All posts by travelswithanthony

Hello world, this is Anthony's travel blog. I've done more than a hundred and thirty cruises and transatlantic crossings, with more to come. If you have a taste for style, beauty and elegance, welcome aboard. If you have a sense of wonder about the world around you, welcome also. We'll be looking at the very best in land, sea and air travel- both past and present. Together, we'll be going to some pretty damned peachy places. The small, off-the-beaten-track paradises, and the big, bustling cities. Kick off your shoes, grab a margarita, and enjoy the ride!

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?

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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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THE MARINA; MUSING ON MEMORIES

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Oceania Cruises’ stunning Marina

For once, I’m going to start as what was almost literally the end of this trip. But please bear with me, and I think that you’ll see where I’m coming from here.

It’s around 2030 on a picture perfect, late summer evening, and I’m having dinner at the open air Terrace Cafe aboard Oceania Cruises’ Marina. It’s the highest spot at the very stern of the ship and, in good weather, it allows for a fantastic panorama of the ship’s wake. And, in that respect, tonight is just about as good as it gets.

Behind us, the magnificent chalk cliffs that range along the coast of Dorset are falling in slow motion into a gently rolling, gunmetal tinted sea. It resembles a block of slowly melting ice cream as it sags and sighs almost reluctantly into the waters of the English Channel.

Above this, dark, gossamer bands of low grey and saffron clouds are pierced by shafts of brilliant, rosy sunset as the day slowly gives ground to the oncoming night. It all looks like a series of amazing celestial brush strokes, defining the textures and shades of the very universe itself. But even this is merely one detail in a much larger picture.

If light is one part of this fantastic natural smorgasbord, then you have to tip your hat to the soundtrack that comes as an appetiser. Though the terrace is busy, the tone is hushed, almost awed, even. As if there is a kind of symbiotic- and totally apt- natural reverence for the amazing visual display unfolding all around us.

There is the subtle murmur of tinkling glassware and polished cutlery, vibrating gently on tables sprinkled across the trim, tidy expanse of deck space. That, and the seductive swish of water boiling alongside the soaring flanks of our ship, gives the evening an air of detached, almost Olympian splendour that seemed to stand still in time and space. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the spell forever.

There’s an ambient musical soundtrack, too. I can still hear Billie Holliday crooning wistfully through Good Morning Heartache, and the strident, soulful tones of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet as the first notes of La Vie En Rose rise up to kiss the warm evening breeze. There is just the faintest hint of a ghostly, glimmering star or two in the sky by now. It’s almost as if the heavens themselves have been stirred into casual curiosity by the sight of this beautiful ship so far below, cutting like an arrow across the darkening carpet of the ocean.

Waiters weave between the tables with the subtle, artistic elan of a ballet troupe, delivering food and drinks to the score of people lounging outside on the terrace. The aromas from that food hang in the air like fine perfume. The whole thing is like some beautifully orchestrated symphony that, by it’s very nature, can only ever be performed once. And here we sit, with the best seats in the house, watching it all unfold. Savouring it like fine wine.

And the food? ‘Sublime’ does not begin to cover it. A perfectly crafted sirloin yields without a fight, washed down with some gorgeous Woodbridge Zinfandel. At one stage, the setting sun glances like some fleeting lover’s kiss against the rim of my wine glass, turning it briefly into a shimmering little rose bowl that makes me smile like a kid on Christmas Day.

Now the theatre is emptying. People have to pack, and prepare for our inevitable Southampton landing in the morning. Like some tired, gently sighing swan, the Marina surges gamely towards the end of her journey.

But there is still time for a final few of those gorgeous ‘Big O’ martinis, time to enjoy some last conversations and laughter. To say ‘goodbye’ for now to new found friends and old ones alike, among both passengers and crew.

Yes, it is ending. But it is doing so just as it started; with style, grace and elegance. And, right at that soulful, mellow little interlude, I was truly grateful for that.

BELFAST BIDS FOR TITANIC ARTEFACTS

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A consortium of four different interests has made a joint bid to bring some 5,500 individual items salvaged from the wreck and wreck site of RMS Titanic back to the liner’s birthplace in Belfast.

Titanic Belfast, together with the Titanic Foundation and National Maritime Museum, and also National Museums Northern Ireland, have collectively tendered a bid of some £14.5 million in an attempt to bring the entire collection back to Northern Ireland.

The bid has the backing of both Robert Ballard, the man who originally found the wreck of the Titanic back in 1985, and James Cameron, whose 1997 film Titanic did so much to revive interest in the lost liner. Cameron himself made no less than thirty-three dives to the wreck of the Titanic over a ten year period, and says that he feels a ‘deep responsibility’ towards preserving and curating the artefacts brought up from the wreck as a single, unified, collection.

The vast array of relics was salvaged from the sea bed between 1987 and 2004 by RMS Titanic Inc, the company that first secured salvage rights to the wreck itself, and the immediate area surrounding it. In all, some seven expeditions scooped up a massive range of items, from shoes and unopened champagne bottles, to a large section of the liner’s actual hull plating.

The return of the Titanic relics became possible because the company currently in possession of them- Premier Exhibitions- was obliged to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA back in June of 2016.

All of the concerned parties emphasise the importance of keeping the entire collection together as a single, unified entity, rather than allowing it to be sold off piecemeal to private collectors. And, with renowned heavyweights like Bob Ballard and James Cameron leading the charge, hopes are high that the enduring legacy of Titanic will be properly enshrined in the place of her birth.

None of this precludes the possible loan of certain parts of the collection to ports that have a real, living collection to the lost liner. Southampton, Liverpool, Cherbourg and Cobh come first to mind. And, while most would almost certainly go to Belfast’s award winning Titanic museum, there’s arguably a case for displaying some of them aboard the Nomadic, the preserved, Belfast based tender that served both the Olympic and the Titanic during her one and only call into France.

There’s an unassailable case for bringing this vast, potentially priceless collection back to Belfast. I, for one, back it one hundred per cent.

 

MARINA CRUISE OVERVIEW

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Oceania Cruises’ sleek, sophisticated Marina

It’s going to be a relatively short trip on the plush, upscale Marina next week. Just five nights in total, and the first of those spent in Dublin to boot. But there is still a tremendous wealth of wonderful sights and sounds on this Celtic accented jaunt, and now seems as good a time as any to look over some of them.

As mentioned, I’ll be staying overnight in Dublin on the day before the cruise, and I’m really looking forward to getting back under the skin of a city I last visited more than two decades ago. The ‘Legend on The Liffey’ (I’m copyrighting that, by the way) is a series of gorgeous, Georgian pieces of architecture, dotted around one of the most truly eclectic cities anywhere in Europe.

Think Trinity College, and the mad, bohemian ballyhoo of the Temple Bar district. The famous thoroughfares of O’Connell and Grafton Streets. There’s the serenity of Phoenix Park and the series of stunning, wrought iron bridges vaulting over the steel grey span of the Liffey itself. On a more sombre note, Dublin’s century old, troubled past is thrown into sharp perspective in the stark, cobbled courtyard of Kilmainham jail, where the ringleaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed by a firing squad.

Crossing the Irish Sea after a late evening departure from Dublin, the Marina comes breezing into the wildly rugged, pristine beauty of Holyhead, on Wales’ stunning Anglesey coastline. Famed for it’s fabulous blond beaches and wealth of hiking trails, it’s also an ideal starting point for tours to the great, brooding bulk of thirteenth century Caernafon Castle, a vast, weather beaten pile that dates back to the reign of Edward I. Used for many years as the site for royal investitures, the castle remains one of the most completely intact specimens of its kind anywhere in the world. I’ll be getting up close and personal to the stately old beast, and you’ll be able to read about that encounter right here.

We’re then off back to Southern Ireland, to make landfall at Cobh. Once known as Queenstown, it was the point of departure for hundreds of thousands of desperate young migrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In many ways, Cobh was the place from where Ireland was once bled dry of it’s youth and vigour.

As a result, Cobh has always felt suffused by an undercurrent of lingering, residual sadness. The coastline itself is magnificent in it’s range and sheer, stunning beauty. And, of course, those who feel the need to visit Cork Castle and kiss the legendary ‘Blarney Stone’ can certainly do so.

But it is Cobh’s unbreakable associations with two of maritime history’s most enduring dramas that mark it out as a place apart. On April 11th, 1912, Cobh was the last port of call for RMS Titanic. The ill-fated White Star liner anchored for a few hours off Roche’s Point to embark some one hundred and twenty three passengers, before she disappeared over the horizon forever. Only forty-four of those huddled aboard the two tenders that took them out to the Titanic would survive the sinking of the liner, just four nights later.

Three years later, on May 7th, 1915, the Cunard liner Lusitania was torpedoed off Queenstown while en route from New York to Liverpool. Some 1,201 passengers and crew were killed when the legendary liner foundered in just eighteen minutes. At the epicentre of the rescue mission, Queenstown coddled the 764 survivors and served as a burial site for most of the victims. Bodies were still being washed ashore a full three weeks later; the entire town was plunged into mourning on what remains the blackest day in it’s history. The wreck of the Lusitania lies just ten miles off the coast of Cobh to this day.

So there’s no shortage of maritime lore on display in Cobh these days, and I’ll be getting around as much of it as possible. And there will also be time for a beer or two in such evocatively named pubs as the Lusitania and, of course, the Mauretania, too.

Next day, the good ship Marina forsakes the Celtic culture in exchange for Thomas Hardy country in the shape of Portland, on Dorset’s channel coast. Famed for it’s prehistoric coastline and fine, flawless beaches, Portland is the gateway to the historic old market town of Dorchester, where I’ll be spending a couple of hours or so.

I’ll also be making for the famous tank museum at Bovington, with its matchless display of tracked military muscle spanning over a century of mechanised warfare. The museum features everything from the first, putative British Mark One tank of 1916, right through to the legendary Chieftain of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In between, we’ll be getting up close and personal to a whole plethora of fearsome, petrifying brutes; from the ubiquitous American M4 Sherman to the massive, bristling King Tiger, a seventy ton beast that still remains the largest battle tank ever to go into mass production.

Next day will see me disembarking from the Marina in Southampton, at the end of a trip that will be long on memorable encounters and experiences, In between, there’s time for me to get re-acquainted with a ship that is a byword for style, elegance, and finely honed cuisine. A ship where calm comfort and casual, spectacular luxury complements all those fantastic sights and finery ashore to absolute perfection.

Tanks. Titanic. Swaggering, freewheeling Dublin, and the ancient, brooding battlements of a castle straight out of the pages of Macbeth, The stark, rustic beauty of Thomas Hardy country, and a beer or two in pretty, breezy Cobh. It’s all there.

Phew. I’m exhausted just thinking about it all….