfortable at first. But, where Aegean Airlines really scores is in the on board product and, even in economy, it sets a benchmark that most other European flg carriers don’t even begin to approach these days.

How so? Well, when was the last time that you were offered sweets before take off? Free beer and wine complete with serviettes (remember what any of those things are, BA?). And it goes on.

Aegean Airlines serves a full hot, three course meal to all passengers. Choice? Well, you can either take it or leave it. But it is the mere fact that the airline offers you a choice at all that elevates it well above any competitor. And the food, like the wines, is Greek accented. It gives you an authentic taste of the host country before you even get there; a sweet little appetiser to the real thing. It’s well thought out stuff, and you really do feel as if you are being indulged, rather than nickled and dimed yet again.

Flight wise, we landed in Athens about ten minutes late, at around 1805 hours Greek time. But the airport staff, though busy, was brisk. I was through customs and immigration in minutes and, as I got to the carousel, my luggage was already there.

Outside, and the August early evening heat smacked me like a sucker punch, but my driver was already waiting and, within minutes, we were barrelling along toward the port of Piraeus. Auto repair shops and arid mountain peaks flashed by at a frantic rate of knots, until the looming suburbs of Piraeus obliged us to slow down a bit.

Before I knew it, I was in the shadow of the ship. The Celestyal Crystal sat perfectly poised on a slowly reddening seascape. The sound of traffic horns and braying, honking tug boats filled the evening haze, but the ship herself was as still and serene as a landscape painting. I was on board within ten minutes of getting out of the car.

Two hours later, and I’m sitting in a wicker chair on the aft facing Thalassa Terrace, nursing some glacially cold Greek wine as darkness rolls across the sky like some slowly unfurling carpet. There’s that sudden, first delightful shudder of the engines that always takes everybody by surprise, for some reason. And, suddenly, floodlit buildings ashore are falling astern as we swing loose, and head out into the midstream.

I can hear tree frogs chirping in the bushes ashore, and then there’s the tinny, self important whistle of a small, fussy local ferry as she tries to barge past us like some startled cat. Like the lady of a certain age that she is, the Celestyal Crystal does not deign to reply; and, after all, real ladies never like to be seen in fast company.

Now the port of Piraeus is falling astern like some slowly sagging, brilliantly lit birthday cake. I’m beyond tired by now, but the sheer, age old exhilaration of departure helps carry me over the bar.

When I do hit my bed, I go out like a light. But tomorrow will bring Mykonos into close, intimate focus and, asleep or awake, I’m already dreaming of the rest of this week, and all the fun it will bring.

 

 

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THE MARINA; DIGS AND DINNER IN DUBLIN

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The Green Hen on Wicklow Street in Dublin

Having survived the airborne adventure that is Stobart Air to Dublin, I transited the airport and was lucky enough to find my driver already waiting at the exit. Minutes later, and the black saloon car was swishing its way through the teeming, Saturday afternoon throng of the great city on the Liffey.

My overnight hotel was the Spencer, located literally on the banks of the Liffey, not a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, and all the buzz and bustle of O’Connell Street. Check in was fast, warm and courteous and, with my room being on the first floor, it took no time at all to get there.

The corridors en route are kind of grey and dimly lit; one part submarine, one part Sing Sing. But no complaints about the room at all; great bathroom, with fab toiletries, plus a bed big enough to lose myself in. All things considered, a comfortable, accommodating base that I’d be happy to go back to, as much for it’s convenience as for it’s conviviality.

Dublin’s streets are a happy, teeming mess of bars done out in every style, from baroque to gleaming chrome and glass. Regardless of style, they all have that earthy, irreverent feel that is still ever so slightly anarchic, even in a city that is as much in love with Gucci as it is with Guinness these days. Be advised; Dublin is not a cheap date these days, but there’s no denying the sheer quality of everything on offer here, from beer to freshly baked bread.

Cobbled streets bisect the main roads where traffic barrels through Dublin’s centre like swarms of maddened beetles. They are filled with the sound of everything from accordions to full symphony orchestras, via buskers, sax players and even some raw, raucous old skiffle. This is a city that rocks, rolls and swaggers- also sometimes staggers-through until the small hours. And she does so to a sublime, Celtic rhythm that is uniquely all her own.

For dinner, I went to a French-Irish bistro called the Green Hen on Wicklow Street. Set on two levels, the place has a long bar that sits to the right of the entrance, and all the dark wooden panelling that you could ever want. You can eat at the bar, or in the main dining area at the rear. A filigreed staircase leads to an upper level but, downstairs, it’s all deep red leather chairs and rose coloured lamps on the tables. In some ways, it’s a little too dim to read the menus properly, but then a side order of ‘quirky’ should be an essential element of any good bistro, wherever it is in the world.

There’s no edge or attitude here, but there is excellent food and service proffered up in an informal, expansive setting. I had a carrot and rose soup that was almost spine tingling, and a fillet steak so tender that it crumbled at the touch of a knife. It came with a side order of asparagus the size of a Kansas wheat field.

Dessert- I just managed it- was a comely creme brulee washed down with a feisty cappuccino. Wine wise, I went with the recommendations of a very savvy, and extreme;y busy waiter that clearly knew his field. All things considered, the Green Hen was a game old bird of a venue, pun wholly intentional.

Later, it was back to the Mercantile Hotel, where a cracking live band had been kicking up a storm outside for most of the night. Drinking, dancing Dublin is a soundtrack all her own, and she’ll twirl you around into the small hours of the morning if you let her. I did.

I hit my hotel bed like a felled tree at some scant remembered small hour of the morning. And, even as I lumbered toward my slumber, a small flotilla of cruise ships was converging on Dublin, intent on an early Sunday morning arrival.

There was the spiffy little Variety Voyager and the vast, looming Mein Schiff 3. The main port also had the pretty little Pacific Princess, the last of the eight, original ‘R’ Class ships now not in service with either Azamara Club Cruises or Oceania. There was also an old friend of mine; the sublime little Silver Wind, so fondly remembered from a cruise around the Mediterranean a few years ago.

And-unmistakable in the slowly rising Sunday morning sun- there was my ship, the magnificent Marina in the outer harbour.I would be joining her later that day and that, as I knew from a previous trip on her, was something else entirely worth salivating over.

THE MARINA; A DAY IN COBH

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Cobh Harbour, with St. Colman’s at centre

It was a bright, sunny morning when the Marina arrived in the small Irish port of Ringaskiddy, just a few miles away from Cobh. Seabirds soared and dived into a sparkling blue sea crowned by sporadically rolling whitecaps. A warm wind whipped across the aft terrace, a gentle reminder that, while this was still high summer, autumn’s chill was not too far off over the horizon, either.

None of which was going to deter me from making the relatively short journey to Cobh. In fact, we could see the place from the edge of the shore. The tall, slender spire of St. Colman’s cathedral resembled some celestial finger, pointing straight up at the heavens. At the main town dock there sat the unmistakable shape of Princess Cruises’ gargantuan Royal Princess. Ironically, that same ship had sat docked ahead of us in Mykonos back in April. A small world, indeed.

Cobh itself is a pretty little town, with pastel coloured houses in shades of red, ochre and blue, crouching along a waterfront packed with small, idly bobbing fishing boats and small tourist craft. Set against a backdrop of gently rolling hills and vast, sun splashed meadows, Cobh has charm and intimacy in spades.

And it has history, too.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, hundreds of thousands of desperate, impoverished Irish people poured through the town-known back then as Queenstown- in a human tidal wave, bound for the promise of a hopefully better life in the New World. For many, the port was the last ever sight of their old lives, and marked for most of them a final, poignant parting from parents, siblings and lifelong friends. Back then, the town had a patina of overwhelming pathos, one kept barely in check by a rising tide of hope for a better life, somewhere just over the horizon. If ever one place was a bittersweet symphony wrought in stone, steam, tears and tide, this was surely it.

During the 20th century, it became customary for those departing hordes to leave from the pier at the back of the local post office. Two tenders- the Ireland and the America- would then take them out to where some huge liner lay waiting for them out in the bay, usually off Roches’ Point. Symbolically and actually, the casting off of their lines to the shore meant, for many, the severing of the last links to their old lives. In so many ways, Queenstown back then was the open wound from which Ireland was bled dry of her best, her brightest and her bravest. It was a blood letting that would take literally decades to staunch.

Queenstown in those days ran to a regular schedule; the great Cunard liners would leave Liverpool on a Saturday each week, embarking at Queenstown on the Sunday. Each Wednesday, one of the crack ships of the rival White Star Line would leave Southampton, and embark from Queenstown on the Thursday. It was a well oiled machine, but it ran in one direction only for the most part. Neither Cunard or White Star were in the habit of calling at Queenstown on the return crossing from New York.

Just after noon on Thursday, April 11th 1912, some 123 Irish migrants huddled together aboard the two tenders, boarding at the quay as usual. They gazed in awe at the shape of the vast, new leviathan waiting for them out in the bay. This was her first ever call into Queenstown and, as events were to prove, it would also be her last.

As the tenders bumbled out across the grey chop of a cold but sunny day, the new ship grew ever more massive and imposing. Seagulls wheeled and dived around her, foraging for scraps of garbage as they were spat out of the waste pipes near the waterline. Aboard the huge liner, idly promenading passengers stopped to study the tenders as they bucked the briny, gazing for a moment at the huddled masses clad in shawls and heavy suits. Those same people in the tenders could by now read the name of their ship, etched in three foot high golden letters on her bow.

TITANIC.

The rest, of course, is history. The brief, two hour stop at Queenstown would be the last land that most of those embarked on maritime history’s most infamous maiden voyage would ever see.

Like everywhere else that she touched during her brief but spectacular career, the Titanic left her mark on Queenstown. Today, Cobh’s Museum of Immigration (the town was renamed in 1922, after Southern Ireland gained it’s independence from the British Empire) tells the baleful story of the town’s past, with an obvious emphasis on the vast torrent of humanity that flooded out of it during those turbulent years.

Quite a sobering little stop, Cobh. Pretty for sure, but with undercurrents as deep as the Atlantic rollers that still flail at it’s shores to this day.

 

 

THE MARINA; TIME SPENT AT SEA

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Pool deck of the Marina at night. Photo copyright is that of the author

I am one of those psychopaths that actually enjoys spending time at sea. Days on end if need be, and weather be damned. If I’m on the right ship, I will always find places in which to righteously recline.

That was the one downside to my recent trip on Marina; a conspicuous absence of honest to goodness sea days. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that cruises in Europe are, by their very nature, destination intensive. And that’s fine because, let’s face it, culture fills cabins.

So, what little sea time there was, I utilised as best as possible. Some days, I just lingered aboard during the morning when most tours were away because- as I knew full well from my last time on board- this is one ship that truly cries out to be relaxed upon, and indulged in. Quite simply, the Marina is one of the most supremely comfortable ships afloat anywhere, both indoors and out. Not devoting time to those subtle, beguiling charms would be somewhat akin to walking through the Louvre, and somehow missing out on seeing the Mona Lisa.

If I could sum up the Marina on board experience with any accuracy, I would do so in two words. ‘Plush’ and ‘Peaceful’; padded beds and loungers abound across the acres of outdoor deck space. You never have to look for somewhere to just sag down and chill out. The hot tubs are always warm and welcoming. Food- hot and cold- is always within easy reach, and it’s always good. And, whether you crave some muesli, a muffin or a martini, there’s always somebody close at hand to anticipate your every whim.

So, no anxious strolling around, looking for somewhere to lay your weary head. And, lord knows, all of that relaxation is nothing if not exhausting, after all. There’s only so much drama that I need in my quality time.

I’ll take a piece of that peace as well, thanks very much. Aboard Marina, there are no constant, blaring loudspeaker announcements to tell you that the bingo is about to start, or inviting applicants for the 1430 hairy teeth competition, either. Sometimes, I do wish that they could find a ‘mute’ button for those damned sea birds that wheel and screech above us like dive bombers. Who knows-perhaps some very inventive soul will invent a remote control that allows us to mute any ambient sounds that we find annoying. Now that truly would be one hell of a USP.

Instead, I tune in to the sound of the sea, swishing past the ship’s hull as we surge toward our next pot of call. Bathrobe on, full bliss mode activated. Blinding sunshine or blustery breeze. Either or, indeed, both.

It’s like falling slowly, oh, so slowly, through the looking glass. You enter into a kind of smiley, pampered stupor, where everything looks somehow kinder, less contentious. That sense of contentment is so real that you could almost serve it up on a silver platter. But, at the same time, it’s so damned delicious that you really, really don’t want to share it with anybody else, either.

And no, I don’t need any flow riders, ice rinks or rock climbing walls to ‘divert’ me, thank you. Those things work very well indeed on certain kinds of ships for sure. But this is not one of them. On Marina, quality wins out over quantity at every turn. This is a charmed environment; one in which ‘less’ is very much ‘more’. Pared right back down to the classic elements of ship, sun, sea, and sublime comfort, this is a style of cruising where relaxation is elevated to the level of an art form.

Consider this; each day spent at sea is like a blank canvas. One that is yours to embellish in any way that you wish. Want to get active? Sure, there’s the gym, the exercise classes, and all the other health kicks that you could possibly want, right here on board.

Eat what you want. When you want. Where you want. Sleep in. Read a book. Catch up on your social media. Enjoy a milk shake. Or a seaweed massage wrap. Both, even. Dance classes? Sure, why not.

So yes, I love my sea days. But some ships just raise the bar so much that each day spent at sea becomes a kind of liquid gold, pun wholly intentional. And, for sure, Marina is one such ship; a lounger’s delight, writ large in style and wrapped in fabulous, fun stuff. What’s not to like?

THE MARINA; A MORNING AT CAERNAFON CASTLE

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The magnificent Caernafon Castle. Photo credit: http://www.visitwales.com

Our lovely guide at the tour office aboard Marina asked me three times; “How do you pronounce this name, please?” Her Greek voice was simply incapable of forming the word ‘Caernafon’ but then, that’s hardly surprising. Many over the years have formed the opinion that the Welsh language as a whole is simply a subtle plot to subdue the rest of humanity into a stunned silence.

But Caernafon Castle itself is about as unambiguous as they come; a great honey coloured colossus, hewn from local stone, it was begun back in 1298 by King Edward I as one of a series of five ‘ring forts’ that was intended to secure his hegemony over North Wales. With it’s waterfront setting that overlooks a picturesque bay and it’s sublime, near perfect symmetry and stance, Caernafon is one of the greatest, grandest and most completely intact structures of it’s kind anywhere in the world today.

Nowadays, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that draws thousands of awe struck visitors each year; Caernafon Castle has morphed into a kind of Arthurian theme park that is now a million miles removed from it’s original intent. Squat, hexagonal turrets loom large and gaunt against a backdrop of pale summer sky. The vast, crenellated ramparts range above a harbour where small sailing boats bask on a waterfront, where wheeling seabirds swoop and dive around the crowds seeking shelter in its shade. The whole, swaggering stance of the place is utterly magnificent.

And, like any great medieval bruiser, Caernafon wears the scars of it’s long history like so many tattered battle honours. During the English Civil War, the castle was the last of the Royalist strongholds to surrender to Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. Later, on July 1st 1969, it was the site for the investiture of Prince Charles in his current title of Prince of Wales, an archaic ritual witnessed worldwide by millions, and carried through just nineteen days before Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon.

We achieved Caernafon after about an hours’ drive from the pier where Marina lay docked. We travelled by coach through the lush, gorgeous hinterland of Snowdonia, regaled en route by a local guide who informed us that sheep in Wales outnumber the civil population by a ratio of four to one. Thus informed, we eventually rocked up at the pretty little market town that sprawls like some supine dog at the feet of the great, grizzled old brute that is Caernafon Castle.

Once inside, the sense of space is quite incredible. Vast amounts of low, rolling greenery are cradled within those ancient walls and, on such a spectacularly sunny day as this, the play of mid morning sunlight across those gnarled, stony old battlements was nothing short of eye popping. Whoever designed this massive, majestic old pile definitely had one eye firmly on his own place in posterity, that’s for sure.

But, up close and personal, perspective fades like winter snow. Small, stony turrets are accessed by tiny, winding staircases that allow only one person at a time to enter. Silent cloisters with flagstone floors echo to the footsteps of long gone inhabitants and retainers. Vast, vaulted wooden doors on huge iron hinges creak open like the very portals to the afterlife itself. Sunlight yields to shadow, and then sudden glimpses of rich, verdant greenery are revealed through a slit in the walls, cut for some ancient archer. The silence, stupendous and majestic, almost screams at you at times. It’s dazzling by day but, my word, there is no way that I would spend the night there alone.

I left Caernafon part exhilarated, partly stunned, and totally awed. Though the castle’s setting actually contributes hugely to it’s enduring lustre, it’s the ageless old brute itself that is actually at front and centre stage. It resembles some giant, sleeping dragon, just waiting for its cue to awaken and protect that ancient, medieval setting from a new generation of invaders once again. Go see it if you can.

It was time to head back, and our coach cantered at a gentle pace through the lush countryside once more. In the distance we glanced the arched, elegant grandeur of the Menai Bridge, towering proudly over the steel grey straits of the same name. Eventually, our own dream castle morphed gradually on the horizon, in the stately, graceful shape of the Marina herself.

Back on board, and a bountiful outdoor buffet lunch came with a side order of sharp Welsh sea breeze. It whispered in low and hard from the sea, causing many people to evacuate the Terrace with indecent haste.

I lingered under the shade, admiring the view and picking at some finely sliced fish. As I did, I mused idly that, while Edward I might well have had the castle of his dreams, I was the one that was actually feasting like a king.

Yes, old is bold, but sometimes there’s quite often a lot to be said for modern comfort and technology, too.

THE MARINA: DUBLIN PRELUDE

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Dublin, looking over from the Sixpenny Bridge

Without doubt, Dublin is regarded as one of the great party capitals of Europe, and with very good reason. This stately, graceful city on the Liffey is chock full of bars, clubs and restaurants, all set along and around some of the most spellbinding Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe. And, of course, the locals have a reputation for earthy, honest to goodness carousing that draws people in from all over the world. In short, Dublin is the good time that literally millions of people want to have.

But Dublin is far more than her street entertainers, her outdoor terraces packed with revellers in the long, humid summer nights, and her streets thronged with stag and hen parties from around Europe. Dublin has a subtle undercurrent that is far more nuanced, and it revolves around her place as the pivot on which Ireland’s bid to break free from British rule was wound. In short, the events that led to the infamous 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ that was suppressed at such a high cost in blood on both sides.

The abortive rising was put down in a wave of savage fighting, and the captured leaders of the rebellion were, for the most part, later shot by firing squads in the stark, cobbled stone breaker’s yard at Kilmainham Gaol, in the northern suburbs of the capital. You can still visit the site today and, even in the brilliant light of a warm summer’s afternoon, that brutal, brooding old cul- de- sac exudes an air of solemn finality. I would not even consider visiting the place alone at night.

It was the reaction to the rebellion, rather than the act itself, that really seemed to focus Irish minds at the time. There was little real local support for the original rising; Britain and her Empire was engaged in a life and death struggle with Imperial Germany at that time, and scores of Irish born troops were fighting for King and Country amid the carnage of the western front. The idea of rising up and claiming independence right at that time- though ultimately desirable to many- seemed more than a little wrong.

From the British perspective, it was obvious that the rebellion had to be put down forcibly. Whitehall knew full well that a shipment of German arms was inbound for the rebels- it was intercepted off the southern coast of Ireland, and the German captain was obliged to scuttle his ship. With the threat of German intervention thus very real, the British gave short shrift to the captured leaders of the rebellion, culminating in those final, ghastly scenes in the yard at Kilmainham Gaol.

But those same executions were also seen as excessive by the local populace, which had also been shocked by the rapid and brutal suppression of the original attempt. Public opinion in Ireland began to turn irrevocably towards independence, leading ultimately to the ‘two state’ situation that still exists to the present day.

For a great, dramatic overview of the entire story of the Easter Rising, I definitely recommend visiting Dublin’s stately General Post Office. This was the headquarters of the rebel leaders during that fateful Easter Week back in 1916; it was on the famous steps at the front that the original proclamation of independence was read out in the first place. Though much of the actual fighting and skirmishing took place in the surrounding streets and on the periphery of the Post Office (The GPO as it is always referred to), it’s place at the heart of the rebellion is universally acknowledged on both sides.

Inside, an evocative, sobering display of artefacts from the time combines with modern, audio visual technology to create a slowly unfolding timeline of the events leading up to the rebellion, the act itself as it played out over the course of one long, bloody week, and the inevitable consequences for all concerned, right up to the present day. It’s foolhardy pride tinged with sadness, a sense of frustration mixed with fatalism, and an adrenaline fuelled sense of urgency to force a conclusion, whatever the human and material cost might be.

So yes, enjoy the sense of partying, and the breezy sense of down to earth fun that has long been Dublin’s gift to the rest of the world. But also do her the respect of acknowledging that there is more, far more, to this magical, mercurial city that still sprawls along the banks of the River Liffey. She deserves more.

THE MARINA; GETTING THERE, AND GETTING ON….

travelswithanthony

STOBART AIR Up, up and away with Eddie…..

I really enjoyed my recent short cruise on Oceania’s opulent, upscale Marina, but it was a trip that came with a few little quirks that are worthy of flagging up. I don’t mean for these to be interpreted in any negative sense; most actually added a degree of charm to a very pleasant few days spent cruising around waters quite close to home.

Firstly, I had to get to Dublin to board the ship, which was by then two-thirds of the way through a British isles cruise that had embarked in Amsterdam, some seven days earlier. Flying from Newcastle, I had two options; Aer Lingus or Ryanair.

Unwilling to trust myself to the tender mercies of Ryanair on such a tight schedule (a wise decision, as things were to prove) I decided to go a day early, and spend a night in Dublin itself…

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