Category Archives: cruising

SAGA CRUISES TO JOIN THE ALL INCLUSIVE BANDWAGON IN 2020

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Artist’s rendering of Saga Cruises’ elegant new Spirit of Discovery, slated for delivery from Germany in 2020

Saga Cruises has formally announced what some of us have been expecting for some time. Namely, that the line will go all-inclusive following the introduction of it’s brace of bespoke new builds in January and August of 2020, respectively.

The two ships- Spirit of Discovery and Spirit of Adventure- will showcase the already included, hugely popular Saga USPs, including free door-to-door transfers, free insurance, and no extra charge on board restaurant reservations. But the addition of an all inclusive package on the drinks front will raise the appeal of the line to something possibly quite beyond it’s current, mandatory ‘fifty plus’ passenger demographic.

While this is undoubtedly a smart move on the part of Saga Cruises, it is also one that is gathering pace across the cruise industry as a whole. Remember that the British accented Marella Cruises is also going all inclusive effective from May, 2019.

Among the niche lines, ‘all inclusive’ has always been a tenet for the value and exclusive on board lifestyle that each offers. The likes of Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, Seadream Yacht Club and Silversea have offered just such inclusiveness for a decade and more now.

Coming just a small step down, Azamara Club Cruises went all inclusive some time ago, and it is surely only a matter of time before it’s main competitor, Oceania Cruises, does the same. Also, look out for the stylish, yacht like Windstar Cruises following along the same path in the not too distant future.

Potential passengers now want more inclusive fares more than ever. Even more traditional British lines such as Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime Voyages are now adding very cost effective, per day drinks packages onto most of their cruises of more than five nights’ duration. On the USA oriented front, big lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean also offer all inclusive drinks packages for purchase, though these must be arranged by Day One, and all passengers in the same cabin must participate.

Several factors are driving this; firstly, the relative weakness of the UK Pound against both the Dollar and the Euro is has bled UK travellers of around twenty per cent on average of their normal holiday spend, with the inevitable result that most of us are now getting more than a bit canny about which particular cruises we decide to splurge on in future. The continuing uncertainty about Brexit certainly does not help, either. And there’s mounting evidence that European passengers are beginning to shy away from US-centric itineraries in the current political climate as well. That last one could turn out to be a potential double whammy. Let’s hope not, for the sake of all concerned.

Interesting times, one way and another. As ever, stay tuned.

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THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART FOUR: TIME OUT IN THE TIMELESS ISLANDS

SANTORINI
Santorini from the heights

Though our week long cruise on the CelestyalCrystal would be very destination intensive, the extended stays at most of the places we visited meant that there was not always a hard and fast rush for me to need to get ashore. Especially if, like me, you know most of those islands very well indeed. In fact, returning to these wonderful islands is like revisiting old friends these days in so many ways.

And, to sure, it seemed wise to make time just to enjoy one of the smaller, more laid back of the Greek Islands- the CelestyalCrystal herself.

Naturally, most people cannot wait to get ashore to visit the islands themselves, and the lowering of gangways and/or tender boats at most ports soon produced an exodus of eager travellers, ready to get off the ship and get into full exploration mode. Those days, the ship would often go from boisterous and bubbly mode to calm, sedate repose in a matter of minutes.

To be clear, those were moments to treasure; just the simple, pared down pleasures of a well run ship on a bright, sunny day is a tonic for all sorts of things. A warm breeze, a cold beer, some delicious ice cream, maybe a book… this is what I always define as platinum chip quality relaxation time.

Always in the background is the crew, going through the ballet of the daily duty roster. At any port of call, around thirty per cent of the crew is obliged to remain on the ship, both to keep essential services (eg, the supply of cold ice cream) running, as well as to provide an adequate safety cover over all of the different departments on board.

These moments when a ship seems to draw breath, to gather herself and get ready for the next port of call, are ones worth savouring. All around you, people are working hard to prep and primp the surroundings. getting them ready for returning passengers and the occasional, small groups of visiting travel agents and port officials.

It’s always worth watching the expressions on the faces of those visitors as they are ushered from lounge to lido, pool deck to dining rooms. They always seem to look with envy at any passengers around in, say, the Jacuzzi, or on a comfortable deck chair.  It’s true of every ship in every situation. I’ve seen it so many times now over the years.

Of course, you can take your time over breakfast and lunch, too. Meander in and out of the buffet as many times as the mood takes you. Curl up with a cappuccino, or enjoy a few languid laps in the sparkling pool. Too hot out in that mid-day sun? Head for cover in one of the air conditioned, near deserted lounges, and just lose yourself in a book for an hour or so.

I love the slower, smooth tempo of those days, especially on a really port intensive cruise like this one. These cruises are like some fantastic fairground ride, whirling you through a carousel of islands of all shapes, sizes and colours. But, every now and then, it’s kind of nice to step off that carousel, to gather your breath, and just glory in all the good stuff that is around you, right at that very moment. You can jump right back into the fun places the minute that you’re ready to.

And sure, there’s something quite sublime and magical about tendering ashore to Santorini at about six in the evening when the crowds are still all ashore, up in the hills, but the worst of the heat has begun to fade. The play of the slowly setting sun against those massive, imperious rock formations is really something else to behold.

Watching those vast, grizzled walls of ancient granite turning shades of gold, green and burnished rust is spellbinding stuff. Early evening in the islands throws up all sorts of beautiful sun and seascapes that the sheer brilliance of the noon day sun largely negates.

A kind of low, shimmering rosy haze dusts the line of the horizon as the sea turns a fine shade of blush red. Walls of rock embrace you even as they blacken in the shade of the setting sun. Sunlight glances against a wine carafe standing sentinel atop a chequered table cloth, sitting above a gnarled stone quayside where idly bobbing, brightly coloured fishing boats sit tethered like sated swans. Seabirds arc, dive and swoop against a backdrop soundtrack of chirping tree frogs and sizzling sea food, probably freshly caught that same morning. The sounds of bouzouki music begins to kick in from some local musicians, playing in one of the nearby bars.

It’s a tender, mellow time of day, and it showcases these wonderful islands in an entirely different light. Quite literally, as it turns out. And, as sunset softens and fades like slowly vanishing fog, the first glimmering stars make their appearance, ‘like pin pricks in the fabric of the universe’ as someone once wrote quite wonderfully.

Forget the shopping. Forget the history. Just for now, at any rate. This is Greece in the raw; stunning, magnificent and almost bereft of crowds, even in the last, lingering days of high summer.  Intimate and yet grand at the same time, low key and languid,  it’s a dreamscape wrought in stone, sky, sea and time. And yet, one in which you are completely and utterly wide awake.

Lovely stuff.

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART THREE: MEANDERING AROUND MYKONOS

MYKONOS
Mykonos headland, featuring the ‘famous five’ windmills

At around seven on Tuesday morning, I woke to sudden, complete stillness aboard the Celestyal Crystal. The engines had stopped, and any forward motion had dropped away from the ship. No shouting or sudden stampede of passengers running along the corridors disturbed the peace. One quick glance outside of my cabin window would soon reveal why.

We had already docked hard and fast alongside at Tourlos, the main harbour berth at Mykonos. Early morning sunshine glanced against a silver tinted seascape speckled with small excursion boats, crawling across it like so many exotic water bugs. On the fine, razor sharp line of the horizon, a faint wisp or two of funnel smoke betrayed the imminent arrival of an inbound, ferry, carrying another boatload of day trippers bound for sun and fun on the island that, for all it’s hype and flashiness, still remains very much the supermodel of the summertime Aegean cruise circuit.

Those people might well have been in a hurry but, with a full twenty four hours to play, relax and party on Mykonos, yours truly was well and truly not.

I had the priceless advantage of having been to Mykonos many times over the years so, for me, there was no indecent haste to get off the ship and try to cram in everything, like someone at an all you can eat buffet with a set time limit. Instead, I lingered over a long, lazy breakfast outdoors on the near deserted pool deck. Gorgeous fruit, piping hot coffee, freshly made croissants and some of the local ham set me up nicely for an intended, early morning shopping trip to pick up a few bits and pieces. And then I spied the empty hot tub…

There was not another soul in sight, save for a couple of crew members prepping the adjacent Thalassa bar for its imminent opening. So I sagged like some supine, harpooned hippo into that hot tub. With sunlight dancing across the open teak decks, i watched as hordes of passengers from the nearby MSC Poesia poured ashore in a vast, maddened swarm that put me in mind of the exodus. That sun was just beginning to climb in the sky and, this being late August, the heat was truly blistering.

I had no intention of following them into the random, hectic jungle of Mykonos’ bewildering warren of narrow, crowded streets. These were originally created back in the Middle Ages to confuse gangs of marauding pirates, but these days they constitute a raft of honey traps for today’s dollar crusaders. Each shop is full of ‘authentic’ Mykonos souvenirs, apparently.

When I did eventually drag myself ashore, it was just intended to be a quick, mid afternoon run to grab the bits and pieces that I needed. But the chance to pick at some of the fabulous local souvlaki, washed down with an ice cold Mythos beer, was simply too good to resist. Inevitably, I fell back through the rabbit hole, and succumbed to that siren, Mykonian vice of languid people watching in extremely pleasant surroundings. The sun was high in the sky and, by now, i was well and truly in full slouch mode. The late afternoon thus passed in a smiley kind of buzz; Mykonos induces a kind of trance like vibe and state in novice and regular visitor alike if you let it. Truth be told, it’s not the worst fate that you’ll ever encounter if you simply yield to it.

It’s late evening, and the crowds have now died down a little. Most of the small armada of cruise ships that poured torrents of visitors ashore has long since gone now. Lit up like a Christmas tree, the Celestyal Crystal sits quietly at rest. Seabirds soar and swoop in her wake as she tugs gently at her own mooring ropes. From on board, the sound of soft, sultry samba flirts with the twilight. Little pools of light dance on the shimmering waters that surround her. Birds and tree frogs chirp at a manic tempo on this muggy August night. There’s a buzz abroad in the ether that is well nigh hypnotic. It’s subtle, wonderful stuff that comes complete with a side order of Aegean starlight.

In Montparnasse, the piano player is tinkling gamely away at some old Cole Porter tune. Huge, louvred windows look out across the headland and down onto the tables of Little Venice, where hundreds are dining alfresco right at the water’s edge. The Chocolate martinis served at the bar are artworks in themselves, the welcome from owners and staff alike as intimate and fulsome as the place itself. This is quintessential, old style Mykonos nightlife in a nutshell.

Sure, there are clubs galore-both indoors and outside- to suit every mood, style and taste. You’ll hear everything from pounding techno and trance to rare, vintage Motown, by way of every other musical genre in between. Mykonos is a true smorgasbord of different musical options and, in the long summer nights, she rocks, rolls and shimmies through each night until the sun peeps it’s head above the horizon once again.

But Montparnasse is still something else. In a world full of Audis, it remains a sleek, streamlined Rolls Royce of a venue. It’s amenable rather than adaptable, fine fillet steak rather than nouvelle cuisine. Light, lush, and with an ambience that lingers, Montparnasse is elegant, effortless fun.

I called it a night at about 0130, by which time the place was still going strong. Back aboard the Celestyal Crystal, there was still time for a couple of languid, laid back night caps, sprawled in a wicker chair back outside at the Thalassa Bar.

Above my head, a pale full moon cast a wan, ghostly shadow on the ink black Aegean. In the distance, car headlights flickered and glared like scores of glow worms. On board, only the hum of the ventilators disturbed my reverie. Somewhere below me, a small motor boat spluttered into life, bumbling across the briny as I swigged the last of my champagne.

Life right then felt special, elevated; good. Sometimes you just have to savour the moment like fine wine and, right then, I was in full ‘life is good’ mode. A warm night, ice cold champagne and a beckoning, freshly made bed all made for a truly dreamy combination.

Best of all was the knowledge that days more of this unreal, totally artificial slice of good living lay just over the horizon. For the rest of the week, someone else would be doing the driving, the cooking, and the cleaning. All really had to do was just rock up when ready, and dig in. Lovely stuff.

 

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART TWO: GETTING TO KNOW THE SHIP……

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Our week long Greek Islands and Turkey cruise was not my first time on the Celestyal Crystal; in fact, it was my third trip sailing aboard her in these waters since 2012. So, to me, she is a ship that is quite familiar. And, being quite small, her size lends her an air of informal intimacy that is one of the things that I really do love about her.

She’s also quite endearingly quirky; originally built as a car ferry for the Baltic trade and then extensively rebuilt to work as a cruise ship, the Celestyal Crystal is a wonderfully angular piece of seagoing architecture; very much a one-off ship. In comparison to many of the huge, purpose built floating resorts of the moment, she’s quite an enigmatic little ship, and one well worth getting to know.

Size wise, she comes in at a svelte 25,611 tons. There are 476 cabins, of which something like fifty-three are balcony suites. Of the remainder, some 163 are inside rooms.

The rooms on Two Deck are pretty small but, as you move up the ship, cabins open out in terms of space. I was in a Four Deck cabin on this trip-4221, to be precise- and it came in at around 170 square feet overall.

With that came twin beds that could convert to a double, and a comfortable sofa and table combination in a separate sitting area. There’s a good sized television with about a dozen channels. Wardrobe space is decent, as is the open drawer space. Because the Celestyal Crystal is a pretty informal ship in terms of evening dress, you won’t have to overdo it on the formal wear front.

The bathroom is small, with a toilet and shower only and a selection of in room toiletries, but it’s surprising how easily you manage. And the shower, too, was really good. In general the room was much like the rest of the ship, solid, functional and comfortable, easy to navigate and pretty handy for everything. In fact, two of the four lifts and the main, after staircase were literally right outside my door.

On this cruise, the Celestyal Crystal was full to capacity, with around 1200 passengers booked for the week long round trip from Piraeus. It was a fascinating mix of passengers: Greeks, Spanish, French, Germans, Canadians, Americans- even a handful of Brits. Over the week, it would coalesce into a pretty easy going, well mannered crowd, one that was well looked after by the ship’s crew of 406.

Touring the ship was akin to rediscovering an old friend. I’d quite forgotten how charming the Thalassa Bar and Terrace at the back of Five Deck is, with it’s centrally located hot tub overlooking the stern, and scores of wicker chairs and tables scattered across the fantail. With the port side reserved for smokers, it became a popular hangout at all hours of the day and night. In fact, it was nothing unusual to see scores of people sitting out there in the small hours of the morning, enjoying the balmy Aegean breezes.

Centre stage, at the top of the ship is a small pool set on a teak deck, surrounded by cafe style tables and chairs. It has a sliding, perspex roof overhead, perfect for shelter from the sun when needed. With a forward bar- the Helios- and live music both at lunch and dinner, this was an intimate, raffish little place to just kick back as the ship meandered between the hedonistic sprawl of the Greek Islands.

You’ll find sun loungers aplenty on the deck overlooking the pool, and on the stepped series of terraced decks at the stern.

Aft of that pool complex is a pair of buffet restaurants set up for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The offerings are the same in both sections, but with some delightfully indulgent Greek twists. After all, when was the last time that you saw chicken wraps on an afternoon tea buffet? And delicious they were, too.

In terms of interior spaces, there was the main Muses Lounge on Eight Deck; a forward facing show lounge set on two levels, this was the main venue for the evening production shows held on board. It leads neatly into the Eros Lounge, with it’s row of floor to ceiling windows facing out to port. This was a popular, late night venue for some sultry, after dinner samba and soft rock.

There’s also a full service spa up here on Nine Deck, with all the treatments that you could want at an extra charge.

There is a small, adjacent Sports Bar and a neat little casino here, too, but the other main public room is the surprisingly large disco, wrapped around the ship’s funnel on Deck Ten. It has glass walls looking out on three sides, an aft facing bar, and a decent sized dance floor for such a small ship. On our cruise, the disco was invariably full most nights, right through until the early morning hours.

There are two main formal, sit down dining venues, one aft on Eight Deck, and the other on Five Deck. Both are open seating and, on our itinerary, they offered full dinner service right up until 2200 each night. And, while it was wonderful most nights to just kick back and enjoy dinner and live music under the stars, sometimes it did make for a nice change to just come inside and enjoy some succulent Greek and international fare, served with a lot of flair.

With Celestyal, all drinks come included in the fare, together with something like three complimentary shore excursions per passenger. In terms of the drinks, there’s the option to upgrade to a premium package that includes brands such as Havana Club, Grey Goose and house champagne for around fifteen euros a day. It’s a good deal but, to be honest, many people will find the included drinks package more than enough to be getting on with.

As with most European cruise ships, in cabin breakfasts and a basic, ‘any time’ menu that includes pizza, burgers and other fast food, comes in at an extra charge. There is no midnight buffet or late night snacks service as such but, to be honest, you don’t really miss it, either.

Five Deck houses the reception and shore excursions desks, as well as a small shopping area that has everything from sweets to fine couture, sun tan lotion to fine perfumes. It’s only allowed to open while the ship is actually at sea, with the opening hours usually being posted on the shop’s glass door.

So, this is the Celestyal Crystal. She’s intimate, warm, unpretentious, bright and pretty.  Yes, sometimes she’ll feel crowded when you’re looking for a lunch table, but the crew works wonders at clearing tables. And, in terms of a crew that is hard working and eager to please, you’d be hard put to find better on any line anywhere.

So- this is our ship. Grab a chair on the Thalassa Terrace, and watch the twinkling lights of Piraeus disappear over the rim of your wine glass. There’s a lot of fun in store over the next few days…….

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART ONE; THE JOURNEY TO PIRAEUS

CC
Celestyal Crystal

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

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

But not on this itinerary. Oh, no….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE MARINA; DIGS AND DINNER IN DUBLIN

GREN HEN
The Green Hen on Wicklow Street in Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MARINA; A DAY IN COBH

COBH WATERFRONT
Cobh Harbour, with St. Colman’s at centre

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

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

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

And it has history, too.

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

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

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

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

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

TITANIC.

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

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

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