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EXPLORER OF THE SEAS-THE CRUISE PREAMBLE….

EXPLORER
Explorer of the Seas

Currently en route to Florida after a summer season in Europe, Royal Caribbean’s 138,000 ton, 3,114 passenger Explorer of the Seas is due to arrive in Miami on Tuesday, November 19th. She will sail later that same day on her first, five night cruise of the winter Caribbean season. And, when she does, I will be on board her.

Though no longer among the largest ships in the huge Royal Caribbean fleet, the ‘Explorer’ is still a very impressive vessel in her own right, packed full of good things to enjoy on board, and suffused with a raft of dining venues, from casually inclusive to spectacularly indulgent. For a short, five night cruise around the warmer, more welcoming waters of the winter time Caribbean, she is the ideal ship.

The run itself is pretty pedestrian, with visits to the Mexican Caribbean resorts of Costa Maya and Cozumel bracketed by a day at sea in either direction. That said, departure from Miami is always something of an exultant, exhilarating flourish, as the ship passes downstream alongside a palm splayed motorway. It’s noisy, exuberant stuff; a bit brash for sure, but tremendous fun all the same.

The ship herself entered service in September of 2000, as the second of five, near identical Voyager class sisters. At that time, these still impressive sister ships were the largest of their kind anywhere; the conception and creation of the five ships was then the biggest passenger ship building project in maritime history.

From the four story high, four hundred foot long Royal Promenade to the vast, three story main dining room, these ships can seem almost limitless at times. With their upper deck hot tubs cantilevered out over the sides of the ship, numerous bars, and even an ice skating rink and a flow rider, the ‘Explorer’ packs in a wealth of activities, and an entertainment handle that takes some beating.

Of course, it’s more about fun than finely honed finesse; glitz dressed up as glamour for sure. These ships have more in common with Vegas than Villefranche. Chock full of head turning diversions, they are suffused with a wall of rollicking, near round the clock sound that encompasses everything from calypso to cool jazz, dixieland to pounding disco, and every other musical genre in between.

This, then, is the preamble to the coming cruise. Explorer of the Seas, a behemoth decked out in bridal white, is an awe inspiring promise writ large in steel, marble and brass. Non stop casino action, huge, lavish floor shows, and acres of open deck space sprinkled with numerous swimming pools frame out this finely styled, vast. floating resort on the briny. Twenty thousand cocktails above the sea; a seventeen story high seagoing cathedral. Caesar’s Palace at sea.

So, we’ll be welcoming you on board right here in the next few days. Pack your sunscreen. Check your winter blues. Might be worth contemplating a new liver. Oh, and clothes a size or so bigger than the norm. Because, let’s face it, that Chateaubriand and all of those Creme Brulee are really not going to eat themselves, are they?

AIR TRAVEL; COSTING AN ARM AND A LEG…….

STOBART AIR

It’s a more or less constant refrain these days. We are perceived to be forking out more for airline tickets than ever before, and yet we seem to be getting less in return. Flying-and airports in general-are becoming more of a hassle, year in and out.

The most baleful recent exemplar of this practice is the various add ons that are now manifesting themselves even on long haul routes. Swingeing in flight service cuts combine with sharp-sometimes razor sharp practices- to make buying flight tickets online an obstacle course of epic precautions. Even the most mainstream flight websites are now rife with disingenuous lead in fares that are, in reality, merely the tip of an often much larger iceberg.

The worst practice is now the deceptive lead in fares for long distance air travel. These are now often quoted as flight only, and luggage is factored in as an extra, often quite eye watering charge at the end. For instance, a round trip flight from Newcastle to Florida in 2020 can come in at what seems an eminently reasonable £350, but the additional charge for just one 23 kg case can add around an additional hundred pounds on top. Given the poor strength of the pound against both the dollar and the euro, this makes for quite some sucker punch to the prospective long haul traveller. And this practice is now in force right across most global flight routes, and on most major carriers.

Why this Machiavellian sleight of hand? Why not simply put the baggage costs onto the total air fare as before, instead of trying to dupe people with illusory, head in the cloud lead in fares that simply do not stack up on the ground?

Some websites now allow for the option of bringing ‘up to 23kgs’ of hand luggage ‘free’. But we all know fine well that getting such sized bags into already crammed overhead lockers-let alone first hauling them through security- is like trying to thread a supertanker through the Panama Canal; a complete non starter. And, surely, the idea of some infirm old granny trying to lift an eye watering 23 kilos of luggage without any kind of assistance is a complete non starter just on health and safety grounds? Does anybody actually think this stuff through?

From a legal point of view, this is no doubt all above board. But is it proper? After all, at one time in this country it was perfectly legal to hang a starving nine year old for stealing half a loaf of bread. That hardly made it right to do so…..

Air travel has lost a huge amount of its romance and lustre in the last two decades. The terrible events of 9/11 and just afterwards triggered a seismic, almost manic series of enhancements-some practical, some pathetic-to the existing, arcane airport security protocols. But even the most extreme of these were done with the best of intentions, if not the best delivery. While we can pick at little things when passing on the journey from landside to airside, most people would probably concur that change had to come. They will bow to the inconvenience, and just accept it. Which, on the whole, is fair enough.

But the stratospheric rise of the budget airline has triggered a reaction not too many people foresaw; a retrenchment at airlines like BA, where rampant nickel and diming on domestic and European routes is now the company mantra. Gone are the much appreciated, early morning bacon sarnies on the domestic routes down to Heathrow. Like the drinks napkins once offered as a routine gesture in Economy, they have simply flown the coop.

On European flights in Economy, the free drinks and food that once made BA such a stellar, popular and inclusive choice have gone, too. Passengers are now ‘invited’ to purchase snacks from a select menu; one that often as not runs out of options before staff can actually cover everybody on board. Processing payments for food and drinks (you are also ‘invited’ to use your BA air miles via the mobile app on your phone for these) takes the harassed, already over worked flight staff twice as long to process as in the free regime days.

The result? A lower standard of service (which is not by any means the fault of the hard working flight staff, by the way) and an at least fifty per cent chance that any product you are willing to pay for might have run out when the food and drink trolleys do, eventually, get to you. And, of course, the teeth gnashing, tortuous fact that you are now obliged to pay at all for items that, for decades, were literally part and parcel of your travel experience.

Now, this nefarious, ne’er do well policy of nickel and diming people for food and drinks has not yet come to the long haul BA fleet, but who is to say that it will not, in due course? Is what has come to pass on the short haul routes merely the precursor to larger, more swingeing cuts eventually envisaged right across world wide BA Economy flights? Is the corporate guillotine at BA ready to fall on the heads of the hordes of travellers that still make this once great airline their carrier of choice? Going on present form, and the hang ’em up by the heels and empty their pockets mentality of senior management at BA, things do not look good….

Sure, there are long haul budget carriers-such as Norwegian- that do, indeed, charge for all food and drinks in their Economy cabins. But look at their flight prices, vis-à-vis the same choice of destinations offered by any of the major carriers, and the saving is so substantial that it easily outweighs what you might-or, indeed, might not-spend on food and drinks over the course of a flight. It simply isn’t horses for courses, though some airline execs have certainly tried to paint it in exactly that light.

Seat sizes, too, remain a lightning rod for animated discussion. Often as not, economy class seats on most airlines-but especially on the budget operators- would leave even a particularly small pygmy in a state of agonised contortions over the course of even a relatively short flight. It is the airborne equivalent of battery farming; enclose as many adults in as small a space as possible, and then assault them with scratch cards, extra price food and drink, ‘duty free’ items, and even airport and hotel transfers. Here, transport meets coercion and outright extortion, in surroundings so cramped that there is, quite literally, no escape.

If you wonder why air travel has lost so much of its once glamorous cachet, there it is. The inclusiveness of it all, the hospitality element, has gone down the plughole. Passengers are, quite literally, human cargo, to be milked like so many rows of subdued, stationary ATM machines.

It’s not smart. It’s not clever. And, perhaps most depressingly of all, it’s not going to change any time soon, either.

 

 

 

 

LINERS AT LEISURE, AND IN LIMBO…..

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Triple stacked welcome from a Queen

The art and ability involved in preserving the surviving handful of great, seagoing ocean liners is an often thankless task. Tethered to shores sometimes far from their familiar, beaten paths, these ships can often become bottomless money pits. Sometimes, their management ends up at the mercy of corporations with as much understanding of these ships as a maggot would have of the first moon landing. Seldom are the long term omens truly good; many a fine vessel has fallen by the wayside of ill informed investment opportunities and a short sighted, fast buck mentality.

Yet, against this backdrop, a stellar trio of vessels of the first rank have somehow contrived to survive as combination hotel and restaurant venues. First, and still largest is the venerable old Queen Mary, which has now spent more years tethered to her Long Beach, California pier than ever she did at sea, in both war and peace alike.

Still not yet truly out of the woods, the Queen Mary has endured far more of a roller coaster ride in retirement than ever she did in the worst Atlantic gale. Bankruptcy and morally bankrupt cabals of eminently dubious businessmen have been more of an active hazard to the great lady than any of Hitler’s U Boats ever were. The greatest and most stellar achievement of her long, illustrious career may very well be the fact that she is still there at all; the Queen Mary today remains an Art Deco sheathed Grande Dame whose very poise and presence still has the power to draw awed gasps from even the most blithe passer by.

QE2
The Queen Elizabeth 2 after her post 1987 refit and re-engining

Her successor as Cunard flagship, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has herself now gone into retirement in Dubai. After almost a decade of tortuous vacillation and seeming indifference on the part of her new owners, the longest serving of all the great Cunard liners re-opened her doors to the public last year. The sighs of relief could almost be heard as far away as Long Beach.

QE2 was originally slated for a drastic ‘re-imagining’ by her new owners-itself a disastrously bad turn of phrase-that thankfully never came to pass. Those given initial custody of her had as much understanding of her history, heritage and future potential as a race horse would have of a rumba. The result was years of vacillation, vague half starts, and downright disingenuous statements. Having bought her, these people simply could not decide what best to do with her. QE2 was like a glittering bauble with no Christmas tree to decorate, lost in an unforgiving, arid environment.

Despite all of this, after a near decade of uncertainty, the great ship is now once more open to the public, offering some three hundred former first class cabins as bespoke hotel rooms. The interior upgrades have been surprisingly sympathetic; the greatness and sheer, breathtaking beauty of the most illustrious Cunarder of them all has been largely preserved intact, a great grand memorial to an age that is now largely itself a historical footnote.

SS ROTTERDAM
The sublime SS. Rotterdam in her original livery

But, perhaps the most successful of these restored, re-purposed ships of state has been the legendary SS. Rotterdam. For, while that brace of charismatic Cunarders cited above have both found exotic exile in remote, sunny lands far from home, the beloved former Dutch flagship really has come home. Rescued from under the very blade of the scrapper’s knives at almost the last moment, the Rotterdam came back to her namesake port, achieving far colder waters and a much warmer, welcome return than her exiled counterparts.

Restored to her original colour scheme from October of 1959, the perfectly primped Rotterdam boasts the most authentic, unchanged series of interiors of any of these three surviving scions. At around half the size of the other two ships, her maintenance costs come in at considerably less. Since her re-opening in the middle of Rotterdam harbour, the ship has been a considerable success.

The one thing that all three of these ships need to ensure their continued, profitable survival is the self same thing that they needed during their seagoing days-constant on board footfall, and free flowing revenue. It is no good expecting the hardened cabal of die hard ocean liner fans to be able to do this on their own; imaginative ways have to be found to create revenue streams, such as conference incentives, the creation of novel and  compelling banqueting experiences, and nostalgic, themed events. In those respects, these ships are, in themselves, a series of unique selling points.

Even in a static role, each ship allows for a kind of virtual time travel, without the need to ever again brave the open, combative waters of the Atlantic. Each one is like a portal into another age and era, when things were done differently, and ships were more about transportation than tortuous, on deck party games and sinuous, winding water slides.

I can only hope that this storied trio can at some stage be joined by a fourth vessel. Of course, I mean the SS. United States, still sitting in rust streaked, mouldering splendour at her berth under the Walt Whitman bridge in Philadelphia.

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The SS. United States in her prime

Stripped internally bare and just barely alive, the ship that still remains the fastest ocean liner ever built today exists in the maritime equivalent of a coma. Her interiors have long been ripped out and, while she looks quite dilapidated, the ship herself is still structurally quite sound; a beautiful blank canvas, ripe for re-purposing into the fourth member of a great, timeless quartet of monumental, former cathedrals of the sea.

Her loss would be an act of cultural vandalism akin to levelling Penn Street Station, or even the Empire State Building. The United States typified the post war, ‘can do’ spirit of 1950’s America like nothing else, either before or since. Long before the first Saturn Five rocket ever clawed at the sky, the United States was already out there; America’s foremost, instantly recognisable global flag bearer in those last, halcyon days before the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam war burst that optimistic, overly inflated bubble forever.

In America, the mothballed hulks of countless warships still survive in preserved splendour, from the USS Constitution of 1812 right through to the solid, brooding bulk of the mighty USS Missouri out at Pearl Harbour. Quite right, too.

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The SS. United States as she currently appears today

But I would argue that the SS. United States is at least worthy of preservation as any of these. And, in some cases, even more so. Surely, with a profitable potential future in front of her and a storied past that still staggers the mind behind her, she is worth saving. Her salvation would have a value that would transcend any simple, financial consideration by light years.

Think about it; a quartet of powerfully preserved, almost miraculously intact ocean liners. Four distinctly individual, undeniably dramatic, emotional lightning rods that link us to a rich, resplendent past; a time when these ships were not merely the pride of the shipyards and the men that built and sailed them, but indeed the prides of their respective nations. History, heritage, wartime heroism, afternoon tea on the promenade decks at the height of a wicked, winter crossing…..

Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth 2. Rotterdam. United States. Ships of dreams in their own right. The last survivors of a fleet of fabulous, long gone ocean liners that still cut an elegant swathe through the very salt water of our dreams. And yet, they still exist in reality. And, for that, and for posterity, too, those in a position of power to preserve, burnish and embellish these unique, glorious testaments to human ingenuity and maritime excellence, have an unwavering, unshakeable responsibility to do exactly that.

CMV’S COLUMBUS CONFIRMED AS MAKING FOURTH CONSECUTIVE WORLD CRUISE IN 2021

COLUMBUS
Columbus at Antwerp. Photograph courtesy of Robert Graves

It’s official; Cruise and Maritime’s flagship, Columbus, will undertake a fourth,. consecutive world cruise in 2021. The full, four month global odyssey departs from London’s port of Tilbury on January 6th, 2021, and returns to the Essex port on May 6th of that year.

In between lies an almost literally globe spanning odyssey that charts nearly thirty-five thousand miles in all. The Columbus will visit no less than thirty-eight ports of call in twenty four different countries, and will transit both the Panama and Suez canals en route.

Leaving the UK winter in her wake, the Columbus makes a run  for the rum and reggae suffused shores of balmy Barbados, before transiting the newly enlarged Panama Canal. The ship then heads straight out across the Pacific, to the pearls of French Polynesia, with both timeless Tahiti and the lush, beautiful expanse of Bora Bora as standout stopping off points.

Columbus then continues on to the ‘greatest hits’ of the Antipodes at the height of their summer, with calls in both Auckland and Sydney.  The ship then shapes course to the north, cruising the Great Barrier Reef and then drawing a bead on the fabled ‘Lion City’ of Singapore.

From there, the Columbus meanders through the mesmerising seascapes of the Far East,  with calls into Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Thailand’s dreamy, peaceful Phuket.

Next comes the shores of sensuous Sri Lanka, before the Columbus makes landfall on the idyllic, sun splashed highlights of both the Maldives and the Seychelles. Africa proper is achieved via landfall on Mombasa, before a string of stunning landfalls on the shores of South Africa itself.

For the first time ever, Columbus drops into Durban, East London and classy, cloud kissed Cape Town, before swinging out across the vast expanse of the South Atlantic to make landfall on Brazil’s east coast; shimmering, salsa fuelled Rio de Janeiro is a dazzling appetizer to calls at both Salvador and breezy, palm splayed Recife.

Surging northwards, the Columbus heads for the Portuguese outposts of the Cape Verde islands, collectively the furthermost part of old colonial Europe. One last African tryst in frantic, bubbling Casablanca- the literal translation of the name is ‘White House’-paves the way for a penultimate port of call in stoic, storied Lisbon, before the voyage ends back where it all started in Tilbury, some four months earlier.

Hard as it is to pick out highlights in such an epic adventure, some standouts do become apparent; overnight calls in Tahiti, Mombasa and Cape Town are spectacular enough, but even those are crowned by a full, two night stay in Sydney at the height of the Aussie summer.

Lovers of sea days can anticipate an especially alluring, nine day crossing between Cape Town and Rio, with only a day’s visit to Tristan de Cunha, a remote British outpost in the South Atlantic, to interrupt the relaxed, indolent rhythm of a long, lazy voyage between a brace of fabulously compelling continents. Lovely stuff.

In addition, a number of sector voyages will be on offer as fly cruises, ranging in duration from thirty to seventy five nights in all.

Prices for the full, 120 day voyage start at around £8,999 per person, based on two people sharing an inside cabin.

 

 

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL ORDERS SIXTH OASIS CLASS SHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRUISING THE NILE; LIFE ON BOARD, AND SOME OTHER THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW…

NILE REIVER CRUISER

For many, a cruise on the Nile is, quite simply, the trip of a lifetime. In terms of getting right up close and personal to one of the most amazing and storied civilisations of the past, it ticks just about every box that you could possibly dream of.

You get to see and savour those incredible sights from a safe, comfortable base that feeds you, accommodates and cossets you, and then delivers you into a whole raft of stunning historical hot spots. And you get to see those sites in the company of some highly qualified, hugely knowledgeable guides whose collective expertise alone is arguably worth the journey.. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for taking such a safe, comfortable way to see the ‘greatest hits’ of Egypt in such a quiet, elegant, Olde Worlde kind of style.

But there are some things that you should prep for before you go; things that might, if taken heed of and allowed for in advance, actually enhance the quality of you trip even further. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of them….

DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER. EVER.

No ifs, no buts, just don’t. Don’t even use the stuff for brushing your teeth, either. Instead, always use bottled water and, when doing so, first ensure that the seal of the cap isn’t broken, either.

Want ice in your drink? First, check that the ice on board has actually been made from bottled water, rather than the stuff emanating from the taps. It takes no time at all to ask, and you might just save yourself from a whole world of pain and discomfort.

DO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED….

Don’t just make the blithe assumption that your river boat will be patronised solely by passengers belonging to the Anglo-Saxon speaking races. Interest in Egypt is universal, and people from all corners of the globe share that same curious, almost reverent sense of wonder that brought you there in the first place, too.

On our recent voyage, we had small groups of Chinese, Japanese, Americans, French, and even a few Australians on board. In general, the different nationalities stuck together on board at mealtimes, and during free time in the lounge, or out on deck. There was very little real crossover-cultural or actual-between any of them.

This is not as surprising as it might seem; after all, each group had its own, dedicated tour guide on board. Each of these was fluent in the national language of the group and, because of his (or her) knowledge and depth of experience, their accessibility and ability to communicate, each nationality naturally enough tended to pivot around their own guides. This isn’t snobbery, and certainly not a racist thing; it was simply a practical way of making the best of your time, both on board and ashore.

FUNNY FOOD?

Because the river boats sometimes cater for several different nationalities at once, there’s an obvious need to provide at least some kind of comfort food for each one. Conversely, there are always going to be some people who, quite unsurprisingly, want to try some of the more staple local Egyptian local dishes.

On the other hand, the river boats are relatively small, as are the galleys that turn out each of the three main meals for up to 180 guests per day, not to mention the crew. The ability to collect and collate fresh supplies as they sail up and down the Nile is pretty limited; the local infrastructure is inadequate to support the moving of such quantities.

So don’t expect the wealth of taste and choices that you would find on, say, a Royal Caribbean cruise. There simply isn’t the space or the scope to create it.

In general, breakfast, lunch and dinner are buffet self service, though sometimes for dinner you will be offered the choice of a main course that you usually pick out on the previous lunchtime. Typically, these revolve around beef, chicken or fish.

You’ll usually sit for all three main meals at tables assigned to your tour group for the entire duration of the trip. When sailing the river on sunny days, sometimes a lunchtime buffet up on deck will replace sit down lunch in the dining room. And afternoon tea, complete with the gorgeous biscuits, cakes and crepes for which the Egyptians are rightly known, is definitely not to be missed as you cruise the Nile. It’s an indulgent little bit of down time and-should you need an excuse-just consider it as a rightly earned reward for all that dutiful traipsing that you did ashore, earlier in the day.

EXPECT QUIET NIGHTS…..

If you’ve come here hoping to find a late night party boat, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. Egypt is a cultural binge where the emphasis is on feeding the mind and soul, rather than potentially hammering the liver. In general, bars on most river boats are empty by eleven o’clock at night, though you can usually order drinks via room service if you feel the need.

The size and scale of the river boats means that you can forget the glitzy casinos and fast paced floor shows, as well as the cosy piano bars found on the big, ocean going cruise ships. Most after dinner conversation revolves around recounting the visual highlights of the day over a couple of nightcaps.

Again, this should hardly be surprising. Many tours necessitate an early morning start just to avoid the extreme excess of Egypt’s mid day heat. And, if the sheer intoxication of all that fabulous history all around you isn’t enough-then, in all honesty, you really probably shouldn’t be here at all.

So; there we have it. Just a few tips from my personal point of view, and gleaned from conversations had with others. Just come with an open mind, and go home with a heart and soul filled with wonder.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I travelled with Discover Egypt on this trip. If you’re liking the look of this adventure, you’ll find their website at: http://www.discoveregypt.co.uk

PULLMANTUR’S SOVEREIGN ROLLING BACK TO RIO FOR 2019-20 SEASON

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Pullmantur’s Sovereign

The Sovereign, Pullmantur’s 1988 built flagship, will return to Brazil next winter for an eleventh season of short cruises from a brace of different ports.

The ship-originally built for Royal Caribbean International as the Sovereign of The Seas- spends her summer season in the Mediterranean, from where she offers a season of seven night cruises embarking in Barcelona and Rome, before crossing the Atlantic in later November to the Brazilian port of Recife.

Once on station in Brazil, the 78,000 ton, 2200 passenger Sovereign will offer a season of short, four and five night cruises that allow for embarkation both at Santos and Rio de Janeiro. In all, the ship will offer some twenty such cruises between December 2019 and February of 2020.

While these cruises will be sold primarily to the local market through Brazilian cruise specialists CVC, they are also available for purchase by European passengers through specialist operators such as Fred. Cruises, based in the UK.

Pullmantur is a mass market, all inclusive operator whose European cruise operation is aimed mainly at a Spanish speaking market. The overall value is excellent for a large ship, though it has to be said that most standard inside and outside cabins on the Sovereign are on the small side. Think comfortable and functional rather than plush and expansive, and you get the overall gist.

I’m hoping to do one of these short cruises at some stage. Stay tuned for further updates.

 

ROME; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

COLLOSSEUM
Rome’s tremendous, timeless Colosseum

Rome. One name. Endless images. The Eternal City. What exactly is Rome to you?

Rome for me is the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Colosseum, stark and unyielding against an early autumnal sunset. Every stone, pillar and archway has echoes of desperate gladiator duels, animal fights and appalling ritual sacrifices seared into it. It’s a crumbling construct that seems to defy both time and the Gods themselves.

Rome is that first hit of fresh, piping hot espresso, and the zesty aroma of lush, fragrant lemon trees in full bloom in the first, heady days of spring. It is sunset on the waters of the ageless, meandering River Tiber; sometimes, she’s an early evening stroll across one of the ancient stone bridges that still span that silent, serpentine sprawl.

Rome is the jagged remains of shattered Doric columns, glinting eerily in the noonday sun that still washes the scarred, silent expanse of the Forum. The same sun that once glinted on the blades of Brutus and Cassius as they bathed this self same spot in the blood of Julius Caesar.

Rome is the sight and sound of masses of motor scooters, buzzing like maddened wasps as they swarm in droves past the balcony from where the strutting, meat headed Mussolini once harangued the increasingly sullen crowds. It is the cool. ordered magnificence of Bernini’s stunning, colonnaded courtyard as it sweeps up to the serene, aloof symmetry of St. Peter’s. It is the intricate, impossibly beautiful frescoed real estate of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And it is also the brooding, turreted bulwarks of Castel Sant Angelo, where more than one Pope sought refuge during the turmoil of the Middle Ages.

Rome is the bustling cafe society of Piazza Navona, with it’s impossibly ornate fountains. Rome is cold, crisp wine on a warm summer night, sitting and sipping under light bedecked plane trees as you savour la dolce vita unfolding all around you like some Caravaggio masterpiece.

Above all, Rome truly is eternal. A city that was once the centre of the greatest empire that the world had ever known. A magician’s conjuring trick that reinvented itself to become the focal point for one of the world’s prime religions. It’s a city that embraced modernity, while still framing it in the context of it’s own matchless, exalted past. A stunning juxtaposition of the ancient and the sometimes shockingly modern; the sensational and the effortlessly, eternally serene, sitting side by side.

Rome is a moody, Machiavellian style melting pot that inspired Michelangelo and infuriated Mussolini. A city so mesmerising in scale, sweep and historical scope that even the retreating German army baulked at destroying it in June 1944, in direct violation of Hitler’s personal order to do so.

Rome is Trevi Fountain. It is Audrey Hepburn’s fragile smile as she sits, draped across a scooter in Sabrina. Rome is laughing children eating delicious gelato on the Spanish Steps in the searing heat of a summer Sunday afternoon.

These are just a few of my own, mental images of this swaggering, majestic city. Now I’ll throw the question back out there one more time;

What is Rome to you? Why not go see for yourself……

TRAVELLING ON CRUISE SHIPS WITH BABIES AND TODDLERS- A ‘HOW TO’ GUIDE

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A bit of ‘Baby Love’ goes a long, long way….

With mainstream cruising becoming a much more multi generational thing in this day and age, you don’t need the detective powers of a Columbo-never mind a Clouseau- to be aware that there is now a wealth of travel options spread across cruising’s glittering firmament.

But, as always, ‘choice’ is often shadowed closely by it’s cousin, ‘confusion’. And, if you’ve toyed with the idea of taking your little ones on a cruise for the first time, there are questions that you might want to get answers to before you actually make that all important booking.

So here’s just a few things that you might want to consider asking, though no doubt the more astute among you out there will come up with your own ideas.

Check the size of the cribs on board your intended ship before you sail; don’t just blindly accept that a uniform standard exists across the board. This could be especially true on cruise ships operating in the Far East. After all, if the smallest ones get a good nights’ sleep, there’s more than a passing chance that mum and dad will, too.

Is the cruise line that you’re travelling with fully capable of meeting all of your baby’s dietary needs? Can, and indeed will they be willing to prepare pureed food as necessary?

Is there a bath, a shower, or maybe even both in the room that you are considering booking? Forewarned is prepared, after all…

You’ll want to know if there is a dedicated baby sitting service on board. If yes, find out how it works. For instance, will there be a dedicated child sitter on call and, if so, what are the actual working hours? Some cruise lines simply provide baby alarms, so be aware in advance. Covering all your bases up front is far more conducive to stress free downtime once on board.

Check out the situation concerning the carriage and use of strollers, especially if you’re embarking on a fly cruise as some airlines might have different regulations and restrictions. On board, where tenders have to be used to get in and out of certain ports, is it practical to get strollers- and, indeed, baby-in and out of a moving tender? Otherwise, you could very well miss out on seeing a destination you’ve always yearned to, simply because of problems with carrying a stroller. Best by far to know these things upfront.

Thinking of splashing out on a balcony cabin? You’d do pretty well to first ensure that the barriers are of the modern, plexi-glass type, rather than those old style metal railings. Pre-empting adventurous little climbers is just another way of de-stressing before you even set sail.

Though on board children’s clubs are extensive on most ships these days, you might want to think about keeping the little ones more comfortable and content by bringing along some of their favourite books and toys. Some kind of portable viewing device might also be good. While many ship’s cabins have DVD players and in house movies these days, most of these are naturally placed at a height made for adult viewing. Give the kids something of their own that they can use up close and personal.

Check the on board availability of high chairs, too. Are they freely available in all of the main dining venues and, more to the point, are they of the right height? After all, if Junior is snug, chances are that mum and dad will be happier at meal times, too.

Just a few passing thoughts for you to digest….

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.