Category Archives: over fifties cruising

COLUMBUS; SOME THOUGHTS ON THE SHIP…..

COLUMBUS
The Columbus at Antwerp. Photo courtesy of Robert Graves

While there are doubtless many people who have fond memories of Columbus in her previous lives (Ocean Village, Pacific Pearl, etc), I’m thinking that this article might have most resonance with previous CMV passengers that have travelled on, say, Marco Polo or Magellan. You may be contemplating ‘stepping up’ to the larger, more amenity laden Columbus. Or, on the other hand, you might be thinking that the ‘new’ ship is simply too big and busy for you?

While I have very fond memories of those other, earlier CMV ships, I have to say that the Columbus is a clear step forward for CMV on a number of levels. For a start, she has the most balcony rooms of any ship in the fleet. And most of the regular cabins, both inside and outside, come in at a generous 188 square feet. It has to be said that hanging room for clothes is not extensive but, as this is mainly a ship with a smart casual dress code, you should still do just fine in that respect.

The Columbus scores impressively in terms of outdoor deck space, with nice stretches of broad promenade areas outside on Deck Seven that lend themselves equally well to strolling and sunning. There’s a lovely, aft facing terrace at the back of Deck Eight complete with a bar, some comfy lounging furniture, and a brace of hot tubs looking out over the sea. I should imagine that this area would be quite popular in warmer climes, especially at around sunset.

Top prize, however, goes to the prime expanse of sunning space across Deck Twelve. It has a couple of decent sized pools for a ship, including one with an in pool, sit up bar. There’s a casual outdoor grill for lunchtime burgers and hot dogs, as well as the actual, extra charge Grill Restaurant and adjacent speciality coffee shop. Right aft is the main buffet restaurant-the Plantation Buffet-that offers up the usual breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and casual dinner options. Though the serving lines themselves are good, this still gets really busy when people are rushing out to, or coming back from, shore excursions. If time allows, take breakfast at a far more leisurely pace down at the main Waterfront Restaurant, at the very aft end of Deck Seven.

Dining is, as always, a two sitting affair at night. The food in general is well presented, sometimes pleasantly surprising in terms of content, but not too much of a challenge for the typically British, over fifties age passenger demographic that the line tends to target. Five courses typically offer two or three choices for each section. And the main restaurant, though large, has been cleverly scaled down with plant topped partitions to give it a more intimate, less open feel. On the whole, this works quite beautifully.

You can also take breakfast here, or a leisurely, three course lunch on sea days that feels pretty damned indulgent.

There’s a separate, extra charge, themed Indian dinner served each night in Fusion, a carefully partitioned upper deck enclave of the Plantation Buffet. It features authentically costumed serving staff, and a wealth of main courses running from Lamb Rogan Josh through to Grilled Prawns. It’s as much about theatre as taste and, for a special occasion, I definitely recommend trying it at least once.

We never got to try The Grill, a more intimate ‘Surf and Turf’ style extra charge venue, located right forward on Deck Twelve, but I got great feedback from those who did. It’s definitely on my ‘must do’ list for next time.

If, like me, you find it difficult to walk past a cake shop without at least window shopping, then the Hemmingways Bistro on Deck Five is somewhere that you should definitely check out. It has cookies, and cake wedges as large as door stops for sale all day long, and well into the evening. Cunningly displayed in large, well lit open cabinets, this is the sort of place that your nutritionist will have nightmares about. Fortunately, he/she is unlikely to be on board…..

Free tea and coffee is available at the Plantation Buffet all day and night, and many cabins come complete with tea and coffee making trays, too- a welcome treat after a bracing stroll around some chilly Northern European capital.

Naturally, the larger size of this ship allows for a bigger entertainment handle, with more-and larger-public rooms. The three story high, oval shaped Embarkation Lobby on Deck Five gives the ship a quite striking, mauve accented focal point, complete with comfy seating and a split level staircase that leads up to the next two levels. Only the staircase wall is a disappointment; it’s a bit stark for such a large, open space, and it would definitely benefit from some kind of decorative embellishment.

Raffles is a great people watching space up on Deck Six, with views out along the Atrium, and down along the shopping arcade that throngs the edges of the space. Though popular, it seemed to be more of  thoroughfare- a kind of maritime crossroads, if you will-than a space where people genuinely lingered. That said, we were on a short, port intensive cruise, so maybe that came into play as well.

Deck Seven pretty much has it all in terms of venues. Connexions Lounge is a large, raffish space, done out in off white hues, with lots of big, stripey cushions scattered across the sofas that line it’s flanks. Stand up tables for two adjoin the sight lines along both port and starboard sides that lead out onto the open stretches of outdoor promenade decks. It has a kind of early, 20th century colonial vibe, and was very popular by both day and night. As a simple lounging venue, this room is hard to beat.

Just aft of this, the popular Taverner’s Pub makes a welcome reappearance. This one is bigger and more expansive than it’s counterpart on board the Magellan. with deep, rich wood panelling and leather accented chairs, grouped both on the floor, and around the more conventional sofa lounging areas. Particularly nice here is the faux fireplace and free video juke box. Nicest of all is a nest of tables for two that lines the windows along both sides of the room; these allow for a certain amount of privacy while, at the same time, still providing platinum chip space for people watching. A central, circular sit up bar is perfect for all the bar flies out there. This is one of the main, late night venues on board, though on our cruise it usually wound down at around midnight. From here, it was a simple walk to the main, aft facing Waterfront Restaurant each day.

Down on Deck Five, and almost tucked away, is a small Captain’s Club with an adjacent casino. The latter had a couple of roulette tables, and a smattering of one armed bandits. The room has obviously been scaled down since the days when this ship served the American and Australian markets. Truth be told, we never spent a lot of time in there, instead preferring the bars already mentioned on Deck Seven.

But the loftiest venue on the ship is The Dome, a plush, expansive 270 degree room with floor to ceiling windows all around the periphery, and comfortable lounging groups in shades of blue and grey that flank the entire edge of the room. It’s set high up, right forward on Deck Fourteen, and it’s also worth noting that only the forward of the ship’s three sets of elevator banks afford direct access to it. Use the other lifts, and you’ll need to cross the outdoor deck space to gain entry. A large bar off to starboard leads to a decent sized, recessed wooden dance floor. There are more seating areas set all around this room, which works perfectly for sunset and/or pre-dinner drinks. It’s also the late night disco, for those with stamina enough to roll on through until the early morning hours.

Entertainment wise, the Columbus is pretty much what you’d expect. Energetic, colourful but not stress inducing evening shows are held in the main, forward facing, two level Palladium Lounge. Typically, there is one nightly show for each of the two main dinner sittings, so there’s no need for anyone to miss out. There’s every kind of music you can imagine dotted around the ship, from classical to karaoke, via piano music and soft jazz. Quizzes sometimes fire up in the early evenings, and are also popular during day time at sea. There’s a dedicated lecture programme, too, usually tailored to the places that the ship happens to be sailing to, and the events that transpired there over time.

Columbus has several dedicated wi-fi zones, as well as a small computer room complete with terminals, located on Deck Eight. I never had the chance to properly check out the spa down on Deck Two, but it did look pretty expansive. There’s also a decent sized, upper deck gymnasium for those who must indulge in that form of self administered torture.

All things considered, Columbus is a nice brew of homely and expansive, warmth and diversity, with very good food and service laid across an expansive series of sunlit interior spaces. The ship feels deep, wide and welcoming; different to a degree, but not too far away from the normal Cruise and Maritime style so as to intimidate regular passengers. This is evolution, not revolution.

Scale is up, passenger flow is good. Columbus was not long out of a major refit for her previous owners when the decision was made to sell her. CMV has sensibly tried not to radically alter the mix and mood of a ship that was, after all, largely adapted to suit British styles and tastes in the first place.

Final analysis? Columbus is a well decorated, extremely comfortable ship that offers most of the signature CMV experiences in a larger, more refined environment that many assumed would be the case. Like the rest of the fleet, she is an adults-only ship for most of the year, but do be aware that some children are allowed on board for some multi-generational sailings, mainly over the course of the high summer. However, as these are clearly marked out in both the brochures and the on line travel literature, there’s no need to be caught out on one of these trips, unless of course you want to.

The only real caveat I would add is that our cruise took place over the course of a cool, late autumn period when the weather was not really conducive to lingering on deck for any serious amount of time. Put this ship in warmer, more welcoming climes, and the daily vibe on board-both inside and out- might very well be quite different.

I’ll just have to go and check for myself, I suppose……

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FIVE NOVEL APPROACHES IN CRUISING…..

MANHATTAN
The breathtaking panorama of Manhattan at dawn….

These days, we have become accustomed to mass air travel as the main means of getting from A to B. Almost every minute of every day, a plane lands at an airport such as, say, JFK in New York. And, except for the pilot and the flight controller, nobody bats an eye at such comings and goings.

And yet.. some cities can only truly be seen at their absolute best when you approach them from the sea. Few things cap any sea voyage with such poetic perfection as the stately procession of an elegant ocean liner along the waterfront of Venice, or a midnight departure from the floodlit, mountain studded backdrop of Hong Kong. And, while the list of truly spectacular and arrival ports is potentially endless, here are five of the ones that both time and tide have left seared into my memory…..

RIO DE JANEIRO

Rio; just say it. It sounds sultry enough in its own right. But imagine sailing into the vast, hushed expanse of Guanabara Bay at sunrise, with the city’s fabled twin trademarks of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain shearing out of the silvery water like gigantic exclamation marks. At your feet, epic, world famous beaches such as Leblon and Copacabana sprawl like silent, honey coloured sirens of old. Any way you slice it, it all makes for a sensational arrival in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

ISTANBUL

The early morning cry of a muezzin floats over the steel grey sprawl of the Bosphorous, where Europe meets Asia. Minarets on world famous buildings like the Haghia Sophia splintering the first, rosy glow of dawn. Sleek, low ferries bumbling back and forth across the sparkling expanse of water. The ancient, spiky Galata Tower pointing at the sky like some gnarled, skeletal finger. Only here can you sail into the embrace of two continents at the same time, and be equally awed by both.

SYDNEY HARBOUR

The biggest, most vibrant city in Oceania is a rocking, rolling metropolis around the clock. But an early morning arrival in Darling Harbour is an adrenaline fuelled surge as you nudge up close to the famous ‘Coat hangar bridge’ that still spans the harbour. Meanwhile, the quixotic, brilliant white ‘sails’ of the nearby Sydney Opera House loom like giant shark fins against the Antipodean daybreak. Proof, if ever you needed it, that you really are in a different world.

CAPE TOWN

Dominated by the looming, cloud kissed spread of the infamous Table Mountain,  South Africa’s most instantly recognisable city has a waterfront studded with fleets of moored yachts, fussing tugboats and bustling cargo ships. Pastel coloured hotels, shops and restaurants on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront crouch in the shade of jagged, rolling peaks laid out under a carpet of vibrant, petrol blue sky. Awe inspiring does not even begin to truly cut it.

NEW YORK

The city that still remains the daddy of them all in terms of impact. Manhattan at dawn is a spellbinding forest of steel and glass, clawing at the sky. Car horns can be heard from traffic that barrels along the waterfront as your ship ghosts upstream. To port, the Statue of Liberty is a demure, sightless, pale green siren with her torch held aloft in greeting. Tug boats fuss around your ship like water beetles. Amazing and, once seen, an awe inspiring adventure that you will never, ever forget.

 

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?

 

 

 

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

SANTORINI
Santorini from the heights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely stuff.

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART ONE; THE JOURNEY TO PIRAEUS

CC
Celestyal Crystal

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

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

But not on this itinerary. Oh, no….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE MARINA; MUSING ON MEMORIES

MARINA
Oceania Cruises’ stunning Marina

For once, I’m going to start as what was almost literally the end of this trip. But please bear with me, and I think that you’ll see where I’m coming from here.

It’s around 2030 on a picture perfect, late summer evening, and I’m having dinner at the open air Terrace Cafe aboard Oceania Cruises’ Marina. It’s the highest spot at the very stern of the ship and, in good weather, it allows for a fantastic panorama of the ship’s wake. And, in that respect, tonight is just about as good as it gets.

Behind us, the magnificent chalk cliffs that range along the coast of Dorset are falling in slow motion into a gently rolling, gunmetal tinted sea. It resembles a block of slowly melting ice cream as it sags and sighs almost reluctantly into the waters of the English Channel.

Above this, dark, gossamer bands of low grey and saffron clouds are pierced by shafts of brilliant, rosy sunset as the day slowly gives ground to the oncoming night. It all looks like a series of amazing celestial brush strokes, defining the textures and shades of the very universe itself. But even this is merely one detail in a much larger picture.

If light is one part of this fantastic natural smorgasbord, then you have to tip your hat to the soundtrack that comes as an appetiser. Though the terrace is busy, the tone is hushed, almost awed, even. As if there is a kind of symbiotic- and totally apt- natural reverence for the amazing visual display unfolding all around us.

There is the subtle murmur of tinkling glassware and polished cutlery, vibrating gently on tables sprinkled across the trim, tidy expanse of deck space. That, and the seductive swish of water boiling alongside the soaring flanks of our ship, gives the evening an air of detached, almost Olympian splendour that seemed to stand still in time and space. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the spell forever.

There’s an ambient musical soundtrack, too. I can still hear Billie Holliday crooning wistfully through Good Morning Heartache, and the strident, soulful tones of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet as the first notes of La Vie En Rose rise up to kiss the warm evening breeze. There is just the faintest hint of a ghostly, glimmering star or two in the sky by now. It’s almost as if the heavens themselves have been stirred into casual curiosity by the sight of this beautiful ship so far below, cutting like an arrow across the darkening carpet of the ocean.

Waiters weave between the tables with the subtle, artistic elan of a ballet troupe, delivering food and drinks to the score of people lounging outside on the terrace. The aromas from that food hang in the air like fine perfume. The whole thing is like some beautifully orchestrated symphony that, by it’s very nature, can only ever be performed once. And here we sit, with the best seats in the house, watching it all unfold. Savouring it like fine wine.

And the food? ‘Sublime’ does not begin to cover it. A perfectly crafted sirloin yields without a fight, washed down with some gorgeous Woodbridge Zinfandel. At one stage, the setting sun glances like some fleeting lover’s kiss against the rim of my wine glass, turning it briefly into a shimmering little rose bowl that makes me smile like a kid on Christmas Day.

Now the theatre is emptying. People have to pack, and prepare for our inevitable Southampton landing in the morning. Like some tired, gently sighing swan, the Marina surges gamely towards the end of her journey.

But there is still time for a final few of those gorgeous ‘Big O’ martinis, time to enjoy some last conversations and laughter. To say ‘goodbye’ for now to new found friends and old ones alike, among both passengers and crew.

Yes, it is ending. But it is doing so just as it started; with style, grace and elegance. And, right at that soulful, mellow little interlude, I was truly grateful for that.

SAGA SAPPHIRE TO GO ALL INCLUSIVE FOR 2019

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Saga Cruises’ lovely Saga Sapphire is to become an all inclusive ship for her final full season of cruises, sailing over the course of 2019.

All drinks, including selected wines at lunch and dinner, together with beers, spirits and cocktails throughout the day and evening, as well as soft drinks and speciality coffees, will now be included in the fare on every one of those 2019 sailings.

It’s an appropriate gesture; a last chance to raise a glass to (and indeed on) a ship that has become a very popular stalwart on the UK cruising scene. The line recently announced that Saga Sapphire will be leaving the fleet in 2020, following the arrival of it’s first ever dedicated new build, the ravishingly retro looking Spirit of Discovery. And, although no actual buyer has yet been announced for her, I hope that this gorgeous, beautifully proportioned mid sized ship can continue to sail on, somewhere.

Originally built as the Europa for Hapag Lloyd Cruises in December of 1981, she was for many years the most prestigious deluxe cruise ship in the world. Today, with a capacity for just 720 guests, this grand, 38,000 ton cruise ship is still a very class act indeed.

As well as the new, enhanced drinks package, Saga also offers free tips and travel insurance for all passengers, as well as round trip, chauffeured transportation from anywhere two hundred and fifty miles in the country direct to the ship’s berth, which is usually the port of Dover in the case of Saga Sapphire.

Her passengers (and Saga caters to the strictly over fifties age group) also benefit from the large number of single cabins on board; a policy that is to be expanded on board the new ship. There is also a quite astonishing range of culinary delights to be sampled on board, from the smartly casual to the sublimely high end. And all of the dining options on board come without an extra cover charge.

There’s no doubt that Saga Sapphire will be missed, but she still has more than a full year of classically styled cruising left to serve up in her own, inimitable style.

My advice? Get out there, while you still can. That clock is now well and truly ticking.