SUMMER IN THE CITIES; BALMORAL TO THE BALTIC IN MAY, 2019

BALMORAL
Fred. Olsen’s classy Balmoral

While 2018 has been a banner year for travel here at TWA, it already looks as if 2019 is shaping up fair to be even more so. In fact, the bar on that one was raised considerably by some very welcome news I received yesterday morning about one particular, much anticipated trip.

It puts me back aboard an old favourite cruise ship of mine-Fred. Olsen’s spacious, graceful Balmoral- on a fourteen night run out of Newcastle’s Port of Tyne to the capital cities of Scandinavia and back again. Leaving in early May, it’s the perfect time to get up close and personal to some of the most stunning highlights of that beautiful cruising region.

The cruise showcases overnight stays in both Stockholm and St. Petersburg, both cities that cry out for more than simply a one day stay. There’s also vibrant, beguiling Copenhagen, still very much the fun, summertime capital of Scandinavia, plus a visit to cool, cosmopolitan Helsinki and fairy tale, Olde Worlde Tallinn, in Estonia.

Unusually for such an itinerary, there’s also a welcome call int at Oslo, Norway’s green, gracious capital, on the way back to the Tyne. Throw in no less than three full, idyllic sea days, and you’ve got an itinerary that ticks almost every box imaginable.

The visual highlights en route are almost effortlessly impressive. Imagine close quarter cruising among the scores of amazing, pine clad islands in the Stockholm archipelago in the long, lingering afterglow of the ‘white nights’, and the warm, whimsical fairground lights of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens in the first, full bloom of the spring.

There’s the amazing waterside splay of splendid Italianate architecture that lines the still, silent canals of Saint Petersburg, where the enormous glut of gold and gilt at Petrodeverts serves as a timely reminder of past excess and corruption. The winding, cobbled streets of Tallinn are dominated by towering, tapered Gothic church spires and gaunt castle walls dating back to the Middle Ages. Here, in a city blighted by both communism and fascism, that darker past is never too far below the gingerbread veneer that exists today.

Helsinki flaunts green, open spaces, cutting edge architecture and timeless Art Nouveau elegance, along a waterfront where fleets of fishing boats sit at anchor, while scores of seabirds wheel and screech all around them. And, as a fabulous finale, the stately, sixty mile inland sail to Norway’s capital of Oslo is one of the scenic, sublime processions from open sea to city on offer anywhere in the world.

It’s a fabulous smorgasbord of a trip and, just like any great feast, there’s one key element and mindset at the heart of it all that sets the tone for everything else. In this case, it just happens to be the ship herself.

Balmoral is warm, welcoming and spacious. A ship that typifies style, rather than hype. the ‘gimmicks’ here are genuinely gracious service allied to fine food, served in a variety of venues, and a warm, welcoming sense of care and concern for the passengers on board. It’s as much serene as it is surreal.

With passenger numbers on board kept to just under 1400, Balmoral is majestic yet manageable in terms of on board space. She’s expansive, yet easy on the eye. For such a special itinerary as this, she’s the ideal ship; her size allows her ease of access to the prime berths in those historic city centres, while still allowing space enough for you to be as sociable or as secluded as you like.

Add to that the ease of a convenient local departure (Port of Tyne is literally a twenty five minute drive from my front door) and that special, sublime play of light on water that is one of the true highlights of the summertime Baltic, and you begin to understand why this trip has so much appeal to me.

There will always be those who assert that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’; in this case, I’d amend that to familiarity breeds contentment…..

Come aboard with me in May 2019, right here on TWA, and we’ll sail those epic Baltic idylls in fine, timeless style. Lovely stuff.

 

SHORT CRUISES; A SURE THING, OR SHORT CHANGE?

BOUDICCA
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is one of the major companies offering a range of short cruises from the UK each year

Let’s face it; there are times in life when you simply need a quick, short break from the normal, everyday routine, and you simply don’t have the time to take an extended trip. That being so, maybe a quick, three to five day cruise might just fit the bill.

Maybe you’re getting together a small group of friends for a reunion, or celebrating some landmark event that makes pushing the boat out (pun wholly intentional) seem like a grand idea. You want to put something together that is short on time, but high on style. Something truly memorable. Again, a short cruise might just be the very thing.

For sure, a short cruise means that you’re pretty damned limited as to where you can go, especially when sailing from a UK port. And not even the best salesman can make Cherbourg sound as alluring as, say Curacao. Plus, a lot of these trips tend to sail in the later months of the year, so the likelihood of getting good weather can be pretty low. If these are your main drivers, then you might be better off exploring other options.

That said, a short cruise still serves up more pros than cons in my experience. For me, a short cruise still wins out over a land stay in terms of style, price and inclusiveness every single time.

There’s also the welcome knowledge that you’re being cosseted in a safe, stress free environment; one in which your accommodation, food and entertainment have already been factored into the price. That leaves you free to simply indulge in all the fun stuff; drinking, dining, dancing, enjoying the shows and live music. Even for a few days, the world- if not quite your oyster- can seem like a pretty damned tasty prawn platter.

And there’s no denying that a short cruise sounds, indeed feels, almost wickedly self indulgent, too. It gifts you the luxury of time and space to reconnect with friends and family, in a way that the normal, hectic hugger mugger of everyday life often makes impractical.

Think of a short cruise as being like a really tasty box of chocolates; it isn’t going to last very long for sure, but just the memories alone will put a smile on your face long after you return to reality.

For Christmas shoppers, these short cruises are ideal, too. Many of them rock up at continental ports where traditional Christmas markets are a seasonal standard. And that in itself puts back the fun into Christmas shopping that is largely absent back at home these days.

Best of all, mind you, is the fact that you have gifted yourself with something truly special as a present, too. And-let’s face it- you’re worth it.

Do enjoy!

ROME; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

COLLOSSEUM
Rome’s tremendous, timeless Colosseum

Rome. One name. Endless images. The Eternal City. What exactly is Rome to you?

Rome for me is the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Colosseum, stark and unyielding against an early autumnal sunset. Every stone, pillar and archway has echoes of desperate gladiator duels, animal fights and appalling ritual sacrifices seared into it. It’s a crumbling construct that seems to defy both time and the Gods themselves.

Rome is that first hit of fresh, piping hot espresso, and the zesty aroma of lush, fragrant lemon trees in full bloom in the first, heady days of spring. It is sunset on the waters of the ageless, meandering River Tiber; sometimes, she’s an early evening stroll across one of the ancient stone bridges that still span that silent, serpentine sprawl.

Rome is the jagged remains of shattered Doric columns, glinting eerily in the noonday sun that still washes the scarred, silent expanse of the Forum. The same sun that once glinted on the blades of Brutus and Cassius as they bathed this self same spot in the blood of Julius Caesar.

Rome is the sight and sound of masses of motor scooters, buzzing like maddened wasps as they swarm in droves past the balcony from where the strutting, meat headed Mussolini once harangued the increasingly sullen crowds. It is the cool. ordered magnificence of Bernini’s stunning, colonnaded courtyard as it sweeps up to the serene, aloof symmetry of St. Peter’s. It is the intricate, impossibly beautiful frescoed real estate of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And it is also the brooding, turreted bulwarks of Castel Sant Angelo, where more than one Pope sought refuge during the turmoil of the Middle Ages.

Rome is the bustling cafe society of Piazza Navona, with it’s impossibly ornate fountains. Rome is cold, crisp wine on a warm summer night, sitting and sipping under light bedecked plane trees as you savour la dolce vita unfolding all around you like some Caravaggio masterpiece.

Above all, Rome truly is eternal. A city that was once the centre of the greatest empire that the world had ever known. A magician’s conjuring trick that reinvented itself to become the focal point for one of the world’s prime religions. It’s a city that embraced modernity, while still framing it in the context of it’s own matchless, exalted past. A stunning juxtaposition of the ancient and the sometimes shockingly modern; the sensational and the effortlessly, eternally serene, sitting side by side.

Rome is a moody, Machiavellian style melting pot that inspired Michelangelo and infuriated Mussolini. A city so mesmerising in scale, sweep and historical scope that even the retreating German army baulked at destroying it in June 1944, in direct violation of Hitler’s personal order to do so.

Rome is Trevi Fountain. It is Audrey Hepburn’s fragile smile as she sits, draped across a scooter in Sabrina. Rome is laughing children eating delicious gelato on the Spanish Steps in the searing heat of a summer Sunday afternoon.

These are just a few of my own, mental images of this swaggering, majestic city. Now I’ll throw the question back out there one more time;

What is Rome to you? Why not go see for yourself……

ARE DELUXE SHIPS GETTING TOO BIG?

SW
At 28,000 tons and carrying under 400 guests, Silversea’s Silver Whisper is one of the finest luxury ships in service anywhere

It’s a question well worth asking, when you consider developments over recent years. Are newer, bigger ships trading off intimacy and accessibility to ports in order to create more dining experiences and ever larger, more luxurious suites? Has the formerly unique magic of the deluxe, all inclusive ships been diluted in some quarters by a headlong rush to build bigger, flashier ships than was the case some three decades ago? Let’s take a look….

This article was prompted in part by the decision of Windstar to embark on an ambitious, triple ship expansion programme. It’s three motor yachts- fondly remembered as the original, start up trio for the very upscale Seabourn Cruises- will be updated with the addition of a twenty-five metre new mid section. Tonnage will go up from the present 10,000 to around 13,000; an increase of roughly a third. But passenger capacity will go from 212 to 312-an almost fifty per cent increase in real terms.

All three ships will benefit from new suites, and no doubt those added balcony rooms will do much to increase the allure of the already superb Windstar product. There will also be a welcome brace of new restaurants, together with a new spa, and much expanded health facilities. But will this upping of guest numbers do anything in the long run to dilute the on board Windstar experience that people know and love?

It isn’t simply the enlargement of existing ships that is worth considering. Look at Silversea. That line started in 1994/1995 with a brace of beautiful, bespoke 19,000 ton sister ships- Silver Cloud and Silver Wind- that carried just 279 guests each. The same line’s latest ships now come in at around the 40,000 ton mark, and the recent lengthening of the 2009 built Silver Spirit brought her roughly up to that same size as well.

Over at Seabourn, those same, original 10,000 ton sister vessels cited in the Windstar paragraph have been supplanted by a series of wonderful new vessels, each one four times as large as those original building blocks. Seabourn had rightly realised that a lack of expansive cabin balconies on those ships was seen as a drawback; a fact that Windstar’s decision to upgrade those same three ships would seem to vindicate. But a fourfold increase in overall size is still quite the leap.

When Oceania Cruises turned it’s mind to new builds in 2011, the two resulting ships- Marina and Riviera- were svelte, sublime twin revelations in many ways. And, at 66,000 tons each, they were more than twice the size of the R-Class ships with which the company had been founded back in 2003. Passenger capacity almost doubled as well, right up to 1,266 on the new ships.

But not everybody has gone down the ‘bigger is better’ route. Always at the edge of the luxury pack, Crystal Cruises’ initial plans for a trio of 100,000 ton, deluxe sister ships, complete with an entire deck of Condo suites for sale, was scaled back down to a more bijoux trio of 60,000 tonners that sit neatly between the lines’ existing brace of seagoing scions, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. And, in another move, both of those latter ships have actually had their on board guest capacity reduced. This is partly to finally allow both ships to offer single sitting dining, and also to create some larger, more expansive suites at the very top end of both ships.

Regent Seven Seas, too, has also remained on it’s successful, well proven trajectory of crafting ships of around 50,000 tons. The line’s recent Seven Seas Explorer is just 4,000 tons bigger than the 2003 built Seven Seas Voyager. For Regent, ‘steady as she goes’ seems to be the mantra in terms of size and on board numbers.

Azamara Club Cruises has played it coy, nurturing and burnishing a trio of 30,000 ton, former R-Class sisters that, in time, will almost certainly be joined by a fourth. As things stand, this is one of the best balanced lines of all in terms of synergy.

Does size really matter in the long run, then? Not so much in terms of personal space on the luxury ships, where the passenger numbers are still kept at a uniform low. If anything, accommodations have actually grown in terms of size and opulence. And, of course, these larger ships can offer far more diverse, sophisticated dining options. And, while entertainment is not always the main priority on many upscale ships, it’s also true that crafting a larger class of ship allows for more diversity and range in the on board offerings. And there are few greater luxuries associated with top end cruising than choice, whether in terms of food, accommodation and yes, even entertainment.

Where a bigger ship-however luxurious-can lose out is in terms of access to smaller, more intimate ports of call around the globe. That’s immutable, and one of the areas in which size really does matter.

The bottom line? It’s always going to be a trade off, even at cruising’s gilded apex. If it’s ease of access and the destinations that are your prime driver when picking a cruise, then opting for a small ship remains an obvious given. But, if the on board lifestyle and luxe are more your prime consideration, then any one of the more recent breed of larger, luxury cruise ship will please and pamper you, 24/7.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here either, by the way. There’s just diversity. And we’re all the better off for that, whatever cruise type we decide to choose.

WINDSTAR GOES BIGGER; THREE YACHTS TO GET NEW MID SECTIONS,CABINS AND DINING OUTLETS

STARBREEZE
Windstar’s Star Breeze

When extra capacity becomes an imperative and you simply don’t have the time to build a new ship from scratch, sometimes the best solution is to ‘stretch’ one or more of your existing ships instead, to accommodate more guests.

Stretching ships as an expedient is nothing new; in the 1970’s and early 80’s, both Royal Caribbean and Royal Viking Line did exactly that with (almost) all of their first line tonnage. Later. Home Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line did something similar, but on a larger scale of ship. And even Royal Caribbean not so many years ago ‘stretched’ one of it’s Vision class ships in the American short cruise market.

Stretching is faster on the whole, it’s usually cheaper, and it also allows the option of staggering the rebuilds so that at least some of the ships are always in service, guaranteeing that vital revenue flow that all lines need to keep to survive.

Recently, Windstar Cruises decided to go down this same, tried and tested path. The line is introducing a $250,000,000, three ship expansion project- the Star Plus initiative- that will bring all three of it’s current motor yachts right up to the forefront of intimate, contemporary cruise vessels.

Between October of 2019 and November 2020, Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride will each in turn be cut in half at the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo, Italy. There, all three ships will have a newly built, 25.6 metre long mid section inserted.

Tonnage for each ship will go up, from the present 10,000 to a projected 13,000 tons in all. The addition of some fifty new suites and cabins will bring the guest capacity of each ship up to around 312- one hundred more than at present.The new, added space will allow for the creation of two new, as yet unspecified dining venues on each ship, together with a new spa, a much larger fitness centre, and extra retail space. Crew accommodation will also be significantly upgraded; always a good move.

Far more crucially-both for the environment and Windstar’s bottom line- all three ships will be completely re-engined with a set of four new motors. These are designed to make the ships cleaner and more fuel efficient, and also to give them a slight increase on their present speed of around eighteen knots.

The yachts- all near identical sister ships built between 1989 and 1992- have been carefully inspected right back down to the bare steel, and were found to be in such excellent overall condition that a rebuild on this scale was eminently practical, as well as financially sound.

In all, this vastly ambitious project should raise passenger capacity across the six-ship strong Windstar fleet by something like twenty four per cent overall. At present, no plans have been announced in regard to the stellar core trio of sail assisted vessels that were the line’s founding sisters, but I would be very surprised if some kind of complementary upgrade programme is not at least being considered.

Eschewing the on board formality and set dining times of some other upscale lines, Windstar has long been a byword for casually elegant cruising in a more intimate environment, with the six ships literally covering most of the globe between them. With a reputation for high quality food and excellent, personalised service, it has long been the choice of those who prefer to take their cruises in an upscale, unstructured environment that still pays attention rather than lip service to the smallest detail.

I’ll be following this one with more than a passing interest. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

THE BEST SHIPS FOR REPOSITIONING CRUISES

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity

By their very nature, repositioning cruises represent some of the best value travel options in the entire cruising firmament. As cruise lines confront the inevitable fact that they must move ships from one part of the world to another once, and sometimes twice a year, the question of how to fill them becomes paramount.

The lines, from deluxe to mass market, are all hampered in their efforts by several factors. One is the odd length that such a trip usually entails-often in excess of two full weeks. That alone can play havoc with the holiday entitlement of many potential travellers.

Another handicap is the inescapable fact that there will be several days spent at sea- typically between four and eight, but sometimes more-without any landfall whatsoever. For many prospective passengers, that’s the kiss of death, right there.

Then you have to consider that passengers fly into, and then home from, different airports that are located on two different continents. The air fare alone on such trips can easily be between two and three times the cost of the actual cruise itself. And the singular act of having to fly anywhere-anywhere at all-is a potential turn off for many travellers these days.

Small wonder, then, that many of these trips sail at nowhere near full capacity, and quite often are only around half full. Prices are, therefore, pitched at relatively low rates to reflect this. Imagine trying to fill some 4,000 passenger mega ship on a westbound crossing in November. It would hardly be the first choice for many leisure travellers, and quite understandably so.

And yet… for those who do enjoy sea days, with their endless scope for relaxation, pampering and serial self indulgence, a ‘repo’ trip can seem like the very antechamber to Heaven itself. At once evocative of the classy old days of true, ocean liner travel, they have space for everyone, and a complete lack of pace that is truly cathartic. Despite the potential pitfalls of a long ocean crossing as outlined above, this writer in particular remains an avowed fan of just such crossings. I make just such voyages at every single opportunity that arises. Up to now, I have made well over a dozen.

With that in mind, here are some of my very favourite ships on which to make an ocean crossing. Please note that this list does not include the year round sailings of the Queen Mary 2 on her regular, scheduled services to and from New York.

MARCO POLO; CRUISE AND MARITIME VOYAGES

MP
Marco Polo

Imagine a cruise shop as a Faberge Egg, or a small, beautifully crafted jewel box, and you’ve got the Marco Polo in one. Built in 1965 with an ice strengthened hull, her sharp, raked bow and relatively broad waist make her an ideal, inherently stable ship on which to cross large tracts of ocean. At 22,000 tons and carrying just 800 passengers, the ship is intimate, and her carefully preserved Art Deco interiors give her that true, authentic ‘ocean liner’ feel and vibe. There are no balcony cabins, but you’re unlikely to miss them on the often changeable Atlantic, in any event.

CRYSTAL SERENITY: CRYSTAL CRUISES

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity

70,000 tons of artfully crafted, deliciously deluxe indulgence, with a maximum capacity of just 1,000 guests, this beautiful ship boasts a stellar entertainment handle- a huge boon on long sea crossings. Themed crossings, including Big Band, Film, and Food Festivals are a staple feature of Crystal’s typical ‘repo’ voyages. Spectacular amounts of private space-both in cabins and public areas- is allied to outstanding, open sitting cuisine in all dining venues. Exemplary on board service sets the tone for the rest of the deluxe cruise industry. A crossing spent cosseted aboard this ship somehow never seems long enough.

SOVEREIGN; PULLMANTUR CRUISES

SOVEREIGN
Pullmantur’s Sovereign, the former 1988-built Sovereign of the Seas

This 78,000 ton, 2,250 passenger ship is far more likely to be filled with Spanish and Brazilian passengers as she sails to and from Brazil each autumn and spring. Outstanding, all inclusive value becomes even more so when you consider that these crossings do not always sell out. With passenger accommodation located mostly forward and the public rooms stacked up in the aft half of the vessel. this big ship is surprisingly easy to navigate, and the central, five story Atrium Lobby- the first of it’s kind ever to be installed on any large cruise ship- is still one of the finest people watching spots on any ship afloat today. And, her original role as the world’s first, purpose built mega cruise ship- the Sovereign of The Seas- still gifts her a sassy, retrospective kind of cachet that makes her a true delight to sail.

BLACK WATCH;FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch

With a sharply raked prow and a deep hull, this 28,000 ton, 800 passenger ship is elegant, intimate, and eminently seaworthy. A series of broad, aft facing terrace decks are sublime lounging spots for lazy, languid crossings on the famous ‘Sunny Southern’ route, and there are nice terrace balcony cabins down on Seven Deck that offer the best of all worlds. Excellent food and inspired, unobtrusive service raises making a crossing on this ship to the level of an art form. And the ship also has a large number of cabins dedicated to single passengers, too. A true seagoing treat.

BIGGING UP BRAZIL

RIO

Brazil. Just say it. It sounds sensual, downright borderline intoxicating. The rhythms alone are potent enough to make a wooden dog jump. The very idea of the place is just totally infectious, and how.

This will come as no surprise when you realise just how much Brazil has to actually OFFER. Consider sailing some nine hundred miles inland, along the vast, jungle shrouded expanse of the River Amazon to make landfall in Manaus, a city that looks like something lifted straight from an Indiana Jones movie. En route, you’ll see houses on splinter thin, rickety stilts, and herds of cattle grazing idly along the river banks. You might even glimpse a half submerged, gimlet eyed Caiman cruising quietly through the dank, expansive mangroves as it hopes to catch an easy, early afternoon lunch. Or you could simply lounge on some of the most spectacular, improbably sited beaches that you’ll ever see anywhere. And where else could you actually go fishing for Piranha, should the mood take you?

Far inland in Brazil’s vast, teeming hinterland, Iguassu Falls is a tremendous, thundering torrent of foaming, cascading water that makes Niagara Falls look positively tame by comparison.

Then there are those fabled coastal cities, strung out along Brazil’s sun kissed expanse of real estate like a string of sparkling gems. Sao Paolo is brash, vibrant, swaggering and sassy; a surging, stylish metropolis that moves to it’s own, distinct soundtrack. And yet, nothing can truly prepare you for Rio.

To truly understand and bond with Rio de Janeiro, you have to approach the city from the sea. In so doing, you’re both paying due reverence to the full on magnificence of one of the most stunning sea cities on the planet, while also gifting yourself a platinum chip visual treat of truly epic proportions. Seeing the monumental mass of Corcovado shearing straight up out of the water, with the great statue of Christ the Redeemer at the summit, and the vast, looming edifice of Sugar Loaf Mountain as your ship ghosts across the glassy surface of Guanabara Bay at dawn, is something that will stay with you long after you actually leave the real thing far behind.

Once ashore, the whole, sun kissed splay of the city opens up around you like some fantastic flower, bursting into bloom. Beach life is elevated to the level of an art form here, played out along the bars and cafes that fringe the edges of Copacabana, Leblon, and a string of nearby spun sugar, honey coloured beaches that collectively do much to give Rio it’s exalted reputation as a place devoted to serious, full on hedonism.

From high up on Corcovado, the view down and along the azure blue sprawl of Guanabara Bay is one of the most adrenaline fuelled things you can savour in a city that flaunts superlatives like an ostrich flaunts it’s plumage.

You could polish your dance steps at one of the local samba schools, or take in a slice or two of the city’s fabled nightlife. It’s every bit as rich and strong as the famous coffee that they serve up there, and that in itself is really saying something.

And that’s where seeing Brazil by ship really does come into it’s own. Some cruise ships stay in Rio for two, and sometimes even three, nights at a time. This gives you ample quality time to get down, deep and dreamy with all of the local culture, as well as all of the fun stuff on offer, without having to pay the often eye watering prices for the swish waterfront hotels that characterise Rio in particular. You’ll find a list of some of the cruise lines that make Rio a prime port of call at the end of this blog, if that’s an option you might like to consider.

You could also combine a South American cruise with a pre-or post cruise land stay- somewhere like Iguassu comes readily to mind-but, wherever you decide to go in Brazil, the sights, sounds and sublime, sensual lifestyle of this stunning country will sear itself into your soul like some kind of cosmic branding iron. It truly is that compelling.

Have fun!

Lines that visit Brazil seasonally; almost always between December and March, and always subject to change. This list is not exhaustive, and the citation of any one cruise line should not be read as an endorsement on the part of TWA.

Azamara Club Cruises/Costa Cruises/Crystal Cruises/MSC Cruises/Oceania Cruises/Pullmantur Cruises/Regent Seven Seas Cruises/Royal Caribbean International/Seabourn Cruise Line/Silversea Cruises

COLUMBUS; SOME THOUGHTS ON THE SHIP…..

COLUMBUS
The Columbus at Antwerp. Photo courtesy of Robert Graves

While there are doubtless many people who have fond memories of Columbus in her previous lives (Ocean Village, Pacific Pearl, etc), I’m thinking that this article might have most resonance with previous CMV passengers that have travelled on, say, Marco Polo or Magellan. You may be contemplating ‘stepping up’ to the larger, more amenity laden Columbus. Or, on the other hand, you might be thinking that the ‘new’ ship is simply too big and busy for you?

While I have very fond memories of those other, earlier CMV ships, I have to say that the Columbus is a clear step forward for CMV on a number of levels. For a start, she has the most balcony rooms of any ship in the fleet. And most of the regular cabins, both inside and outside, come in at a generous 188 square feet. It has to be said that hanging room for clothes is not extensive but, as this is mainly a ship with a smart casual dress code, you should still do just fine in that respect.

The Columbus scores impressively in terms of outdoor deck space, with nice stretches of broad promenade areas outside on Deck Seven that lend themselves equally well to strolling and sunning. There’s a lovely, aft facing terrace at the back of Deck Eight complete with a bar, some comfy lounging furniture, and a brace of hot tubs looking out over the sea. I should imagine that this area would be quite popular in warmer climes, especially at around sunset.

Top prize, however, goes to the prime expanse of sunning space across Deck Twelve. It has a couple of decent sized pools for a ship, including one with an in pool, sit up bar. There’s a casual outdoor grill for lunchtime burgers and hot dogs, as well as the actual, extra charge Grill Restaurant and adjacent speciality coffee shop. Right aft is the main buffet restaurant-the Plantation Buffet-that offers up the usual breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and casual dinner options. Though the serving lines themselves are good, this still gets really busy when people are rushing out to, or coming back from, shore excursions. If time allows, take breakfast at a far more leisurely pace down at the main Waterfront Restaurant, at the very aft end of Deck Seven.

Dining is, as always, a two sitting affair at night. The food in general is well presented, sometimes pleasantly surprising in terms of content, but not too much of a challenge for the typically British, over fifties age passenger demographic that the line tends to target. Five courses typically offer two or three choices for each section. And the main restaurant, though large, has been cleverly scaled down with plant topped partitions to give it a more intimate, less open feel. On the whole, this works quite beautifully.

You can also take breakfast here, or a leisurely, three course lunch on sea days that feels pretty damned indulgent.

There’s a separate, extra charge, themed Indian dinner served each night in Fusion, a carefully partitioned upper deck enclave of the Plantation Buffet. It features authentically costumed serving staff, and a wealth of main courses running from Lamb Rogan Josh through to Grilled Prawns. It’s as much about theatre as taste and, for a special occasion, I definitely recommend trying it at least once.

We never got to try The Grill, a more intimate ‘Surf and Turf’ style extra charge venue, located right forward on Deck Twelve, but I got great feedback from those who did. It’s definitely on my ‘must do’ list for next time.

If, like me, you find it difficult to walk past a cake shop without at least window shopping, then the Hemmingways Bistro on Deck Five is somewhere that you should definitely check out. It has cookies, and cake wedges as large as door stops for sale all day long, and well into the evening. Cunningly displayed in large, well lit open cabinets, this is the sort of place that your nutritionist will have nightmares about. Fortunately, he/she is unlikely to be on board…..

Free tea and coffee is available at the Plantation Buffet all day and night, and many cabins come complete with tea and coffee making trays, too- a welcome treat after a bracing stroll around some chilly Northern European capital.

Naturally, the larger size of this ship allows for a bigger entertainment handle, with more-and larger-public rooms. The three story high, oval shaped Embarkation Lobby on Deck Five gives the ship a quite striking, mauve accented focal point, complete with comfy seating and a split level staircase that leads up to the next two levels. Only the staircase wall is a disappointment; it’s a bit stark for such a large, open space, and it would definitely benefit from some kind of decorative embellishment.

Raffles is a great people watching space up on Deck Six, with views out along the Atrium, and down along the shopping arcade that throngs the edges of the space. Though popular, it seemed to be more of  thoroughfare- a kind of maritime crossroads, if you will-than a space where people genuinely lingered. That said, we were on a short, port intensive cruise, so maybe that came into play as well.

Deck Seven pretty much has it all in terms of venues. Connexions Lounge is a large, raffish space, done out in off white hues, with lots of big, stripey cushions scattered across the sofas that line it’s flanks. Stand up tables for two adjoin the sight lines along both port and starboard sides that lead out onto the open stretches of outdoor promenade decks. It has a kind of early, 20th century colonial vibe, and was very popular by both day and night. As a simple lounging venue, this room is hard to beat.

Just aft of this, the popular Taverner’s Pub makes a welcome reappearance. This one is bigger and more expansive than it’s counterpart on board the Magellan. with deep, rich wood panelling and leather accented chairs, grouped both on the floor, and around the more conventional sofa lounging areas. Particularly nice here is the faux fireplace and free video juke box. Nicest of all is a nest of tables for two that lines the windows along both sides of the room; these allow for a certain amount of privacy while, at the same time, still providing platinum chip space for people watching. A central, circular sit up bar is perfect for all the bar flies out there. This is one of the main, late night venues on board, though on our cruise it usually wound down at around midnight. From here, it was a simple walk to the main, aft facing Waterfront Restaurant each day.

Down on Deck Five, and almost tucked away, is a small Captain’s Club with an adjacent casino. The latter had a couple of roulette tables, and a smattering of one armed bandits. The room has obviously been scaled down since the days when this ship served the American and Australian markets. Truth be told, we never spent a lot of time in there, instead preferring the bars already mentioned on Deck Seven.

But the loftiest venue on the ship is The Dome, a plush, expansive 270 degree room with floor to ceiling windows all around the periphery, and comfortable lounging groups in shades of blue and grey that flank the entire edge of the room. It’s set high up, right forward on Deck Fourteen, and it’s also worth noting that only the forward of the ship’s three sets of elevator banks afford direct access to it. Use the other lifts, and you’ll need to cross the outdoor deck space to gain entry. A large bar off to starboard leads to a decent sized, recessed wooden dance floor. There are more seating areas set all around this room, which works perfectly for sunset and/or pre-dinner drinks. It’s also the late night disco, for those with stamina enough to roll on through until the early morning hours.

Entertainment wise, the Columbus is pretty much what you’d expect. Energetic, colourful but not stress inducing evening shows are held in the main, forward facing, two level Palladium Lounge. Typically, there is one nightly show for each of the two main dinner sittings, so there’s no need for anyone to miss out. There’s every kind of music you can imagine dotted around the ship, from classical to karaoke, via piano music and soft jazz. Quizzes sometimes fire up in the early evenings, and are also popular during day time at sea. There’s a dedicated lecture programme, too, usually tailored to the places that the ship happens to be sailing to, and the events that transpired there over time.

Columbus has several dedicated wi-fi zones, as well as a small computer room complete with terminals, located on Deck Eight. I never had the chance to properly check out the spa down on Deck Two, but it did look pretty expansive. There’s also a decent sized, upper deck gymnasium for those who must indulge in that form of self administered torture.

All things considered, Columbus is a nice brew of homely and expansive, warmth and diversity, with very good food and service laid across an expansive series of sunlit interior spaces. The ship feels deep, wide and welcoming; different to a degree, but not too far away from the normal Cruise and Maritime style so as to intimidate regular passengers. This is evolution, not revolution.

Scale is up, passenger flow is good. Columbus was not long out of a major refit for her previous owners when the decision was made to sell her. CMV has sensibly tried not to radically alter the mix and mood of a ship that was, after all, largely adapted to suit British styles and tastes in the first place.

Final analysis? Columbus is a well decorated, extremely comfortable ship that offers most of the signature CMV experiences in a larger, more refined environment than many assumed would be the case. Like the rest of the fleet, she is an adults-only ship for most of the year, but do be aware that some children are allowed on board for some multi-generational sailings, mainly over the course of the high summer. However, as these are clearly marked out in both the brochures and the on line travel literature, there’s no need to be caught out on one of these trips, unless of course you want to.

The only real caveat I would add is that our cruise took place over the course of a cool, late autumn period when the weather was not really conducive to lingering on deck for any serious amount of time. Put this ship in warmer, more welcoming climes, and the daily vibe on board-both inside and out- might very well be quite different.

I’ll just have to go and check for myself, I suppose……

COLUMBUS: ANTWERP LANDFALL

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Antwerp Cathedral at twilight. photo copyright is that of the author

Sixty miles inland from the estuary of the River Scheldt on the North Sea coast, the great port city of Antwerp crouches along the river bank like some giant, medieval theme park; a city so perfectly compact and awash with gingerbread charm that you would think that it was invented by the makers of Kodak film.

Yes, I know that camera film is old hat, but so too is Antwerp in a great many ways. I don;t mean that in any kind of derogatory sense- far from it- but this city really is so olde worlde pretty in places that it looks like something from straight out of a Disney film backdrop. Set to music, Antwerp would be a cross between a Strauss waltz and some piece of soft, sultry samba. It really is that good.

Take the main square-the Grand Place- as your benchmark. Literally a five minute stroll from where we docked on the Columbus, it’s a stunning brew of gilt, leaded glass windows, and soaring, Gothic overkill that still manages to be almost perfectly proportioned. The inhabitants of Antwerp in the Middle Ages were absolutely hell bent on displaying their wealth in terms of buildings with grand facades and ornate, free flowing fountains, all set on a cobbled concourse that is now strewn with outdoor bars, cafes and eateries. Horse drawn public buses still clop across those cobbles to this day, their hooves clicking out a tempo that contains more than just an echo of that past. It’s magical, almost fairy tale, and it all feels so fragile that it might just collapse at any moment.

And that would be a shame, because even just the thought of burying all of those fantastic local chocolate shops under a layer of gilt is truly heartbreaking. The Belgians have an attitude to perfecting chocolate as a product that is almost religious. In terms of types, taste and sheer temptation, the choices on offer can be almost overwhelming. Your heart will sing even as your arteries whimper but, take it from me, resistance is pretty much futile.

That same, loving attitude applies to locally brewed beer. If the French revere wine like the Holy Grail (Holy Grape, anyone?) then the Belgians have a similar, intense sense of devotion to crafting beer. Beer sommeliers create and curate a stunning range of ales, everything from strawberry flavoured to borderline saccharine, with everything else in between. Some of these are potent enough to blow the tiles off nearby buildings so yes, do take care and indulge sensibly. But oh Lord, do indulge just a little.

This love of food and drink is typical of Belgium as a whole. It’s no accident that the rotund, always impeccably turned out Hercule Poirot was portrayed as a Belgian national. These people take their personal indulgences quite seriously (and quite rightly so) and the buildings that this grand, gregarious city flaunts like so many exclamation marks are perfectly primped pointers to an attitude where decadence is raised to the level of an art form.

Antwerp has art, too, of course. Lots of it. It’s as rich and varied as the chocolate; as sturdy and stout as the beer. You’ll find massively overblown pieces by Rubens, and the vast, vaulted Gothic/Romanesque cathedral that forms the city’s central focus is almost awash with fabulous frescoes and robust, ancient masterpieces on a scale that would have made the Mona Lisa herself gasp with envy. Antwerp is not a modest city in any sense of the word; it’s a sensuous, swaggering, fairground ride of a seaport. For some it can actually be overwhelming, but at least Antwerp is anything but bland.

Trams slither purposefully through those old, winding streets as the milling throngs make their way from restaurants to art gallery, offices to outdoor bars. Courtyards are almost awash with creeping plants and rickety wooden tables and chairs. Weak, early morning sunlight glimmers against glass in window frames that have been here for centuries. On the river, a gaggle of ducks passes in stately procession across the wake of some stubby, no nonsense coastal steamer, chugging gamely upstream into the embrace of the third largest port anywhere in Europe.

It was that same port which made Antwerp the focus of some of the most seminal events of World War Two. In early September of 1944, Field Marshal Montgomery took the city at the gallop as his army group scythed through the shattered remnants of the Wehrmacht in the aftermaths of Normandy and Falaise. But, flushed with victory, Montgomery failed to clear the river banks on both sides of the long approach from the open sea to the city. Thus gifted with a breathing space that they neither expected or deserved, the Germans were able to regroup. Digging in a large amount of heavy artillery, they were able to dominate the approaches to Antwerp without needing the city itself.

The result was that the vast port was useless to the Allies- who desperately needed it for landing supplies-for almost a full three months. Stung to fury at it’s loss, Hitler unleashed a screaming torrent of V1 and V2 flying bombs on the ancient Flemish city. In these last stages of the conflict, only London was more repeatedly hit by flying bombs than Antwerp.

The protracted fighting along the Scheldt estuary, combined with the bloody fiasco at Arnhem, allowed the battered German forces vital time to rest, regroup and re-arm. When the Wehrmacht came looming in sudden, surprising strength out of the snow bound forests of the Ardennes that same December, it’s ultimate objective was the recapture of Antwerp. This last, desperate lunge by Hitler’s army in the west would go down in history as the ‘Battle of The Bulge’. And, although elements of one German panzer division did get to within a few miles of the  vital crossings over the River Meuse, this last ditch offensive was a busted flush before it ever really began. There was simply neither the manpower or the resources to sustain it by this stage of the conflict.

All that turbulent, tremendous history seems pretty abstract as you smother some freshly baked waffle under a sea of strawberry jam at an outdoor cafe, while street musicians thump lustily away at some gut wrenching slice of oompah music. Nothing evoked the true spirit of Halloween quite like that ghastly car crash of sound.

But hey, that’s Antwerp for you. History and hedonism. Beer. Chocolate. Poirot. Let’s not forget Tin Tin. A rich, sometimes ribald confection of a city wrapped up in gilt, and then tied with a pretty little bow. Proud, patrician and swaggering, Antwerp is quite the date.

Freed from her shackles, the Columbus slipped quietly clear of Antwerp’s well fed embrace. Darkness fell like a slowly lowering theatre curtain. Pools of light danced on the ink black water as random spatters of raindrops lashed at our windows like flies on a car windscreen. From somewhere high above us the deep throated boom of the ship’s siren roared out across the water. It reverberated across the gilt and gingerbread expanse of Antwerp’s rain lashed Grand Square, where flocks of suddenly startled pigeons flooded the sky in maddened droves.

I watched all of this from inside the Taverner’s Bar, cradling a perfectly chilled glass of wine as we stole out into the slipstream, and Antwerp faded from our grasp like a slowly falling souffle. And, as she did, a sense of sublime, detached contentment mugged me with a smile. I folded like so much wet cardboard.

Truly, resistance is sometimes futile.

 

 

COLUMBUS CRUISE; HAMBURG, AND THE BIRTH OF THE BISMARCK

BISMARCK LAUNCH
The Bismarck takes to the water at Hamburg on February 14th, 1939

Hamburg as a port is synonymous with two very different legends; The Beatles and the Bismarck. And, while the first became a worldwide legend for all the right reasons, Hamburg’s other great claim to fame was birthed and nurtured for a much darker purpose. None the less, her story is every bit as much endemic to the great city’s past as the musical masterpieces that immortalised the ‘Fab Four’. It’s another facet of a uniquely fascinating city, and I’ll recount some of that connection here, in this blog.

February 14th, 1939, dawned grey and miserable in Hamburg. A biting cold wind roared in off the River Elbe, surging through the rows of red brick warehouses like some invisible tidal wave. At the Blohm and Voss shipyard, preparations were well in hand for an epic launch event; one that would unite both past and turbulent present in a moment of pure, theatrical bombast.

With Nazi Germany just one month away from devouring the sundered rump of Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler had arrived in Hamburg on February 13th, staying overnight with his retinue at the Hotel Atlantic. He laid a symbolic wreath at the tomb of Otto von Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who had first united Germany back in 1871. It was a carefully choreographed prelude to the events of February 14th, 1939.

Later on that Valentine’s Day afternoon, Hitler climbed a podium erected in front of a vast steel edifice, more than eight hundred feet long, and some one hundred and twenty feet across at its widest point. This squat, cathedral like colossus was actually Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship.

The Bismarck.

Below the podium and the poised hull, a sea of blood red banners snapped and whipped in the glacial breeze. Thousands of spectators milled around the great bulk of the ship like hordes of worker ants, waiting for the moment of release. It was not long in coming.

On the podium, a small, well wrapped woman walked forward. She stepped past Hitler to address the crowd. In front of her hung a bottle of champagne, poised to be smashed against the prow of the beast. She was Frau Dorothea von Loewenfeld-Bismarck, the grand daughter of the first chancellor. Her job was to honour this new monster with the ancient family name.

On the order of the Fuhrer, I baptise you with the name Bismarck……”

The bottle swung deftly to connect with its unmissable target, but then everything seemed frozen in time. For a  moment, the battleship refused to move. Someone in the crowd called out for the portly Hermann Goering to give her a push.

In the end, no push was needed.

A shore side band thumped away at the national anthem as the vast bulk of the ship began a slow, stately procession down the Hamburg slipways. As she gathered way, huge placards that bore her name, spelt out in Gothic letters, were draped over both sides of her bow. With a symphony orchestra of clanking, squealing and hissing drag chains just barely holding her in check, the biggest warship ever built in Europe hit the water with one almighty splash. Adolf Hitler smiled darkly.

The irony of the ship’s chosen name was not lost on many. Chancellor Bismarck had never seen the need for Germany to have a navy at all, and had always set his face firmly against any war with Great Britain. On the day after the launch, the London Times commented favourably on the choice of name for that very reason; incredibly, it chose to interpret this as a peaceful gesture on behalf of the Nazi regime.

To this day, the Bismarck and the town that gave birth to her remain inextricably linked, both by time and tide. Despite the grim nature of her purpose, local people today still retain a sense of pride in the achievement that she represented, and in the epic fight that she put up just two years later.

Her first shots in anger were not fired at sea, but rather right there in Hamburg harbour. Churchill quite rightly made delaying her completion an absolute priority once war broke out, and the RAF visited the Hamburg yards almost nightly in a series of attempts to hobble her before she ever got to sea in the first place. As construction on her progressed, the battleship’s own anti-aircraft guns joined in the defensive fire from the Hamburg AA batteries.

BISMARCK AT SEA
The Bismarck firing her main armament during the Denmark Strait action. The photo was taken from on board her escorting cruiser, the Prinz Eugen. It remains one of the single most famous images of the entire Second World War

Hitler himself did not understand either battleships or sea power, though he retained an almost childish fascination for the former. When first shown the plans for Bismarck and her twin sister ship, Tirpitz, Hitler opined that they were ‘insufficiently gunned, and too slow’. Subsequent events would prove him wrong on both fronts.

His ignorance of naval strategy was self confessed. He once said; ‘On land, I am a hero. At sea, I am a coward.’ It was a rare, honest admission, but one that was have to have baleful future effects on the German side.

Technically, the Bismarck came in at around 35,000 tons, in order to conform with the Anglo-German naval treaty of 1936. In reality, she was a full six thousand tons bigger than that.

Today, Bismarck remains a ship of contradictions. Though she was ultimately destroyed, an air of faux invincibility still clings to her very name to this day. To many people, she remains, quite simply, ‘the’ battleship, and for sure the most famous example of that doomed breed of beasts ever to be built.

This is all the more strange when you consider that both the Americans and the Japanese built bigger, more powerful battleships than her. And the Italian Littorio class can claim to be at least technically as good as Bismarck and Tirpitz in many respects, too.

She has always been portrayed as a ship of quite remarkable, aggressive striking power, but the truth is that her main strength was actually defensive. Around forty per cent of her total weight was made up of foot thick, high tensile armour plating. Subsequent events would prove that she would be a very tough nut indeed to crack.

As a ship, the Bismarck has two principal claims to fame. The first was her lightning victory over HMS Hood  and HMS Prince of Wales in the Battle of Denmark Strait. Here, she served up the most devastating display of single ship gunnery seen over the entire twentieth century.

The second was, of course, her final, hopeless stand against overwhelming odds, just three days later. More than anything, this was to make her truly the stuff of legend.

The hunt for the Bismarck was the biggest single ship sea chase of all time. Over nine days and almost three thousand miles, this one battleship was hunted by every Royal Navy warship located north of the Equator. Ships were even taken out of the Mediterranean, and from absolutely vital convoy escort duties. Every card was thrown into the fray and, even at the end, it was a very close run thing. Despite everything, she still almost slipped through the net.

Decades later, finding her wreck became almost an obsession. In 1989, she was relocated by Robert Ballard, the Woods Hole oceanographer who, four years earlier, had found the wreck of the Titanic. At that time, the find was considered so potentially controversial that Ballard would only reveal the precise location of the lost ship to the (then) West German government.

Another Titanic devotee to become hooked on the Bismarck saga is James Cameron, the Hollywood film producer. Cameron has made several dives to the wreck of the Bismarck, and has documented her current condition quite extensively on film.

For the cameras, James Cameron would refer to Bismarck as ‘the 1941 equivalent of the Death Star’, a bit of theatrical sledging that is not actually too far wide of the mark. For sure, the Bismarck was the equivalent of some truly voracious Tiger Shark at the very least.

That both Ballard and Cameron should be jointly taken in by Titanic and Bismarck is hardly surprising. There are so many parallels between the story of those two lost ships-each one built, as it was, for vastly different purposes- so as to make those connections almost borderline spooky. But that is a story for another time and, indeed, another place.