THE LARDBURGERS DO EGYPT….

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Hi people, it’s Myrtle Lardburger here again, with another guest blog for Anthony’s website. We were a bit unsure about travelling again, after last year’s unfortunate experience in Scotland-on-Sea. However, when the chance came to visit Egypt on a Nile cruise, Herb and I threw caution to the wind and we were straight there, right back in the saddle! Yessir!

Sadly, it was just the two of us going this time.  The kids are so busy; Fergie-Diane has her ballet dancing championships this year, and Dwayne-Pugsley has just been made Secretary of State For Defense, or something like that. Our dear friends, Abe and Patti Fartle, were also unable to join us. But, being the troopers that we are, Herb and I saddled right up, and socked it to them again!

Those of you that follow my writing may recall that I am actually something of a culture buffer. Herb always tells me that I’m one of life’s naturally beautiful people; I mean, I’ve even eaten sushi in Santiago, for crissakes. So, Egypt should have been a piece of cake, really.

I am particularly fascinated by the story of Queen Cleopatra, so imagine my surprise when our guide-Rommel- told me the true story of how she died. They always tell you that she was killed by a snakebite. Well, actually it was three of them.

She drank them in the bar of the Rameses Hilton, fell drunk off a bar stool, and broke her neck. Apparently, Mick Jagger was sitting on the stool next to her at the time. So much for history then, eh?

I don’t mean to be rude to foreign cultures, but the Egyptoid people are so annoying. Everywhere we went, people kept holding out their hands, and yelling something about ‘bad teeth’? My kindly meant advice that they should brush and floss more often was simply ignored. I like to think of myself as a kind and giving person, but there are limits to my generosity.

I was surprised at how many people from other countries were visiting Egypt at the same time as us. We saw literally hundreds of Chinese, all of them wearing those dainty little face masks that cover their noses and mouth. Smart people, too. Somebody must have told them that Herb had the sprouts at dinner last night…..

We went to visit some temple at a place called Aswan, which was named after the famous lion in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. This was situated on an island, and we had to go out there by boat.

Imagine my delight when Rommel told me that we would be travelling on Cleopatra’s actual royal barge. I mean- imagine little old me sitting on Cleopatra’s actual throne! It should have been such an adventure. But no….

Damned thing came spluttering to a halt half ways across the water. Threw out more black smoke like a Louisiana fog. The captain tried hitting the engine with a hammer, Rommel gave it a kick and, next thing I knew, poor Herb fell over the side.

Before he could climb back in, three other boats tied up on him, and my poor husband found himself up to his chins in screaming Chinese school children. I bet Cleopatra never had a day like that. Jesus, no wonder the poor woman turned to alcohol. It’s all so, so, tragic.

We also saw some kind of great temple complex at a place called Karnak, which Rommel tells me is pronounced as ‘Car-Knack’. As with so many other things in Egypt, this is a work in progress. It’s very nice and, once they get the roof on and a nice carpet laid down, it will really be the business, maybe as good as anything in Las Vegas, even.

We also visited the temple of Tat, who is the God of ancient Egyptian antiquities. In fact, there are several temples to Tat, most of them at the entrances to some old piles of stone that no one ever got round to clearing away. Sadly, this is typical of Egypt.

The people take their worship of Tat very seriously indeed. They come running at you, waving priceless Egyptoid artefacts that still have their original price tags attached. There’s lots of shouting, screaming, yelling, and waving of arms in the air. Just like those poor Chinese kids the other day, when Herb got back into the Cleopatra’s barge, and they all fell into the river. Durned if I’ve ever seen so many crocodiles move that quickly in my life.

Anyway, we did kind of enjoy our time in the Middle East. The Egyptoid people are very interested in learning about other cultures, and some of my related tales about our exotic travels left them with their jaws scraping the tops of their sandals. Sharing my knowledge with other people is a gift from God that I am happy to expand upon.

Because Herb and I like to fit right in with the locals, Rommel managed to score us some really swanky togs. I bought a one piece outfit- it’s called a Jambalaya- that I was told had been made from one of Pavarotti’s old hammocks. And, bless him, Herb bought me a new stretch kaftan from the famous and very popular Egyptoid couturier, Jabba, whose clothes are very much in demand. Apparently, Jabba makes everything himself, right there in his own little hut.

So, that’s Egypt ticked off the list. Would we go back? Well, maybe when they get that Car Knack place finished properly. Just watch this space, and keep on dreaming!

 

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RIB RIDING THE WAVES, FRED. OLSEN STYLE….

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One of the new RIB boats. Photo credit: http://www.fredolsencruises.com

The River Tyne in early March is not noted for it’s gentle waves and benign climate.So, imagine my surprise, then, to find myself waddling down the seaward side gangway of Fred. Olsen’s stately Boudicca to climb into a small boat that looked for all the world like a pilot fish sitting alongside some supine, basking whale.

I’m togged out in a full survival suit in fetching shades of coal black and bubonic yellow, topped off with a life jacket, and with matching gloves and a woolly hat as accessories. Getting into all of this was one awesome sartorial challenge. I suspect that it might have been easier getting into the Siegfried Line….

But all of this was for my own good. Those awesome little boats are called RIBs (literally Rigid Inflatable Boats) and they are the latest set of enhancements to be added across all four ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet. Each of them has been gifted with a brace of these beauties and boy, can they ever barrel across a flat stretch of water. As I was just about to find out.

The idea is simple; enhance the already very considerable allure of the Fred.Olsen brand of small ship cruising by adding the RIBs. At any given time, these give the ships an opportunity to get a handful of intrepid adventurers right ‘up close and personal’ to the silent, soaring walls of rock that frame the great fjords of Norway, or to make landfall on some sublime, serenely dreamy Caribbean beach. And, with the four ship fleet literally exploring almost every known corner of the globe on a yearly basis, the opportunities to get even more immersed in some truly wonderful, spine tingling experiences are brilliantly obvious.

Imagine motoring around the massive, imperious rock formations that shear up out the seas off Phuket, or getting right up close and personal to some immense, glistening iceberg as it calves, crackles and sheds massive fragments of glistening ice into what looks like a sea of glass.  How about getting right up close to Sydney’s awe inspiring bridge, before actually sailing under it? Or even motoring at speed past the secluded manor houses and chateaux that line the banks of the sinuous, spectacular River Seine?

Most- but not all-of these adventures are quite likely to unfold on more benign waters than a River Tyne still gripped in the last, strangulated grasp of a raw winter Wednesday. Likely as not, there will be no need to shoe horn yourself into the second skin that I was sporting, as I moved to where my own little RIB boat was bobbing up and down in the slate grey swell. The sky overhead frowned down at us; fleets of great, grey clouds loomed above our heads, looking like inbound zeppelins on a bombing raid.

But, before you even get this far, there is a full safety briefing, and a mock up of the actual seating aboard the RIB. Each and every passenger has to demonstrate that they are fit and able enough to climb on and off these, before even being allowed to proceed any further. And each RIB comes complete with a brace of fully trained crewmen, capable of dealing with every aspect of the RIB experience.

The RIBs themselves each have two rows of seats running from fore to aft, complete with sturdy back rests, and a set of hand grips to which I was soon to become very attached indeed. Not since my white knuckle donkey ride to the top of Santorini’s cloud scraping caldera a few years back have I held onto anything with such grim determination.

We shuffle into our allotted seats with a sense of dour, determined resolve. Once everyone is seated the lines are cast off, and the boat splutters and rumbles into life. Boudicca begins to vanish into the Tyneside mist like some anxious, perplexed wraith. Spray flails the air as we begin to romp across the sullen, spitting briny. But, my word, this stuff really is exhilarating.

Waves flail at the walls of the harbour breakwater like angry, foaming fists as we surge towards it. A stout, grimy trawler waddles past us like some drunken dowager of old, while seabirds screech and then wheel all around it. As we increase speed the boat shudders, jumps and races along, with hissing girdles of foam curling around her flanks like so many angry slaps.

Now then rain drums down, knifing into us as we nose out past the breakwater. To port, the stunted remains of ancient Tynemouth Priory loom out of the mist like squat, truncated fingers. In our ears, the roar of the motor feels more like a heartbeat as the RIB remains purposefully on track. The boat can turn on a penny; it’s ability to nip, swerve and shimmy is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s an exhilarating, adrenaline pumping run that really does take destination intensive cruising to a whole new level. As we raced back into the sanctuary of the Tyne, the RIB gradually slowed, like some shattered steed that had run itself into the ground. The roar of the engine died down to something like muted burbling, even as the welcoming, solicitous bulk of Boudicca loomed out of the mist to tower over us once more.

Secured and reassured, we trooped dutifully back up the gangway, shedding our sodden protective skins at what seemed like warp speed. There was piping hot coffee to welcome us back, and a series of awed, befuddled glances from some of the other people on board. Their eyes said it all: what were you even THINKING , being out there on a day like this?

For me, what I was doing was trying something radically different, something that was as exhilarating as it was rewarding. And, if this little taste of RIB riding got to me quite so much, then what must it be like to do something similar, sans wet suits, in the calmer, far warmer waters of, say, the Caribbean?

As an adventure, this is definitely one that should be on your bucket list.

SS.FRANCE-THE SECOND NORMANDIE?

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The fabulous France of 1962

The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.

As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;

I have given you a new Normandie!”

That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.

From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.

No pressure there, then…..

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The Normandie at speed on the Atlantic in her late 1930’s heyday

So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.

Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.

Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.

Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.

Where the France did gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.

Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.

At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.

This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.

But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.

Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.

The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.

But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.

And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.

Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.