Category Archives: fly cruising

RIB RIDING THE WAVES, FRED. OLSEN STYLE….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRAVEL AND ME, AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED….

FRANCE
SS. France, New York maiden arrival, February 8th 1962

For the longest time, I didn’t realise exactly when this latent wanderlust that would dominate my life kicked in exactly. But recently I realised that I actually can put an exact date on it, after all. After all these years, it’s a bit like closing a circle.

Of course, I knew that it began with the SS.France, the ship I fell in love with as a nine year old kid. She was a ship that I never even dreamed that I’d set eyes on, let alone get to sail….

But life is a strange, quirky lady, and she often throws you a curve ball when you least expect it. For the SS.France, after a five year lay up in Le Havre, would return to service as the SS.Norway, the first true all singing, all dancing mega cruise ship.

At age 22, I made it my mission to sail on my dream ship. And yes, I did sail her. And she changed my life forever.

I found this couple of wonderful, almost sinfully evocative photos of the newly wrought SS.France arriving in New York on her maiden voyage on February 8th, 1962.

And that day, even though I was only two years old- and as clueless as any two year old should be- is the day that all of this began to take shape.

F2

I mean, look at her; she’s proud, beautiful, so perfectly poised. A last, defiant burst of swagger in the face of the all conquering jet age. Typically, the New York press tagged her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’ on that cold February afternoon in 1962. Her owners, more sanguine, called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Me? I call her magnificent, awe inspiring and exhilarating. She took me on a dance, and I folded like so much wet cardboard. ‘Smitten’ does not begin to cover it….

Now, I’m lucky enough to have been on many other ships. Famous ships. Bigger ships. Arguably more luxurious ships.

But- and this is a remark considered through the prism of almost four decades of sea travel all over the world- I will never sail on anything as spellbinding, mesmerising and damned, downright, drop dead gorgeous ever again.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL ORDERS SIXTH OASIS CLASS SHIP

OASIS
Symphony of The Seas, one of the vast Oasis Class cruise ships currently in service

Royal Caribbean International has placed a formal order for a sixth Oasis-class vessel with delivery aimed for in the autumn of 2023, it has been confirmed today.

The new, as yet nameless vessel will be built at the famed French shipyard of Chantiers De L’Atlantique at Saint Nazaire.

The news comes as speculation continues that at least one of this gigantic class of vessels will eventually be dispatched to the Far East. Today’s announcement now makes that move look more likely than not.

It’s also a staggering statement of intent, as these groundbreaking new vessels continue to arrive at quite a rate of knots. Royal Caribbean’s previous landmark achievement in completing the six-ship Vision Class in the mid to late 1990’s look positively tame by comparison. And even the subsequent Voyager class only ran to a five unit build.

This is yet another surge of forward momentum from this vast, maritime juggernaut of a company. Right now, Royal Caribbean International looks to be quite literally unstoppable.

MANO CRUISES UNVEILS ‘NEW’ CROWN IRIS

CROWN IRIS
The Crown iris, ex Norwegian Majesty, in her new livery. Photo credit; Mano Cruises

Israeli niche cruise operator, Mano Cruises, has just unveiled it’s new flagship, the 41,000 ton Crown Iris.

The much travelled ship (she began life in 1992 as the Royal Majesty) has benefited from an extensive refurbishment over the winter that entailed enhancements to all cabins and suites on board, as well as new decor and soft furnishings across many of the public areas on Five Deck.

Five restaurants are available for around 1400 passengers on a  series of sailings from the port of Haifa. These range from two, three, four and five night ‘taster’ cruises to full, ten to fourteen day Mediterranean itineraries. The inaugural cruise is a fourteen day voyage to Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, scheduled to sail on March 3rd.

Nothing structural seems to have been done to change the vessel, other than the addition of a small, spiral water slide to the smaller, aft pool on the upper deck. That same upper deck now features new outdoor furniture as well.

Crown Iris takes over the role of the Golden Iris, fondly remembered by many as the Cunard Princess. The company has retained that ship, though it intends to try and charter her out in the foreseeable future. For now at least, Mano Cruises remains very much a one ship operation.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

SHORT BUT SWEET; LONG HAUL TRIPS IN A WEEK….

maj
Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of The Seas is perfect for a short break cruise

If a week is, indeed, a long time in politics (and right now it seems like an eternity on both sides of the Atlantic), then the idea of a week away from politics, holidaying somewhere warm or maybe just satisfying some deep, latent wanderlust, has to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Nor do you have to limit yourself to something ‘local’ of you’re a resident of, say, western Europe. A flight of around ten hours will take you from some rain lashed runway in February to the shimmering, salsa fulled heat of sultry, sophisticated Miami. It’s a long hop for sure, but it’s a bold one. And, if changing your scenery and mood is a big thing for you, then this is one very bold step indeed.

Let me propose the following to see if it floats your boat, as it were…

Get on that plane, and fly to Miami. Leave Brexit and all that other bone chilling stuff flailing in your slipstream, and instead spend two days working on your tan on South Beach. Add cocktails in the sun for good measure, and a solid stretch of languid people watching as you do so. Not bad for starters, eh?

Feel the long, gloomy days of winter fall away like some damp, unwelcome overcoat as you board some gleaming white dream palace at the Port of Miami, for a three or four night mini cruise to the banner ports of the Bahamas and the Western Caribbean. Add Nassau, Cozumel, Key West or maybe even sensuous, sublime Havana to your own, personal playlist. Top up with a potent splash of adrenaline, and you’ll soon be grinning like a kid as your ship’s whistle booms out across Bayside, and you begin to nudge ahead, sailing between those hula waving rows of palm trees that line both sides of Government Cut. From there on in, the sense of sheer, almost wickedly indulgent fun will take over like some kind of subtly pre-programmed auto pilot. Best to just kick back, and not fight it at all…..

Sure, those days will pass by at a frantic rate of knots. Don’t think of it as a holiday; this is more of a fairground ride, paced at warp speed. It will be noisy, and will most probably lack any real, ingrained finesse. It’s exhilaration rather than sophistication, more roistering than ritzy. Fun in the sun when you should (in theory) be shivering at home. Take it for what it is, and you’ll own it like some surfer besting a class ten roller.

You can be a beach baby at Coco Cay, Great Stirrup Cay or even Nassau for the day en route. Cold beer in your hand, warm sand between your toes, blue skies up ahead. Para gliders ghosting across the sky; the roar of a jet ski tearing up the briny… this is no normal Tuesday in February, that much is for sure.

And, when you do get back to Miami, why not gift yourself one last day of fun and adventure before flying home? Go out and see the magnificent visual smorgasbord of the Everglades on an adrenaline pumping air boat ride, go shopping on Bayside, or just take in one last day of sun on South Beach? There are no bad options here; just different levels of indulgence.

Yes, it’s a long way to go for a week, and one hell of a lot to pack in, too. But that’s the hole point; get out there, eschew the ordinary and set a bead for the borderline outrageous. Give winter the drop kick. Put down that snow shovel, and pick up an ice cold Mojito at sunset.

Food for thought?  Lord, yes, I think so. In point of fact, I think I might just have sold myself on this.

See you out there….

CHANGING THE PLOT; WINTER CRUISING’S SHAKE UP

MARCO POLO
CMV’s popular Marco Polo is a veteran of the winter cruise circuit

Cruise ships and sunshine; the two go almost hand in hand in popular perception, just as they always have. Broad, sun splashed lido decks full of people soaking up the indolent seagoing lifestyle, has been at the heart of cruising’s grand, global pitch since the early 1920’s.

But that is now starting to change over the winter months…..

These days, many people are simply put off by the perennially overcrowded winter Caribbean cruise circuit, with it’s flotillas of vast, floating leviathans routinely descending on the same, cowed, cluster of islands. And the idea of flying long haul in advance certainly puts off many other people these days, too.

The result is that many cruise lines are now getting really creative with winter itineraries. And warm weather cruising-even in the depths of a European winter-is by no means the Holy Grail that it once was.

The Mediterranean is now a full on, year round cruising destination. Both MSC Cruises and Costa have a robust, year round presence in the seven to twelve day cruise markets in the region, with cruises that sail from Barcelona, Genoa and Venice, among others. Short flight times, together with much less crowded tourist sites, both make for quite impressive plus points. And, while the cooler temperatures may not fire everybody’s enthusiasm, the region in winter is still generally sunny, with clear visibility to boot.

Of course, the true, die hard sun worshippers can still set sail for the Canary Islands. You can neatly avoid the joys of a winter time Bay of Biscay buffeting by flying to join your ship at any one of a whole raft of Italian and Spanish embarkation ports, and then sailing from there. And many of those same ports also benefit from having frequent, good priced air lift from the UK and mainland Europe via a string of no frills, budget airlines.

Most unexpected, however, has been the slow but steady growth in winter cruising to the Baltic, North West Europe, and even Northern Norway. Round trip sailings from the UK on lines such as Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Fred. Olsen, P&O and even Cunard, can take you to some amazing, pre-Christmas market cities such as Copenhagen, Hamburg and Oslo. You can count on bitingly cold days that are still quite often blessed with amazing clear visibility. Crowds are much thinner, and you also get a much different, calmer take on cities than the crowds which flock to those same streets and squares in the long, light summer nights.

Another growth area is in cruises to witness the bone chilling, ethereal flourish of the Northern Lights, the spectacular natural panorama that quite literally lights up the skies of North West Norway during the long winter months. Both Fred. Olsen Cruises and Cruise and Maritime Voyages have found these cruises to be slow but consistent growers over the winter season.

Growing numbers of people each year are now more willing than ever to eschew that once mandatory winter sun tan for a raft of more eclectic, arcane adventures at sea. The convenience of home port departures, coupled with good pricing and fuelled by simple, neatly tailored marketing, has created a series of natty, nicely packaged travel options for the winter that are guaranteed to pique the curiosity of today’s most avid cruising fans.

GREEK ISLANDS TO BECOME YEAR ROUND CRUISE DESTINATION?

MYKONOS
Mykonos

As a rule, the main season for cruising the Greek islands runs from early March through to mid November, at least in terms of shorter cruises. But the region’s most consistent and destination immersive operator-Celestyal Cruises- is finally set to change all of that.

Beginning this year, the company will extend it’s main range offering of three, four and seven night cruises by a full month on either side, with the eventual aim of making the sailings a full, year round operation. At present, the line’s brace of intimate, smaller ships- Celestyal Crystal and Celestyal Olympia- typically lay up at the Greek port of Piraeus during the winter months, before resuming their respective cruise programmes the following spring.

As with anything, cruising those waters during these off season months throws up a whole raft of potential pros and cons. Here’s just a few thoughts of mine that you might care to take on board, pun wholly intentional.

CROWD NUMBERS WILL BE MUCH LOWER

In these destination rich waters, sightseeing is everything for a great many people. Nowhere else on earth offers up such a vast, vibrant palette of alluring historical sites and world famous attractions as those fabled, wine dark waters, and the clusters of often arid islands that sheer up out of them. And, of course, in the long, hot months of the summer season, they are often bursting beyond capacity with tourists. It’s not the ideal season for in depth exploration, to be sure.

Come summer, and whole flotillas of giant cruise ships descend upon this perennially popular region. One or two of these large ships at, say, Santorini (and that’s usually an absolute daily minimum in high summer) can disgorge a staggering nine thousand visitors ashore in one stupendous outpouring. The pressure on the local infrastructure is obvious and intense, as is the searing, pitiless heat that you’ll be subjected to as well.

Those quieter, off season months thin these same crowds out quite dramatically, as the bulk of those self same huge resort ships return to the Caribbean for winter. As a result, the entire Greek Islands region feels calmer, more tranquil and hushed. An ideal time for getting ‘up close and personal’ to those sites that you’ve always wanted to see. But, on the other hand…..

THE WEATHER MIGHT NOT BE KIND…

Sure, the temperatures can be quite mellow, with the Aegean region sometimes getting up to a positively balmy seventeen degrees centigrade, even in February. Typically, temperatures are lower than that, but it’s still agreeably mild. Perfect, in fact, for sightseeing.

The real problem can be the wind, which can whip up the sea on a regular basis at this time of year. And, because so many of those same popular Greek ports require you to go ashore by tender, there’s a real chance that you might end up missing one, or maybe more, of the banner ports of call should the sea kick up.

Still, safety has to come first, and no captain worth his salt would ever consider exposing his passengers to even the merest hint of danger. While potentially disappointing, your continued existence is much more important than taking a chance on getting you ashore to traipse around the likes of, say, Patmos. In the end, the weather can always be a factor, just as it can be on any cruise.

It’s also worth remembering that, as so many of these islands are clustered together in close proximity to each other, the captain can almost always take you to some other interesting little idyll in the event of a cancellation. Think of it as a form of ‘magical history tour’ and you won’t be too far off the mark.

PRICES ARE NICER….

From a European perspective, air fares to the prime Greek embarkation port of Athens are always cheaper in winter than over the peak summer season. There’s no shortage of good, quality priced air lift into Greece and, this being winter, overnight hotel stays will also be much cheaper.

LESS KIDS AROUND…..

If other people’s children are an issue for you on holiday, then obviously the patter of tiny footfall is going to be a lot slacker- and possibly even non existent, in fact-over those somnolent winter months. It follows that the ships themselves will often be a lot less crowded than in the fun filled, hectic hugger mugger of the long summer nights. More space, and an easier pace. The common sense here is obvious.

IT’S QUIETER ASHORE, TOO….

Banner ports of call such as Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini will have many food and drink outlets closed up during the quieter winter months, but not by any means all of them. There will obviously be less choice and diversity than during peak season, and the overall pace of life ashore will feel much slower. Depending on your mindset, this could be either a boon or a bust.

So; there you go. You pay your money, and you make your choice. It’s entirely over to you but, as an avowed fan of the Greek islands experience in the long summer months, I am more than a little intrigued as to how those same islands would strike me during the calmer, cooler, less crowded days of winter.

And I don’t think that I’m alone on that one, either.