CLEANING UP THE BIG ‘U’

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The Lady in waiting….

The news last month from the joint Crystal Cruises/SS US Conservancy about the cruise line’s intentions for the long moribund SS. United States was, it is safe to say, a complete curve ball that no one really saw coming.

The plan to return the ship to service as a deluxe, all suite, eight hundred guest cruise vessel, served and styled in the sybaritic Crystal standards, was simply too much for many to take in. From across the Atlantic, I could almost hear the sound of a hundred thousand jaws hitting an equal number of shoes in stunned unison.

Of course, all of this is subject to a full, stem to stern, truck to keel survey of the United States. The press conference indicated that this work is likely to be completed in situ, at Philadelphia, this coming November.

Once the shell shock of the initial announcement had subsided, the inevitable naysayers began to surface. Their disbelief and sheer incredulity began to build up a real head of steam.

We’ve all seen their arguments and opinions- which, to be clear, they are perfectly entitled to espouse. I happen to disagree with them, but I am also the first to admit that, for the moment at least, my opinions have no more credibility than theirs.

Herein lies something of a quandary for that formidable duo of Rodriguez and Gibbs.

Yes, they have funded the liner’s docking fees for many months to come. And yes, they have commissioned a team of hugely competent individuals to bring their incredible vision to actual fruition. But much is going on behind the scenes here that the ordinary public can, for various reasons, be unaware of, in the same way that tidal currents are invisible below the ocean’s surface. In some quarters, a lack of some kind of visual progress could, indeed, be wrongly interpreted.

But something symbolic- a real statement of intent- wow, how that would really galvanise public opinion behind this project. What I’m suggesting is something cosmetic, relatively cheap, and yet hugely symbolic to everyone interested in the project.

Why not tidy up the ship’s long neglected exterior right now, right where she is?

Make the rust fade like the last of the winter snow. Paint the hull, the superstructure and, above all, lavish some TLC on those awesome sampan funnels. Illuminate those stacks at night; let people see them from miles away.

It would be a huge, relatively inexpensive PR coup; a way of keeping the ship visible in the public eye- quite literally, as it happens. And, as the mechanics of her rebirth slowly gestate on the inside, could there be a more potent or visible statement of intent than this relatively simple act? I think not.

Forty seven years of neglect and false, raised hopes, finally disappearing into history under a stunning new sheen of colour and light. Lingering doubts finally vanishing astern.

That’s my take. Am I the only one who feels like this?

 

CMV COLUMBUS INAUGURAL SEASON CRUISES

Columbus-edit-quarterside-web (1)Following on from this morning’s announcement by CMV of the acquisition of Columbus- the former Pacific Pearl- the line has released details of the ship’s inaugural 2017 season.

Seventeen round trip cruises from Tilbury are listed for the ship. Beginning on June 11th and concluding in December, they range in length from a three night, August Bank Holiday weekender to Antwerp and Amsterdam, to a full blown, forty three night round trip to the Caribbean, Central America and Cuba at the end of October.

The maiden listed revenue cruise is another three night weekender to the continent, sailing on June 11th. In addition, Columbus will sail six and seven night cruises to Norway, a trio of nine to twelve night cruises around the British Isles, a Faroe Islands voyage, and a pair of twelve night Baltic cruise itineraries.

In her inaugural season, Columbus will venture as far north as Iceland, and as far south as Madeira and the Canary Islands.

For foodies, the 1400 passenger Columbus will boast no less than five different eateries. The ship will have ten bars and lounges, with live evening entertainment featured across six of these.

Prior to joining Cruise and Maritime, the 63,786 ton Columbus will undergo significant refurbishment in a Singapore dockyard. The current, on boatd Teen Centre will be converted into the CMV signature, maritime themed Columbus Club and library, the creation of a dedicated Bridge and Card room- Trumps and Aces- and the refurbishment of many cabins. In a first for the line, some sixty four cabins and suites will have private balconies.

In all, something like seventy five per cent of the 775 cabins will offer an ocean view.

All things considered, the acquisition of Columbus represents something of a coup for CMV. The vessel- still well remembered from her days as Ocean Village- should prove very popular with passengers wanting a ship with a large entertainment handle in surroundings that are expansive and comfortable, rather than overwhelming.

Stay tuned for further details as they become public.

 

 

CMV ADDS ANOTHER VESSEL TO FLEET FOR 2017

Columbus-edit-quarterside-web (1)In a very surprising move, Cruise and Maritime Voyages this morning announced the acquisition of the 63,786 ton Pacific Pearl from P&O Cruises Australia. The ship, to be renamed Columbus, will join the UK based fleet line up effective of June 9th, 2017.

Pacific Pearl was put up for sale as a result of the Australian company’s recent expansion, but an initial statement from Australia had spoken of an internal ‘transfer’ within the portfolio of the parent company, Carnival Corporation, rather than a third party purchase.

While it was known for some time that Cruise and Maritime were in the market for another ship, the acquisition of Pacific Pearl comes as something of a curve ball.

The ship is very well known as a former stalwart of the UK cruising scene. Originally conceived as the Sitmar Fairmajesty in 1989, she started life as the Star Princess for Princess Cruises when Sitmar sadly went bankrupt.  She was then remodelled as the Arcadia in P&O Cruises. Then, after a long and very successful stint as the popular Ocean Village of Ocean Village Cruises, the ship disappeared ‘down under’ a few years ago to become the first significant cruise ship dedicated to the year round Australian market.

Now she is coming ‘home’.

The French built ship will accommodate some 1400 passengers in her new role as Columbus. The vessel has some 775 cabins, 150 of which will be sold as dedicated singles.

Worthy of note is the fact that the ship has the first significant number of balcony cabins in the CMV fleet, including what will be some ‘fleet largest’ balcony suites coming in at 582 square feet. At the other end of the scale, even the smallest inside rooms come in at around 148 square feet.

Like her CMV fleet mates, Columbus will operate as an adults’ only ship. However, in a first for the line, Columbus will trial a pair of all age cruises over the peak holiday cruise season next August.

In terms of tonnage, accommodation and space, the Columbus marks a significant step up from the recently acquired Magellan and the veteran Marco Polo. And, with a trio of swimming pools and the company’s first ever forward observation lounge, the Columbus will up the ante considerably in terms of leisure facilities and entertainment venues, too.

Like her siblings, Columbus will be based in Tilbury. In fact, she will be the largest passenger ship ever to sail regularly from the famous Essex port, the nearest and most easily accessed cruise port to central London.

Look out for more here as itineraries are made available.

 

CRUISING THE CANARY ISLANDS ON THE THOMSON MAJESTY

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The Thomson Majesty at San Sebastian, La Gomera @antnich

A short, four hour flight delivered me smartly from the depths of a grey British winter, and into the warm, welcoming embrace of twenty eight degrees of sunshine on balmy Tenerife. As the plane climbed from grey skies into blue, my spirits soared with it.

A while later, I was greeted by the welcome, familiar sight of the Thomson Majesty, sitting serenely at dockside in the port of Santa Cruz. Boarding her at once brought back a whole host of memories from other cruises on this ship, all of them good. Safe to say that my mood had improved by leaps and bounds since leaving home.

Over the next week the 40,000 ton ship would make a stately circuit around a slew of sun splashed Canarian favourites. There was bustling Gran Canaria, where surfers braved the broad Atlantic rollers that drummed the beach at Las Canteras. Indulging in a few glasses of wine on the broad, umbrella shaded promenade that winds above that beach is a simple, timeless treasure whose therapeutic effects cannot be overstated.

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Medieval tower, La Gomera @antnich

There was sparse, stoic little La Gomera; a seldom visited treasure trove where a restored, fifteenth century watch tower stands guard among rows of pastel hued houses that stand in serried rows against a background of looming limestone cliffs. A long, slowly curving beach of black volcanic sand, sprinkled with palm trees, was almost deserted in the first hours of a Sunday morning. I suspect that this little gem is probably the most authentic and unspoiled of all the Canary Islands.

Next came Madeira; long a personal favourite, and the only Portuguese hold out in this otherwise Spanish accented region. It feels a million miles different in temperament and pace from its near neighbours.

Mountainous and effortlessly majestic, Madeira lacks the vast swathes of sandy beaches and resort life so typical of the Spanish islands. In the pretty harbour of Funchal, beautiful botanical gardens frame the seafront in a riot of hibiscus, oleander and wisteria. Winding, cobbled streets give are flanked by rows of white and ochre coloured houses, with window shutters of polished teak, and flower boxes brimming to overflowing with fresh blooms.

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Fine, old world architecture in the centre of Funchal @antnich

Cafes and bars spill right down to the waterfront, stretching right along the entire expanse of the broad, beautiful lido. Despite this being technically a capital city, the pace of life in Funchal- not a small town by any means- seems somehow more laid back. As a place to simply kick back and indulge in some platinum chip people watching, Funchal is equalled only by the French Riviera and, perhaps, Sorrento.

In between all of this, there is a welcome sea day aboard the Thomson Majesty herself; a blissful opportunity to recharge the batteries, and simply catch some very welcome winter sun. The upper deck has a pair of centrally located pools, with sun walks up above lined with rows of sun loungers. As with many ships, those loungers fill very quickly, and finding a little ‘quality space’ of your own is always difficult with fourteen hundred passengers on board.

It’s also very noisy when the entertainment staff organise the afternoon deck games; an overly amplified, ear splitting series of banal ‘party’ games. But, to be fair, most of the passengers do seem to love them.

Two decks down, a full promenade runs right around the ship on Seven Deck. Few people seem to find it during the day, and the rows of sun loungers down here are a far more pleasant place to just chill out and soak up that benign Canarian sunshine than upstairs.. The contrast is like the difference between night and day.

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Castle walls of old Funchal @antnich

Inside, the Thomson Majesty remains a pert, pretty ship; one largely unchanged since her Norwegian Cruise Line days. There are interior boulevards lined by walls of floor to ceiling windows that are prefect for just relaxing with a coffee, a book, or a beer. Even all three. Throughout the ship, stained glass ceilings and beautiful, blond wood panelling frame a series of intimate, elegant public rooms that make the Thomson Majesty a warm, perennially appealing alternative to the other vast, far more impersonal vessels sailing these same waters.

Both indoor and casual dining varies from good to excellent. The addition of an upper deck enclosed eatery- Piazza San Marco- eases the congestion in the usually crowded Cafe Royale, up forward on the topmost deck. The room itself, however, is pretty spartan, and has the feel of a hastily thrown up wedding marquee. Some plants around the edges of this room would soften it a lot, and add some real warmth that is currently lacking.

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Looking down to Funchal harbour front @antnich

Downstairs, the two main restaurants are on Deck Five, and both have windows overlooking the sea on at least one side. The menu is typical cruise fare, tailored inevitably toward the British market. For the likes of steak and lobster, there is a surcharge.

There is a smaller, more intimate restaurant- Le Bistro- bookable at a surcharge. It offers upscale food and service, and needs to be booked in advance. In cabin breakfasts also come with a surcharge.

Cabins themselves come in inside and outside categories. A small number of the eight deck cabins- together with the suites and mini suites on Deck Nine- come complete with nice balconies, though these are not very private.

Standard cabins are small, with separate beds that can convert to a double. They come complete with shower and WC, and limited storage space. That said, the Thomson Majesty is a fairly casual ship in  terms of dress code; think resort casual, and pack accordingly.

Entertainment wise, the intimate size of the ship precludes the lavish floor shows of the mega ships, but that is not to imply a lack of fun when the sun goes down. Far from it.

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The excellent house band was a real highlight of our Thomson Majesty cruise @antnich

Live bands and smaller, more intimate Broadway revues vie with a good sized casino and a large, aft facing disco for your custom. There are quieter venues for drinks and conversation, some with piano background music, and some without. Others enjoy simply sitting outside on the upper decks with a bottle of wine, taking in the starlight and the warm breeze.

This cruise is a pretty regimented, though well organised, run to some very appealing little idylls in the sun. The Canaries may not be dramatic and studded with must do things, but they do offer a vibrant, compelling and convenient alternative to the bone numbing banality of a European winter. The lifestyle is good, and you should never, ever underestimate how good that warm winter sun can feel.

Add to this a comfortable, appealing, pretty little ship that still has all the bells and whistles that you could possibly want, and the appeal becomes obvious. Seventeen years after I first crossed her gangway, the Thomson Majesty remains one of the prettiest ships afloat. I’d definitely do this one again.

HURTIGRUTEN-WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

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Does this look like a conventional cruise ship to you? Thought not

While the experience of sailing Hurtigruten is one of the most rewarding travel experiences I have ever enjoyed, there are some facts about life on board that are worth this separate blog, especially as many of them could be deal breakers for some people when deciding to book.

Firstly, I cannot emphasise enough that Hurtigruten is a ferry route, and NOT a cruise ship kind of experience. There is no structured entertainment; the evening meal is a set, three course affair and, perhaps more surprisingly, after dinner tea and coffee is no longer included. This applies also to the self service, free tea and coffee machines that are available at breakfast and lunch.

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The views from on board are spectacular

People are sometimes surprised that things such as bottled water incur a charge and, like the on board alcohol, it’s a pretty hefty one at that, especially for those unused to being in Norway. A small beer can run to £6, and a bottle of ordinary wine to about £40. Tea or coffee will set you back around £2.80.

The simple truth here is that prices are tied to those charged ashore in Norway, which has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. The Hurtigruten ferries all fly the Norwegian flag, and each has an all Norwegian crew. To top that, they always sail in Norwegian territorial waters on their Arctic adventures. Hence, prices charged ashore are reflected on board. Far better sometimes just to sit back and drink in all that spectacular scenery.

Yes, the cabins are small (save for a handful of suites), but they are perfectly comfortable and, truth be told, you won’t spend a lot of time in them in any event. There are no nice toiletries, save for wall mounted body wash and shampoo in the shower. Bring your favourites from home, if need be.

Forget chocolates on your pillow, too (though, to be fair, most cruise lines already have). And, though the room is cleaned and resupplied every morning, there is no nightly turn down service. You’ll have to master the awesome responsibility of having to unfold your own duvet before bedtime.

No need for all the resort wear that you might take on a cruise ship, either. Practical, multi layered stuff at all hours of the day and night will be far more useful out here than tuxes and tiaras, thanks.

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On board crossing the Arctic Circle ceremony

On board, the ship’s regular expedition team lead excursions ashore, and host events such as the ceremony of crossing the Arctic Circle. During time en route between ports, they host lectures, complete with question and answer sessions, on the upcoming ports of call. On some evenings, they will share stories of local lore and traditions that can add hugely to the appreciation of the waters you are actually travelling in.

Another quintessentially Norwegian experience is the periodic, on deck commentaries as you pass some famous headland or marker point. Often as not, the chef will serve up some hot, tasty local tidbits from the same area to ensure that the inner man is as well fed as the mind. It helps to create a sense of immediate intimacy that simply cannot be replicated on a big cruise ship.

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Spectacular, locally sourced (and sauced) Arctic Char for dinner aboard the Nordnorge

On the more general front, these ships can accumulate a covering of snow and ice on the outer decks at any time of the day or night. Always exercise care when walking on any outdoor surface. If you are disabled, or have any form of mobility concerns, then it is definitely best to contact Hurtigruten and get the lowdown from them, before you consider booking a trip. Also note that, at some ports at least, you may have to carry your own luggage both on and off the ship.

Are you guaranteed to see the Northern Lights? No. Hurtigruten cannot make weather, and Mother Nature can be a fickle lady at any season. Though the chances are good in winter, no one can guarantee them.

That said, there are more than enough other visual highlights and heart stopping vistas on this northern odyssey, as I hope this series of blogs has demonstrated. Northern Lights or nay, this is still truly an adventure like no other.

Go with an open mind, some guarded expectations, and plenty of warm, layered clothing. Ditch the notion of a luxury cruise adventure overboard, because Hurtugruten is, once again, not a cruise.

What Hurtigruten is without a doubt, is the authentic Norwegian lifestyle afloat. The crew and cuisine often hail from the same fjord towns. Sometimes, both are taken aboard in a small town at some god forsaken hour of the morning. Hurtigruten ships are sailed by Norwegian skippers that know these waters like the backs of their hands. Those ships are sturdy and accommodating, rather than spectacular and amazing. They will keep you warm, safe, well fed, and (largely) on schedule.

That last sentence is the very definition of what constitutes a voyage, as opposed to a cruise. This is a purposeful, ocean going adventure, where the main attraction- and entertainment- is the magnificent, unwinding scenery of winter time Norway itself.

Keep that in mind at all times, and you’ll never go too far wrong on Hurtigruten.

HURTIGRUTEN; WINTER AT THE NORTH CAPE

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The North Cape

Standing with it’s storm tossed feet in the Barents Sea, the plateau of the North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Gazing out over that sea, the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away to the far north.

It’s a spellbinding place to visit in summer, when the midnight sun hangs in the sky for twenty four hours a day, from mid May until the end of July. Roughly a quarter of a million people make the pilgrimage to the apex of Europe in high season, with as many as five thousand visitors a day thronging those massive granite headlands.

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And again, as the light changes…

But in winter… the same venue is largely inaccessible. The cruise ships that flock to Norway in summer have retreated to the Caribbean for winter. Temperatures have plummeted even more sharply than visitor numbers. The places where wasps and butterflies flitted in the long summer days are now deep and fast under a blanket of snow.

Frequent, regular winter snowfall makes it hard to get to the North Cape at all. Often as not, savage winter winds whip up the snow into the glacial equivalent of a desert storm, one every bit as pitiless in its momentum and intent. No, the North Cape in winter is best left for a few months.

And yet, one morning in January, I found myself in one of a convoy of three coaches, following a pair of fully tracked military vehicles, as we began the tortuous ascent to the North Cape from the town of Honningsvag. The Nordnorge had docked in the port for a few hours and, against my better judgement, I had decided to make the trek to the North Cape in winter. As a pathetic sop, I kept telling myself that this might well be my first and last chance to see this legendary land mass in the off season.

My expectations were completely wrong. Standing once more atop those brooding, snow shrouded northern cliffs, not a single breath of wind stirred around me. Behind me, fields of glistening snow rolled back to the horizon, with the eerie, surreal mid day twilight flooding it with a pale, watery sheen. Those dunes seemed as endless and empty as any desert.

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Looking out across a sea of snow

But it was the North Cape itself that really grabbed the heart like a vice. The great, granite series of winding edifices plunged straight down for several hundred feet, right down to where the steel grey expanse of the Barents Sea raced to embrace it. From this height, the mental picture of icy waves crashing against implacable rock was lost. Instead, the Barents seemed to play with the rocks below like some frisky puppy dog.

Out to the horizon, the sea was as still as a millpond; a surreal expanse that reminded me of a coiled spring; one that could rebound at any moment. I have seen it in far more lively mood in the summer.

But the Barents remained implausibly calm, almost as if it were in hibernation itself. Turning round and looking back over the expanse of snow to my back, I was gifted with one of the most spectacular sights ever.

Just below the horizon, the slowly returning sun cast a blush pink, gradually reddening glow across the snow that made it resemble some kind of frozen, strawberry tinted moonscape. At the North Cape, the sun disappears entirely at the end of November, and resurfaces above the line of the horizon some two months later, at the end of January.

The intense strength and longevity of that eerie, enchanting light was proof positive that the long dormant sun was, indeed, returning to even these remote northern skies. At the time of writing, the North Cape will once again have a minimum of four hours’ daylight per day. By mid May, that daylight will be 24/7.

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Twilight of the Norse Gods

Inevitably, my gaze was drawn back to those stunning escarpments, standing out into the ocean. As the light changed again, pale pink sunlight softened some of the granite edges, throwing light into the shadows of deep, rolling chasms even as it softened the surface of the ocean. The combination of sheer, magnificent scale and the sense of still, magisterial peace and silence were almost overwhelming; I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the fragility of the moment. It was a moment of stunning, singular beauty that will stay with me until my dying day.

I am very conscious of the fact that we were incredibly lucky in terms of weather that day. Will I ever be that lucky again? Who knows.

But I now have an indelible picture in my head of a colossal land and seascape, seen in a totally different light, that cannot be erased. In all honesty, this one sight was worth making the entire journey for.

 

 

HURTIGRUTEN- INSIDE, LOOKING OUT

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Winter time Norway; up close and personal

By it’s very nature, a winter voyage on Hurtigruten is a largely indoor experience.

Temperatures on our seven night, northbound voyage varied from -3 degrees in Bergen, to a truly teeth chattering -29 when we eventually reached our northern terminus at Kirkenes, just ten kilometres from the Russian border.

And a lot of time was actually spent en route at sea, or navigating various fjords and rock lined channels, as the Nordnorge followed her age old, prescribed course across the Arctic Circle, continuing on into a region that had not seen a sunrise since the end of the previous November.

So, inevitably, a lot of time was spent indoors, watching the world’s most amazing, pristine, scenic smorgasbord unfurl from the warmth and comfort of the public rooms.

The main sense of voyaging through these waters was one of calm, at times soporific, quiet and contentment. There was no organised entertainment as such. No bingo, no fashion shows or expansive spa. Just a well run ship getting up close and personal with Mother Nature.

Those often grey, leaden skies formed a continuously changing backdrop to a series of jagged mountain chains emerging from the stark stillness of the sea, their sides draped in shrouds of snow, their peaks occasionally tinted a beguiling shade of blush pink in the afterglow of a sun that lay just below the horizon.

On other occasions, a small cluster of houses formed a tiny hamlet at the entrance to some small, secluded fjord. Huddled as if for protection against the wind, a gaggle of ochre and red buildings, roofs weighed down with snow, stood around a single flagpole where a lone Norwegian flag whipped in the breeze. Sometimes, small boats sat on a rocky, snow covered shoreline, as if frozen in both time and place. Then a sudden, ferocious blizzard would take them from our sight so completely that they might never have existed.

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Norway in the raw

We sailed, up close and personal, to land where ranks of jagged pine forests tumbled straight down into the still waters of a fjord. I picked out the trails where giant, splashing summer streams had frozen in the fastness of the Norwegian winter, looking like the gossamer strands of a spider’s web.

Sometimes, another ship would emerge from the hinterland, and the sounds of booming sirens shattered the silence as the two ships passed each other. Occasionally, we would sail under some great, looming bridge, where traffic scurried frantically across as if seeking refuge from the weather.

After days on end, the scenery grew increasingly more remote and wilder, less inhabited. And, though the Nordnorge sailed always within a few miles of land, it felt as if we were a million miles from every day reality.

It was all too easy (and all too enjoyable) to just take a comfortable seat somewhere, and simply absorb this continuously changing vista from the peace and warmth. Although there were some 650 passengers on board, nobody seemed to talk above a whisper. The Nordnorge was as stately and peaceful as a cathedral at times. Her almost silent progression through all of this natural wonder gave me the feeling of being somehow awake in a particularly vivid dream.

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Past jagged, rose tinted peaks…..

For six days, this was our world. Punctuated by stops and adventures at banner ports such as Tromso and Honningsvag, it was a charmed, whimsical universe. There was none of the night time dressing up for dinner once so prevalent on cruise ships; people just wore variations of their daytime wear, or indeed often just the same things.

At night, the bar shut at midnight though, in fairness, the cafe was still open for those that desperately needed a beer or a coffee. I’m guessing that there were not too many takers for either.

I would characterise the overall vibe on board the Nordnorge as one of a quiet sense of wonder. The real entertainment was in the stunning landscape that unfurled all around us like a series of drum rolls. Inside looking out, we savoured our delicious buffets and dinners, and drank in the views like fine wine.

Though everything seemed to happen in slow motion, the Nordnorge was in fact progressing at quite a steady pace. There was a schedule to keep; the ship was expected to arrive and depart as close as possible to her advertised schedule, weather notwithstanding.

More later.