Category Archives: ocean liner history

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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NIEUW STATENDAM AND MARDI GRAS; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

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Pacific Eden, soon to be CMV’s Vasco da Gama, started life as the fifth Statendam for Holland America Line

It has long been a truism of the fashion world that ‘everything old becomes new again eventually’. But it also happens right across the broad sweep of commerce as a whole; just look at the company currently trying to re-invent the postcard by offering to print and post all of those delightful photos that you have stored on digital media, and you get my drift.

The cruise industry, too, has a similar penchant for re-using the names of fabled former liners and cruise ships of old and, after years where cruise industry new builds were often almost religiously given the company’s own name as a prefix, there’s been something of a return to using the old names again of late. And, right at the forefront (as so often before) is the monolithic Carnival Corporation.

Holland America’s current, sassy Nieuw Statendam bears one of the most venerable names in maritime history. Beginning in 1898, no less than five of her illustrious fleet predecessors bore the name of Statendam (though admittedly, the prefix addition of the world ‘Nieuw’ is a nice bit of up to date word play). For the sea-minded Dutch, as well as for maritime historians and lore lovers in general, the very name of Statendam is almost totemic; an evocative nod to a time that is often- if incorrectly- seen as infinitely more glamorous than the current cruising scene.

Back in the 1920’s, a well seasoned travel writer bearing the equally well seasoned name of Basil Woon opined that ‘a speck of dirt on a Dutch ship would be enough to make the chief steward commit suicide’. And, indeed, Holland America maintains a timeless tradition for sparkling, on board cleanliness to the present. Just look at the constant raft of perfect, one hundred per cent CDC scores that the line continues to attain to this day. For HAL, this continuation of a seamless, cherished uniform standard over time is that company’s justly deserved great claim to fame. And long may it continue.

But the real surprise of these current times has surely come from Carnival Cruises itself. After decades of prefixing all it’s new builds- and, indeed, rebuilds- with the company name, it has just announced that it’s newest, largest ever built cruise ship will go right back to the future, in least in terms of name.

Starting in 2020, the Mardi Gras will be Carnival’s largest ever cruise ship when she enters service out of Florida’s Port Canaveral. She also bears the name of the line’s first ever cruise ship; the barnstorming, ex Canadian Pacific ocean liner that took the cruising world by storm (pun wholly intentional) when she made her initial, rocky debut back in 1972. No Carnival prefix here- just a statement of intent with a ship that is intended to be a literal ‘Carnival Afloat’, as it were.

Cunard is a fellow Carnival Corp. partner of HAL that can also look back on a long and illustrious lineage, with so many storied names to potentially choose from that it resembles a veritable, venerable conga line of ocean liner royalty.

That line currently sails a trio of cherished, British accented Queens (all, except for Queen Victoria, named in homage to venerated former company scions). Again, the play on famous names from a storied past has been an invaluable marketing boon for Cunard’s worldwide PR and marketing machine. And, with a fourth new Cunarder due to debut in 2022, the majority of expressed opinion seems to believe that this ship, too, will be named after a former monarch. The only problem here is that they are out of female names to use, other than-perhaps-that of Queen Anne.

Of course, there’s the potential that this particular name- never used before- might not be connected with the very successful, eighteenth century Queen Anne, but rather with the second, ill fated wife of the irascible Henry the Eighth. You can just imagine the jibes if any of her cruises had to be cut short at short notice….

Companies in general try not to associate new ship names with deceased grandees or even royalty, however noteworthy. An original idea of the French Line was to name their monumental new build of 1932 as Jeanne D’Arc. Instead, wiser (and perhaps more sober) heads prevailed, and the ship instead greeted both water and world alike as the Normandie. Mind you, considering her eventual fate, maybe that first choice of name was not too far wide of the mark, after all.

But, you get the picture. There has never been a second Titanic, Lusitania, or Andrea Doria, for instance. But as for the new Cunarder, she could still yet combine history and past majesty without needing to revert to any royal moniker at all.

Carnival Corporation could just well edge away from convention here- just as it has with the Mardi Gras name decision- and decide to eschew any royal connection whatsoever for the Cunard new build. And, if current practices and statement of intent are anything to go by, it might just well do so. As intimated earlier, it is not as if Cunard is actually short of excellent, alternative options.

How about a new Mauretana, or Aquitania? Caronia, anyone, or even Carmania? Or how about Carpathia, a name last borne by the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic? And perhaps, just perhaps, they could even consider a respectful nod to their former rival and partner, the White Star Line, and go with Olympic, or even the truly regal sounding Britannic? Neither of those names is as far fetched as they might seem.

What’s in a name, then? Quite a lot, as it turns out. History. Connectivity. Nostalgic familiarity and, perhaps more than anything, sheer platinum chip marketing clout. It will be very interesting to see just how this one plays out.

THE BEST SHIPS FOR REPOSITIONING CRUISES

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity

By their very nature, repositioning cruises represent some of the best value travel options in the entire cruising firmament. As cruise lines confront the inevitable fact that they must move ships from one part of the world to another once, and sometimes twice a year, the question of how to fill them becomes paramount.

The lines, from deluxe to mass market, are all hampered in their efforts by several factors. One is the odd length that such a trip usually entails-often in excess of two full weeks. That alone can play havoc with the holiday entitlement of many potential travellers.

Another handicap is the inescapable fact that there will be several days spent at sea- typically between four and eight, but sometimes more-without any landfall whatsoever. For many prospective passengers, that’s the kiss of death, right there.

Then you have to consider that passengers fly into, and then home from, different airports that are located on two different continents. The air fare alone on such trips can easily be between two and three times the cost of the actual cruise itself. And the singular act of having to fly anywhere-anywhere at all-is a potential turn off for many travellers these days.

Small wonder, then, that many of these trips sail at nowhere near full capacity, and quite often are only around half full. Prices are, therefore, pitched at relatively low rates to reflect this. Imagine trying to fill some 4,000 passenger mega ship on a westbound crossing in November. It would hardly be the first choice for many leisure travellers, and quite understandably so.

And yet… for those who do enjoy sea days, with their endless scope for relaxation, pampering and serial self indulgence, a ‘repo’ trip can seem like the very antechamber to Heaven itself. At once evocative of the classy old days of true, ocean liner travel, they have space for everyone, and a complete lack of pace that is truly cathartic. Despite the potential pitfalls of a long ocean crossing as outlined above, this writer in particular remains an avowed fan of just such crossings. I make just such voyages at every single opportunity that arises. Up to now, I have made well over a dozen.

With that in mind, here are some of my very favourite ships on which to make an ocean crossing. Please note that this list does not include the year round sailings of the Queen Mary 2 on her regular, scheduled services to and from New York.

MARCO POLO; CRUISE AND MARITIME VOYAGES

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Marco Polo

Imagine a cruise shop as a Faberge Egg, or a small, beautifully crafted jewel box, and you’ve got the Marco Polo in one. Built in 1965 with an ice strengthened hull, her sharp, raked bow and relatively broad waist make her an ideal, inherently stable ship on which to cross large tracts of ocean. At 22,000 tons and carrying just 800 passengers, the ship is intimate, and her carefully preserved Art Deco interiors give her that true, authentic ‘ocean liner’ feel and vibe. There are no balcony cabins, but you’re unlikely to miss them on the often changeable Atlantic, in any event.

CRYSTAL SERENITY: CRYSTAL CRUISES

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity

70,000 tons of artfully crafted, deliciously deluxe indulgence, with a maximum capacity of just 1,000 guests, this beautiful ship boasts a stellar entertainment handle- a huge boon on long sea crossings. Themed crossings, including Big Band, Film, and Food Festivals are a staple feature of Crystal’s typical ‘repo’ voyages. Spectacular amounts of private space-both in cabins and public areas- is allied to outstanding, open sitting cuisine in all dining venues. Exemplary on board service sets the tone for the rest of the deluxe cruise industry. A crossing spent cosseted aboard this ship somehow never seems long enough.

SOVEREIGN; PULLMANTUR CRUISES

SOVEREIGN
Pullmantur’s Sovereign, the former 1988-built Sovereign of the Seas

This 78,000 ton, 2,250 passenger ship is far more likely to be filled with Spanish and Brazilian passengers as she sails to and from Brazil each autumn and spring. Outstanding, all inclusive value becomes even more so when you consider that these crossings do not always sell out. With passenger accommodation located mostly forward and the public rooms stacked up in the aft half of the vessel. this big ship is surprisingly easy to navigate, and the central, five story Atrium Lobby- the first of it’s kind ever to be installed on any large cruise ship- is still one of the finest people watching spots on any ship afloat today. And, her original role as the world’s first, purpose built mega cruise ship- the Sovereign of The Seas- still gifts her a sassy, retrospective kind of cachet that makes her a true delight to sail.

BLACK WATCH;FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES

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Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch

With a sharply raked prow and a deep hull, this 28,000 ton, 800 passenger ship is elegant, intimate, and eminently seaworthy. A series of broad, aft facing terrace decks are sublime lounging spots for lazy, languid crossings on the famous ‘Sunny Southern’ route, and there are nice terrace balcony cabins down on Seven Deck that offer the best of all worlds. Excellent food and inspired, unobtrusive service raises making a crossing on this ship to the level of an art form. And the ship also has a large number of cabins dedicated to single passengers, too. A true seagoing treat.

COLUMBUS CRUISE; HAMBURG, AND THE BIRTH OF THE BISMARCK

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The Bismarck takes to the water at Hamburg on February 14th, 1939

Hamburg as a port is synonymous with two very different legends; The Beatles and the Bismarck. And, while the first became a worldwide legend for all the right reasons, Hamburg’s other great claim to fame was birthed and nurtured for a much darker purpose. None the less, her story is every bit as much endemic to the great city’s past as the musical masterpieces that immortalised the ‘Fab Four’. It’s another facet of a uniquely fascinating city, and I’ll recount some of that connection here, in this blog.

February 14th, 1939, dawned grey and miserable in Hamburg. A biting cold wind roared in off the River Elbe, surging through the rows of red brick warehouses like some invisible tidal wave. At the Blohm and Voss shipyard, preparations were well in hand for an epic launch event; one that would unite both past and turbulent present in a moment of pure, theatrical bombast.

With Nazi Germany just one month away from devouring the sundered rump of Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler had arrived in Hamburg on February 13th, staying overnight with his retinue at the Hotel Atlantic. He laid a symbolic wreath at the tomb of Otto von Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who had first united Germany back in 1871. It was a carefully choreographed prelude to the events of February 14th, 1939.

Later on that Valentine’s Day afternoon, Hitler climbed a podium erected in front of a vast steel edifice, more than eight hundred feet long, and some one hundred and twenty feet across at its widest point. This squat, cathedral like colossus was actually Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship.

The Bismarck.

Below the podium and the poised hull, a sea of blood red banners snapped and whipped in the glacial breeze. Thousands of spectators milled around the great bulk of the ship like hordes of worker ants, waiting for the moment of release. It was not long in coming.

On the podium, a small, well wrapped woman walked forward. She stepped past Hitler to address the crowd. In front of her hung a bottle of champagne, poised to be smashed against the prow of the beast. She was Frau Dorothea von Loewenfeld-Bismarck, the grand daughter of the first chancellor. Her job was to honour this new monster with the ancient family name.

On the order of the Fuhrer, I baptise you with the name Bismarck……”

The bottle swung deftly to connect with its unmissable target, but then everything seemed frozen in time. For a  moment, the battleship refused to move. Someone in the crowd called out for the portly Hermann Goering to give her a push.

In the end, no push was needed.

A shore side band thumped away at the national anthem as the vast bulk of the ship began a slow, stately procession down the Hamburg slipways. As she gathered way, huge placards that bore her name, spelt out in Gothic letters, were draped over both sides of her bow. With a symphony orchestra of clanking, squealing and hissing drag chains just barely holding her in check, the biggest warship ever built in Europe hit the water with one almighty splash. Adolf Hitler smiled darkly.

The irony of the ship’s chosen name was not lost on many. Chancellor Bismarck had never seen the need for Germany to have a navy at all, and had always set his face firmly against any war with Great Britain. On the day after the launch, the London Times commented favourably on the choice of name for that very reason; incredibly, it chose to interpret this as a peaceful gesture on behalf of the Nazi regime.

To this day, the Bismarck and the town that gave birth to her remain inextricably linked, both by time and tide. Despite the grim nature of her purpose, local people today still retain a sense of pride in the achievement that she represented, and in the epic fight that she put up just two years later.

Her first shots in anger were not fired at sea, but rather right there in Hamburg harbour. Churchill quite rightly made delaying her completion an absolute priority once war broke out, and the RAF visited the Hamburg yards almost nightly in a series of attempts to hobble her before she ever got to sea in the first place. As construction on her progressed, the battleship’s own anti-aircraft guns joined in the defensive fire from the Hamburg AA batteries.

BISMARCK AT SEA
The Bismarck firing her main armament during the Denmark Strait action. The photo was taken from on board her escorting cruiser, the Prinz Eugen. It remains one of the single most famous images of the entire Second World War

Hitler himself did not understand either battleships or sea power, though he retained an almost childish fascination for the former. When first shown the plans for Bismarck and her twin sister ship, Tirpitz, Hitler opined that they were ‘insufficiently gunned, and too slow’. Subsequent events would prove him wrong on both fronts.

His ignorance of naval strategy was self confessed. He once said; ‘On land, I am a hero. At sea, I am a coward.’ It was a rare, honest admission, but one that was have to have baleful future effects on the German side.

Technically, the Bismarck came in at around 35,000 tons, in order to conform with the Anglo-German naval treaty of 1936. In reality, she was a full six thousand tons bigger than that.

Today, Bismarck remains a ship of contradictions. Though she was ultimately destroyed, an air of faux invincibility still clings to her very name to this day. To many people, she remains, quite simply, ‘the’ battleship, and for sure the most famous example of that doomed breed of beasts ever to be built.

This is all the more strange when you consider that both the Americans and the Japanese built bigger, more powerful battleships than her. And the Italian Littorio class can claim to be at least technically as good as Bismarck and Tirpitz in many respects, too.

She has always been portrayed as a ship of quite remarkable, aggressive striking power, but the truth is that her main strength was actually defensive. Around forty per cent of her total weight was made up of foot thick, high tensile armour plating. Subsequent events would prove that she would be a very tough nut indeed to crack.

As a ship, the Bismarck has two principal claims to fame. The first was her lightning victory over HMS Hood  and HMS Prince of Wales in the Battle of Denmark Strait. Here, she served up the most devastating display of single ship gunnery seen over the entire twentieth century.

The second was, of course, her final, hopeless stand against overwhelming odds, just three days later. More than anything, this was to make her truly the stuff of legend.

The hunt for the Bismarck was the biggest single ship sea chase of all time. Over nine days and almost three thousand miles, this one battleship was hunted by every Royal Navy warship located north of the Equator. Ships were even taken out of the Mediterranean, and from absolutely vital convoy escort duties. Every card was thrown into the fray and, even at the end, it was a very close run thing. Despite everything, she still almost slipped through the net.

Decades later, finding her wreck became almost an obsession. In 1989, she was relocated by Robert Ballard, the Woods Hole oceanographer who, four years earlier, had found the wreck of the Titanic. At that time, the find was considered so potentially controversial that Ballard would only reveal the precise location of the lost ship to the (then) West German government.

Another Titanic devotee to become hooked on the Bismarck saga is James Cameron, the Hollywood film producer. Cameron has made several dives to the wreck of the Bismarck, and has documented her current condition quite extensively on film.

For the cameras, James Cameron would refer to Bismarck as ‘the 1941 equivalent of the Death Star’, a bit of theatrical sledging that is not actually too far wide of the mark. For sure, the Bismarck was the equivalent of some truly voracious Tiger Shark at the very least.

That both Ballard and Cameron should be jointly taken in by Titanic and Bismarck is hardly surprising. There are so many parallels between the story of those two lost ships-each one built, as it was, for vastly different purposes- so as to make those connections almost borderline spooky. But that is a story for another time and, indeed, another place.

MARCO POLO TO SAIL SPECIAL D-DAY ANNIVERSARY CRUISE IN JUNE 2019

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The Marco Polo will sail a special, one off six day cruise next year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings of June 1944. Leaving Portsmouth, the 1965 built, 800 passenger ship will provide a comfortable platform from which to take in a whole raft of evocative commemorations and ceremonies during the cruise.

The Portsmouth departure is so appropriate, as many of the first wave of some 165,000 British, American and Canadian troops embarked for the Normandy beaches from the Hampshire port. Many would not get the opportunity to return of their own volition; the subsequent three months of fighting that ensued in and around Normandy is some of the bitterest in the history of civilisation. The breaching of Hitler’s Festung Europa here marked the formal beginning of the end of the Third Reich.

The cruise first makes an overnight stay in Antwerp, located some sixty miles inland from the mouth of the River Scheldt estuary. Montgomery took the port intact in September of 1944, but failed to clear the river banks on both sides of the estuary. This allowed some 70,000 German troops vital time to dig in, and they subsequently made the port unusable for almost three full months. That delay allowed Hitler’s armies time to regroup, rebuild and, ultimately, to launch the Ardennes counter-offensive- the infamous ‘Battle of The Bulge’- in December 1944. Luckily, the German plan of presenting the port as a ‘Christmas present for the Fuhrer’ never came to pass.

The next port of call is Honfleur, inland on the River Seine. As well as it’s World War Two history, the pastel pretty fishing port was a great favourite of Claude Monet, who painted it many times. There is a stint of cruising literally just off the famous Normandy landing beaches themselves, with the added advantage of being able to enjoy that historic panorama from a hot tub, rather than some storm tossed, shrapnel splattered landing craft.

There then follows some scenic, sublime up close and personal cruising along the River Seine itself, before an overnight stay in historic Rouen, with it’s links to the ill fated Joan of Arc. A large swathe of the city was carpet bombed during the Normandy campaign, but much of the old, medieval centre-including the vast, Romanesque cathedral-survives to this day. From Rouen, the Marco Polo then charts a course back to Portsmouth.

During the course of the cruise, a whole raft of events will take place both on board and ashore to commemorate one of the most defining moments of twentieth century history. Among the highlights; a chance to visit the replica of the famous Pegasus Bridge, whose capture by British airborne troops on the first day was so vital to the whole campaign, plus the chance to visit Arromanches harbour, where the famous, jury rigged ‘Mulberry Bridges’ allowed a torrent of men and material to be poured into the slowly growing Allied bridgeheads.

On June 6th, a poignant service will be held on board the Marco Polo to commemorate all of those lost on that epic day, and there will also be a military historian on board, there to retell the saga of the ‘Longest Day’ and it’s aftermath.

If you’re looking for something truly different in terms of a summer break, or maybe just yearning for a chance to glean the true nature of the terrible, momentous events of June 1944, then your ship many very well have just come in.

THE WORLD CRUISE, AND THE LOGISTICS THAT GO INTO PLANNING IT

QE2
Cunard’s QE2 was for many years the doyen of the World Cruise circuit

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?

 

 

 

TITANIC AND POMPEII; A TALE OF TWO DOOMED TOWNS

TITANIC

It was the late, great Walter Lord who famously described the sinking of the Titanic as being akin to the last night in the life of a small town. As with so many of Lord’s beautifully wrought descriptions and quotes, it was a phrase that has stayed with me over the decades since I first read it in A Night to Remember.

And, lately, I have come to understand that the phrase is even truer than was at first apparent to me. For the Titanic disaster was, indeed, very akin to the last night of a small town.

The town in question being Pompeii…..

Pray consider a set of coincidences and circumstances, a series of threads that bind the two events so tightly together, that it almost seems as if they have been stitched into one ageless parable.

Both Titanic and Pompeii catered to a relative few in surroundings of extreme, pampered luxury. The Roman coastal city was nothing less than a kind of first century precursor to Las Vegas;  a resort built to cater to-and for- the pleasure, ease and indulgence of the ruling classes. Awash with wine, wallowing in orgies, and with a surfeit of fine dining, entertainment and indulgence, they relied for their subsistence upon both a compliant middle class, and a functioning underclass of slaves, serfs and servants to maintain their sense of gilded ease and prosperity.

The Titanic was exactly the same, at least in first class. Not for nothing was she nicknamed the ‘Floating Ritz’ by the author, Joseph Conrad. That term, intended by it’s creator to be derisory, actually came to sum up all of that doomed, gilded magnificence over the course of time.

Far down below decks, hordes of toiling stokers worked back breaking, four hour shifts at a time, ingesting vast amounts of blinding, choking coal dust, even as the likes of the Astors, the Duff Gordons and the Wideners feasted on caviar and quaffed perfectly chilled champagne just a few decks above them.

Both Pompeii and Titanic went about their respective ways in blithe disregard of scarily adjacent natural hazards. The inhabitants of Pompeii literally played, whored and partied in the very shadow of the looming, smouldering bulk of Mount Vesuvius. On board the westbound Titanic, one ice warning after another was shrugged off and put aside with breathtaking indifference, as first class passengers struggled with the daily grind of swimming, taking the air, and enduring nightly, marathon ten course dinners that were the equal of any ancient Imperial feast.

Town and ocean liner alike exuded an air of huge, almost gilded permanence that seemed to overpower the normal, sensible faculties of even the most savvy of souls. An air of faux invincibility permeated both the streets of Pompeii and the plush, first class passageways aboard Titanic like some kind of awful sleeping sickness. And, when disaster duly befell both, there was some surprisingly similar reactions from those caught up in both dramas.

Nature took out these twin monuments to human vanity with almost effortless ease.  With fire in the case of Pompeii, and ice in that of Titanic. The steel grey, slowly reddening slops of Mount Vesuvius found an awful counterpoint centuries later, in the shape of the black, waterlogged iceberg. the implacable salt water assassin that punched, gouged and ripped open about a third of the hull plating of the Titanic.

Reaction to imminent doom ran the gamut in both situations, from disbelief to total, abject denial. Viewed from the crowded streets of Pompeii, the clouds of noxious, slowly rising ash and creeping molten lava seemed to be miles and miles away, as indeed they were at first. Aboard Titanic, few passengers could at first be coaxed into the lifeboats. That seventy foot drop, down from floodlit ship and onto a pitch black freezing ocean, was for the most part the catalyst behind that initial reluctance to leave the apparent warmth and safety of those brilliantly lit upper decks.

Yet both ash cloud and icy ocean encroached on their respective prey with an awful, unstoppable certainty. In city streets and on promenade decks in mid ocean alike, fear and uncertainty rose like a tidal wave of numb, barely checked disbelief and terror.

For the terrified citizens flooding the darkening streets of Pompeii, the sea offered the only realistic avenue of escape. Just as it did to the huddled throngs milling about on the boat deck of the Titanic all those centuries later. And, ultimately, it was the sea that would deny salvation to the great majority of people in both cases.

In the case of Pompeii, a tsunami triggered at the same time as the eruption of Vesuvius negated any hopes of a safe evacuation, even for a few. And, as it happened, there were pitifully few rescue boats available in any event.

Aboard the Titanic, a damning lack of lifeboats meant that most of her terrified human cargo would ultimately be upended into a darkened, freezing ocean several hundred miles away from the nearest land. And, while the Titanic carried more than enough life jackets for everybody on board her, it was that same, freezing water temperature that killed most within minutes. Some of those lost that night died without even getting their heads wet.

The destruction of both Pompeii and Titanic echoed down through the ages as twin, salutary lessons against placing too much faith in the limits of human ingenuity. And, eventually, the rediscovery of each would generate a tidal wave of awed, retrospective musings. Indeed, this piece is just such the latest example.

Today, the stunted Doric columns of excavated, exhumed Pompeii glint eerily in the mid day, Neopolitan sunshine. The entire place looks- and, indeed, feels-like a sixty-six hectare theme park that died screaming.  Two and a half miles down in the fast, frozen darkness of the Atlantic, the shattered corpse of Titanic sprawls across the ocean floor like some gigantic, wrecked skyscraper.

The booms of her cargo cranes lay folded across her forecastle like the limbs of some long dead pharaoh, frozen in both time and space. They find an echo in the ruts left in Pompeii streets to this day. by the passage of hundreds of chariot wheels as they clattered through the humid, hectic splay of the summertime resort city. On Titanic, the giant, eight ton port and starboard side anchors still hulk in their recesses, looking like huge, moss covered tombstones in a vast, underwater cemetery. The ship is a torn, jumbled, completely humbled cathedral of the dead.

Pompeii. Titanic. Separated by centuries, but wedded eternally in a state of violent death. Deaths so overwhelming and implausible, ruin so epic and complete that it hid each from view for years while, at the same time, already embalming and preserving their respective legends.

For the denizens of both, everything imaginable was done for their pleasure, ease and luxury, and almost nothing whatsoever for their safety. And that is their true, mutually appalling legacy. It’s also why we continue to be so horribly obsessed with both of them as well.

Today, we know full well what both looked like at the height of their brief lived pomp and glory. And today, their obvious, total ruin is there for all those who wish to see as well, etched in stark, singular clarity at the bottom of volcano and ocean respectively.

If progress really is measured by the passing of the years, then what are we to make today of these twin, epic follies of gilded grandeur?