Category Archives: cruising

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

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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 that 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

DSC06695
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.

COLUMBUS; CRUISING THE EUROPEAN CLASSICS

COLUMBUS
The Columbus docked at Antwerp on November 1st. Photo courtesy of Robert Graves

It’s a little after lunchtime out here on the North Sea, and the Columbus is cruising sedately along the Dutch coast, en route to Antwerp. There’s a slowly rolling gunmetal swell outside, and the occasional faint glimmer of sunlight that teases across the horizon. And although it is a Wednesday in the real world, today out here has the mellow vibe of a lazy summertime Sunday.

A string of highlights have come and gone like so many muffled drum rolls since we slipped away from Tilbury, just three days ago. We spent a lazy Monday morning on a canal cruise through the spiders’ web of waterways that is the lifeblood of old Amsterdam, beetling past serried tiers of brownstone houses that frowned down on us from under a cloudy sky. Fleets of bikes and bustling, snail like trams scurried through the city like swarms of maddened ants. As ever, this grand, glamorous sea city was buzzing with its own unique, earthy vibe.

Hamburg came up almost without warning; a cluster of ancient, spindly church and cathedral spires splintered a slate grey horizon as the Columbus nudged gently upstream towards her berth. Hamburg- the city of beer, The Beatles and the Bismarck-is a colossal brew of glass, steel, and red brick warehouses that loom out above canals whipped by autumn winds, and piles of scattered leaves that flew in all directions as we strolled its ancient, Hanseatic streets.

The city brims with modern masterpieces like the Elbphilharmonie, a fabulous new waterfront opera venue. Here, modern literally tops classic; a vast, wave top crowned rectangular glass carapace has been grafted onto a soaring, spruced up old red brick warehouse to create a stunning new focal point for this hugely under rated sea city. It’s flashy and yet formidable, solid and stunning in the same breath.

Of course, the Reeperbahn is still there. Much of it still remains as The Beatles would have remembered it from their early, manic, bread and butter youth. A gaudy glut of seedy bars, shops and ‘cinemas’ stand decked in shades of garish, near bubonic neon. It forms the perfect stage for the nightly cast of pimps, female ‘entertainers’ and farmer’s sons that wander round, wide eyed and slack jawed, at all the platinum chip debauchery that beckons from nigh on every litter strewn doorway. The latter are prime fodder for the lurking pickpockets who play them like so many badly tuned pianos. Those windswept streets crackle and buzz with an energy that you’ll find nowhere else on earth. Hamburg is a hard working, hard partying city that wears the scars of it’s tormented past- from plague outbreaks to paralysing mass bombing- like so many rust streaked battle honours. You’ll find none of the faux flashiness of Monaco or Vegas here; Hamburg is far more grit than glitter, and it remains all the more appealing for it.

Those twin treasures are now literally in my wake as I write. The passengers on board the Columbus are taking their rest after gamely force marching (munching?) their way through a mountainous lunchtime buffet. Many are sagging comfortably into armchairs that look out over the glittering briny. Others stroll the shopping arcade while a battery of braver souls, bundled up in layers of clothing, meander along the bracing, breeze whipped outdoor decks.

The daily, seagoing ballet of waiters delivering trays of drinks to people sitting around tables is now in full flow. There’s the occasional rattle of a cocktail shaker, and I can just vaguely hear some sublime old Aretha Franklin tunes flowing from the free jukebox in the Taverner’s Pub. Like good wine, great music simply gets better with time, methinks.

A kind of smiley, mid afternoon stupor is creeping up on me like slowly encroaching sea fog. Quite honestly, being this indolent and lazy takes a huge amount of planning and work. I doubt if Dwight Eisenhower’s staff did this much exhaustive pre-planning in the run up to the D-Day landings.

Still, one must soldier on (pun wholly intentional) without complaint, and with a steady step. OK, maybe not so much later when the wine kicks in which, being blessed with incredible powers of perception, I know that it surely will. Still, I guess that no-one ever said that this stuff would be easy.

So, that’s it for now, folks. Missing you already and-remember- it’s a jungle out there……

 

 

SINKING THE MYTHS ABOUT CRUISING….

RP
Royal Princess is typical of today’s cutting edge, state of the art cruise ships. Photo credit; Princess Cruises

It’s a notion as tired and cliched as the people that it claims to portray. The myth that cruising as a holiday form is solely for the ‘newly wed and the nearly dead’. When you look at the fabulous floating theme parks that roam the seventy plus per cent of our planet that is actually composed of water, then that half baked old splutterance becomes not so much old hat, as platinum chip prehistoric.

The recent, growing trend for outdoor beach and night clubs on ships is damned near perfect for the warmer waters of the Caribbean and the summertime Mediterranean. Sound and light systems on a hi-tech par with anything found on South Beach or Ibiza feed a constant, feel good vibe. You can samba or salsa around those upper deck swimming pools from dusk till dawn if you have the stamina these days, or you can grab some fresh baked pizza at four in the morning before you finally call it a night.

Any way you slice it, cruising is now a global groove, played out from the endless summer nights of Norway to the sparkling, sunlit seascapes of the Far East. There is a ship that is hip for every style and taste these days.

Other on board diversions unfold like a series of drum rolls. There are rock climbing walls, flow riders and vast, expansive water parks designed to keep kids of all ages in clover. Some ships even have Formula One rally simulators. And why would you simply walk from one floor to another, when you can actually zip line between levels on some ships?

You can go ten pin bowling, or browse online to your heart’s content as your ships slides between a swathe of stunning, sunlit Greek island idylls, before maybe indulging in a spot of bracing quad bike racing ashore. This is most definitely not the style of cruising that granny once embraced, that’s for sure.

Dress codes, too, have largely devolved into a more egalitarian ‘whatever suits your mood’ kind of style. Tuxes are more like museum artefacts on some ships these days. The days when grim faced officers tottered around the dance floor while in the grip of some diamond encrusted old dowager only exist today on TV shows like Downton Abbey.

Restaurant choices on board have mushroomed, with many ships now offering in excess of twenty different kinds of eateries, though admittedly many of these come with a small supplemental charge. You can sample a truly global spread of tastes, with everything from classic French to Asian Fusion, by way of Moroccan and even Mongolian. And, where and when you eat is, for the most part, entirely down to you. Plus, most ships will not expect you to wear a jacket at dinner these days, let alone a tie.

Many ships have late night, R-rated comedy shows that would have been unthinkable even a decade or so ago. There are lavish, vastly ambitious Vegas style shows in huge, multi level theatres. Casinos as large as a Zeppelin hangar routinely hum, whirr and click through until the small hours of the morning. And you can take in almost any kind of music genre that suits your whim, from classical to cool jazz, big band to retro disco.

Accommodation choices are vast, with cabins ideal for families that cover the range from comfortable inside rooms to huge, sprawling multi room apartments that come complete with expansive private terraces. And singles can choose chic, cheerful single rooms on some lines these days. Children’s clubs and teen dens will keep the younger ones entranced and entertained from dawn till dusk, and even later if required.

Fitness facilities are pretty much state of the art, with vast, expansive spas and bang on trend gymnasiums replete with every modern torture device known to man. Those spas are airy, opulent complexes, with tiled, heated recliners and hydrotherapy pools that elevate relaxation to a level of seriously sublime self indulgence. Or take it outside and you’ll find pools, hot tubs and casual snacking venues galore.

So yes, while cruising may well still be a nostalgic ocean of memories for some (and there’s nothing wrong or wrong headed with that), it’s also true that today’s modern ships are as hip and highly styled as any upmarket resort hotel ashore. And, in terms of sheer inclusiveness and scope of choice, they represent incomparably better value.

 

TRAVELLING ON CRUISE SHIPS WITH BABIES AND TODDLERS- A ‘HOW TO’ GUIDE

SUPREMES
A bit of ‘Baby Love’ goes a long, long way….

With mainstream cruising becoming a much more multi generational thing in this day and age, you don’t need the detective powers of a Columbo-never mind a Clouseau- to be aware that there is now a wealth of travel options spread across cruising’s glittering firmament.

But, as always, ‘choice’ is often shadowed closely by it’s cousin, ‘confusion’. And, if you’ve toyed with the idea of taking your little ones on a cruise for the first time, there are questions that you might want to get answers to before you actually make that all important booking.

So here’s just a few things that you might want to consider asking, though no doubt the more astute among you out there will come up with your own ideas.

Check the size of the cribs on board your intended ship before you sail; don’t just blindly accept that a uniform standard exists across the board. This could be especially true on cruise ships operating in the Far East. After all, if the smallest ones get a good nights’ sleep, there’s more than a passing chance that mum and dad will, too.

Is the cruise line that you’re travelling with fully capable of meeting all of your baby’s dietary needs? Can, and indeed will they be willing to prepare pureed food as necessary?

Is there a bath, a shower, or maybe even both in the room that you are considering booking? Forewarned is prepared, after all…

You’ll want to know if there is a dedicated baby sitting service on board. If yes, find out how it works. For instance, will there be a dedicated child sitter on call and, if so, what are the actual working hours? Some cruise lines simply provide baby alarms, so be aware in advance. Covering all your bases up front is far more conducive to stress free downtime once on board.

Check out the situation concerning the carriage and use of strollers, especially if you’re embarking on a fly cruise as some airlines might have different regulations and restrictions. On board, where tenders have to be used to get in and out of certain ports, is it practical to get strollers- and, indeed, baby-in and out of a moving tender? Otherwise, you could very well miss out on seeing a destination you’ve always yearned to, simply because of problems with carrying a stroller. Best by far to know these things upfront.

Thinking of splashing out on a balcony cabin? You’d do pretty well to first ensure that the barriers are of the modern, plexi-glass type, rather than those old style metal railings. Pre-empting adventurous little climbers is just another way of de-stressing before you even set sail.

Though on board children’s clubs are extensive on most ships these days, you might want to think about keeping the little ones more comfortable and content by bringing along some of their favourite books and toys. Some kind of portable viewing device might also be good. While many ship’s cabins have DVD players and in house movies these days, most of these are naturally placed at a height made for adult viewing. Give the kids something of their own that they can use up close and personal.

Check the on board availability of high chairs, too. Are they freely available in all of the main dining venues and, more to the point, are they of the right height? After all, if Junior is snug, chances are that mum and dad will be happier at meal times, too.

Just a few passing thoughts for you to digest….