Category Archives: over fifties cruising

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.

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CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART ONE; THE JOURNEY TO PIRAEUS

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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.