These days, we have become accustomed to mass air travel as the main means of getting from A to B. Almost every minute of every day, a plane lands at an airport such as, say, JFK in New York. And, except for the pilot and the flight controller, nobody bats an eye at such comings and goings.
And yet.. some cities can only truly be seen at their absolute best when you approach them from the sea. Few things cap any sea voyage with such poetic perfection as the stately procession of an elegant ocean liner along the waterfront of Venice, or a midnight departure from the floodlit, mountain studded backdrop of Hong Kong. And, while the list of truly spectacular and arrival ports is potentially endless, here are five of the ones that both time and tide have left seared into my memory…..
RIO DE JANEIRO
Rio; just say it. It sounds sultry enough in its own right. But imagine sailing into the vast, hushed expanse of Guanabara Bay at sunrise, with the city’s fabled twin trademarks of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain shearing out of the silvery water like gigantic exclamation marks. At your feet, epic, world famous beaches such as Leblon and Copacabana sprawl like silent, honey coloured sirens of old. Any way you slice it, it all makes for a sensational arrival in one of the greatest cities on the planet.
The early morning cry of a muezzin floats over the steel grey sprawl of the Bosphorous, where Europe meets Asia. Minarets on world famous buildings like the Haghia Sophia splintering the first, rosy glow of dawn. Sleek, low ferries bumbling back and forth across the sparkling expanse of water. The ancient, spiky Galata Tower pointing at the sky like some gnarled, skeletal finger. Only here can you sail into the embrace of two continents at the same time, and be equally awed by both.
The biggest, most vibrant city in Oceania is a rocking, rolling metropolis around the clock. But an early morning arrival in Darling Harbour is an adrenaline fuelled surge as you nudge up close to the famous ‘Coat hangar bridge’ that still spans the harbour. Meanwhile, the quixotic, brilliant white ‘sails’ of the nearby Sydney Opera House loom like giant shark fins against the Antipodean daybreak. Proof, if ever you needed it, that you really are in a different world.
Dominated by the looming, cloud kissed spread of the infamous Table Mountain, South Africa’s most instantly recognisable city has a waterfront studded with fleets of moored yachts, fussing tugboats and bustling cargo ships. Pastel coloured hotels, shops and restaurants on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront crouch in the shade of jagged, rolling peaks laid out under a carpet of vibrant, petrol blue sky. Awe inspiring does not even begin to truly cut it.
The city that still remains the daddy of them all in terms of impact. Manhattan at dawn is a spellbinding forest of steel and glass, clawing at the sky. Car horns can be heard from traffic that barrels along the waterfront as your ship ghosts upstream. To port, the Statue of Liberty is a demure, sightless, pale green siren with her torch held aloft in greeting. Tug boats fuss around your ship like water beetles. Amazing and, once seen, an awe inspiring adventure that you will never, ever forget.
In what amounts to a serious statement of intent following it’s buyout by Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises has announced plans to build a brace of new cruise ships, known as the Evolution Class, for it’s ultra luxury brand. The lead ship is expected to enter service in 2022,
Other than this grand announcement, actual physical details are thin on the ground. We know nothing as yet of the anticipated size or interior layout but, given Silversea’s stellar reputation, no one should anticipate any watering down of either the on board luxury or service that has been the company’s twin pillars.
But what is groundbreaking from the Silversea perspective is that this is the first time that company new builds will be constructed outside of the line’s normal, ‘go-to’ Italian shipyards at T. Mariotti and Fincantieri. Instead, the new duo will be crafted by Germany’s prestigious Meyer Werft shipyard.
Since the company’s inauguration with start up ship, Silver Cloud back in 1994, each new generation of Silversea ship has been slightly larger than the one which preceded it. But it remains to be seen whether that tradition will continue with this new class of ship.
Already on order from Fincantieri is another duo, Silver Moon and Silver Dawn. Slated to debut in 2020 and 2021 respectively, these 40,700 ton siblings are sister ships to last years’ Silver Muse. I honestly doubt that the new ships will be much bigger than this. if indeed, they actually are bigger at all.
That said, Silversea has definitely tilted toward some ever so subtle up-sizing over the last few years. The recent addition of a new mid section to the one of a kind Silver Spirit allowed the line to create a diverse, very substantial dining handle on board that these new ships will also surely replicate. Despite being one of the most esteemed names in deluxe luxury cruising, Silversea realised some time ago that it needed to enhance and update the traditional, tried and tested staple product, and it has done exactly that. Under the new ownership, I would very much expect that trend to continue.
Silversea is also strengthening it’s current, pre-eminent position in the deluxe expedition ship market with the commission of a first ever dedicated new build. Due to debut from the De Hoop shipyard in Holland in 2020, the Silver Origin is designed specifically for the niche Galapagos market. Whether this means that the current, on site ship-Silver Galapagos– will go elsewhere, remain on site or, perhaps, even leave the fleet-is as yet uncertain.
However you cut the cards, it’s still full steam ahead for Silversea on both fronts. As always, anticipation truly is a marvellous appetiser.
As voyages go, the World Cruise is still the Mount Everest of ocean travel; a kind of Holy Grail that towers head and shoulder above every other voyage, both in terms of aspiration and expectation. Many people will only ever get a crack at it once and, quite naturally, their expectations are as stratospheric as if they were about to embark upon an actual moon landing. Thus, each year, the cruise lines are expected to deliver on a truly global scale.
The actual hurdles involved in planning and then executing, a full circuit of the globe are mind blowing. Think of it as a chess game, where one protagonist intends to deliver a match winning epic in terms of style, experiences and service. On the other side of the same board, a whole amalgam of opponents, from changing weather patterns to political upheaval, via logistical snafus and resupply issues, combines to perform a potentially very formidable opponent, one whose whimsical nature can impose potentially drastic changes in what everyone fondly anticipates will be the adventure of a lifetime.
There are so many kinds of ship embarking on the full world cruise these days, from deluxe boutique ships carrying around three hundred guests, to some truly spectacular floating resorts that carry more than ten times that number. As always, passenger choice comes down to personal taste, affordability and, of course, the itinerary. But-whatever kind of ship people choose-their expectations are huge.
No one should be surprised at the latter, given the way that cruise lines of all types and shades ramp up the ante of expectation. Just the idea of a three-maybe even four month-grand odyssey around the entire globe is enough to fuel the adrenaline for sure, but adding further fuel to those same flames by promising the earth (quite literally) is all par for the course. The problem then is that you have to deliver, all potential obstacles be damned.
Some people save for literally all of their working lives to make a once only, life defining voyage such as this. It’s the crowning peak of their time on earth in so many cases. Others, blessed with a a glut of disposable income, might do a different world cruise every second year or so. In both instances they expect the best and, to be fair, why shouldn’t they?
Accessibility to the main banner ports around the globe is key, and getting people to and from the main sites on shore excursions is huge, not least in terms of on board revenue spend. The typical full world cruise passenger is of a demographic not usually given to late night drinks parties or on board gambling. So a huge amount of the on board revenue take has to come from the sale-and en masse at that- of often expensive shore excursions.
It’s a fact that smaller ships usually get berths far closer to the city centre in places like, say, Saigon, but all ships coming into Laem Chebang-the main port for Bangkok-have to transfer their passengers into the city via a coach journey that takes anything up to two hours in each direction. That’s a full, near on four hour journey before people even begin to see the sights and, obviously, it’s easier to provide a few coaches for, say, three hundred passengers as opposed to a flotilla of them for three thousand plus potential explorers. In those respects, the smaller ships really do get the best of all worlds.
In between the excitement of seeing far flung foreign ports from Colombo to Curacao, there will inevitably be times when every ship has to spend several days in a row at sea. And it’s then that a curious transition takes place with every shipload of passengers, and on every kind of ship.
For the first time in many days, their collective attention terns totally inward. Deprived of shore side diversion, they begin to analyse every single aspect of how their ship runs, and the people that make her run. From lounge singers to salon crimpers, speciality chefs to the quality of the free coffee on board, no-one and nothing is exempt, and no amount of piston rings on a uniform renders any on board department head as sacrosanct. Passengers become naturally more observant and, as days pass by, sometimes they become more inherently critical of the smallest things. And oh, boy, do the crew ever know it as well. These people are not at all shy in voicing their opinions, and often at quite some volume.
It’s a process that is as natural as daylight. Typically, full world cruise passengers are of an older generation; after all, you need both the free time and the free flowing collateral to invest in such an epic adventure. And, as we get older, many people (including this writer) become naturally more grumpy, and somewhat less forgiving. Factor into that the surreal, ever expectant environment that the world cruise creates, and it is really scant surprise that the slightest hiccup causes the most mild mannered person to mutate into a kind of maritime version of Hyacinth Bucket.
Which is why it is absolutely vital for the morale of the crew on board to be kept up in as many ways as possible. Deck parties once a week, free time ashore when practical, and just general thoughtfulness on the part of the key heads of department on board, are all absolutely essential in helping to ensure that the crew stays keen. After all, without great service and the genuine sense of welcome that only a well motivated crew can offer to expectant passengers, then even the finest ship is simply an empty vessel. Often, quite literally.
After a few weeks on board, the sheer richness and lustre of the on board catering could become passe for many passengers, and executive chefs need to be constantly on their toes when it comes to creating new, imaginative dishes. Being able to pick up fresh, local produce at ports en route is key to any chef wanting to relight the taste buds of his shipload of pampered passengers. Obviously again, this is easier to do for a small complement of passengers than with one of the larger ships. It’s always a question of scale and economics, as well as quality and diversity.
The same goes for the on board entertainment. Like food, this is very much subjective for each individual. One man’s James Brown might be another’s Joe Dolce (Google him, if you must); keeping up a constant roster of newly arriving acts to entertain potentially jaded passengers- not to mention the provision of intriguing, high quality guest speakers- is an important part of ensuring that people stay engaged with the ship’s social side at night, as well as during sea days.
Weather is not something that anybody can make, and most-but not all-people will take it well when adverse weather conditions mean that things do not always go to plan. However, should a major storm make it necessary to avoid one, or even maybe two really popular, much anticipated ports of call, then that is where the captain and the logistic department ashore really need to pull out all the stops to lay on one, and possibly more, options that will at least attempt to appease an obviously disappointed passenger load.
And this is easier said than done, as any given ship has an over reaching route and course to maintain. Any resultant diversion means figuring how to get from the substituted port to the next scheduled one. What speeds need to be made, and what about allowances for tides? Will there even be a local pilot available for a possibly revised arrival time? At the substitute port (s), new and interesting shore excursions have to be conjured up quickly, and from nothing, and then suitable transport (plus guides) found to cater for those people taking up the revised options. As a logistical exercise, this can be an absolute nightmare for the staff of any ship, from the smallest to the largest.
So yes, the world cruise is awesome, both in scope and for the potential for things to go wrong. Weather and world events are no respecters of even the grandest, most long cherished dreams and, of course, we all travel in a fickle, whimsical environment in any event. And, while this is also true of even the shortest cruise, think how much more so it applies on a full, flung, multi-week round the world roustabout.
Mind you, I’d still do it. But then, I mean, who wouldn’t?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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