Category Archives: OCEAN AND LAND TRAVEL

SS.FRANCE-THE SECOND NORMANDIE?

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The fabulous France of 1962

The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.

As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;

I have given you a new Normandie!”

That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.

From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.

No pressure there, then…..

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The Normandie at speed on the Atlantic in her late 1930’s heyday

So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.

Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.

Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.

Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.

Where the France did gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.

Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.

At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.

This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.

But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.

Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.

The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.

But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.

And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.

Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.

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TRAVEL AND ME, AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED….

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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?

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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.

OCEANIA TO BUILD NEW DUO OF DREAM SHIPS

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It’s official; Oceania Cruises has placed an order with Trieste’s ever busy Fincantieri shipyard for a brace of new 67,000 ton, 1,200 guest cruise ships. Slated for delivery in 2022 and 2025 respectively, these new ‘Allura’ class ships build on the success of the first pair of bespoke new builds, the successful duo of Marina and Riviera.

Ten years between these two classes of ships allows for a certain amount of fresh thinking and fine tuning. The new vessels will carry something like fifty passengers less than the early ships, while being around a thousand tons larger each. And each one comes with a hefty price tag of around 565 million euros in all.

Once again, the new ships will place an emphasis on the diverse, superlative cuisine for which Oceania has deservedly become a byword in recent years. Both ships will build on the popular design elements and classically inherent elegance of their fleet mates, while also showcasing an as yet unspecified series of enhancements and distinctive design and leisure highlights that will make them quite unique in their own right.

These two new vessels will bring the Oceania fleet up to eight ships in all; it’s a nice balance between the larger, more diverse ships and the original, more intimate quartet of 30,000 ton former R-class vessels with which the line built it’s name and crafted it’s niche.

Those four vessels are currently in the middle of a $100, 000, 000 refurbishment project-known as OceaniaNEXT-that will allow them to take on board the best design elements of Marina and Riviera, while simultaneously honing and enhancing them for the deluxe, destination intensive itineraries for which they have already become very well known.

As of now, both Marina and Riviera themselves will also undergo further enhancements, in April, 2019 and May, 2020 respectively.

All of this should help to position Oceania Cruises at the vanguard of casual, deluxe cruising for the next couple of decades or so at least. With two distinct sizes and style of ships, united by a common focus on exquisite dining and excellent, personalised service, this line has to be one of the most beautifully balanced products in the modern cruise industry today.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

FRED GETS FESTIVE-SINGLE SUPPLEMENTS TORPEDOED ON 2019-20 SAILINGS

BOUDICCA AT SEA
The aft terrace decks on FOCL’s evergreen Boudicca. Photo copyright is that if the author

 

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is gifting potential single passenger with some early festive treats, as it removes single supplements on a whole raft of sailings over 2019 and into 2020.

The itineraries include both ex-UK sailings, and a series of selected fly cruises right across the entire, four-ship Fred. Olsen fleet. The only real caveat is that all travel must be booked by February 28th, 2019.

Among the options on offer are an eight night round Britain cruise, sailing from Liverpool aboard Black Watch on June 20th, 2019, and a fourteen night fly cruise on sister ship, Boudicca. That one begins in the Cypriot port of Limassol on March 5th, 2020, and finishes in Dover.

Another tempting option-also aboard Boudicca-is a  fourteen night foray to the ‘Fortunate Isles’- Madeira, Tenerife and Gran Canaria-departing from Dover on March 9th, 2019. This one in particular is a nice option for anyone desperate to dodge the last, dying days of winter.

Always famous for the warm, gracious service that is the hallmark of their smaller, more intimate ships, Fred. Olsen continues to offer superb on board cuisine, as well as one of the most highly rated shore excursion programmes in the entire cruise industry. Collectively, the four ships- Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch- cover almost the entire globe on their yearly roster of sailings.

A great option for singles, to be sure.