THE SS UNITED STATES- CRUISING OPTIONS

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The Lady in waiting….

I’m going to take a leap of faith here. That being that the SS United States does, indeed, pass her comprehensive, stem to stern, truck to keel evaluation, due to be under way by November 2016. The official go ahead is then given, and the ship proceeds, under tow, to a German shipyard for her stem to stern, projected $800 million regeneration.

The ship that re-emerges into commercial service combines many salient, lovingly restored features of the original construction; the great sampan funnels remain gloriously intact, as do the long, expansive indoor promenades. Even with the addition of two new decks, that sleek, beautifully raked bow and elegant counter stern stand out as proud testimonials to a unique, matchless maritime heritage.

Of course, the Crystal Cruises’ magic wand has also been waved over the now 60,000 ton ship. In place of 2.000 berths, there is now a capacity for just 800 guests maximum, housed in four hundred suites. Even the smallest of these romps in at an expansive 400 square feet.

And, with a crew imbued with Crystal’s sybaritic service and hospitality ethic, the United States is a clear winner in more than just speed terms. This marvellous marriage of old and new will be one of the biggest draws on the cruising circuit, and surely the most newsworthy.

But what then?

I would expect a sell out maiden voyage from Germany to New York, via Southampton and, perhaps, Cherbourg. And the sheer, emotional impact of being aboard the United States when she sails back into her former home port, under her own power, is something that you simply could not hang a price tag on.

Her future could be a mixture of the exotic and the truly dramatic. Crystal has already said that the United States will, indeed, make transatlantic crossings, along with coast to coast voyages that would take her from New York to Los Angeles, and back again. Within these two hugely diverse parameters, a whole host of other sailing options becomes apparent.

From New York, the ship could offer fast, five or six day round trips to Bermuda. She could sail down the historical eastern seaboard, calling in at evocative focal points such as Boston, Charleston and Philadelphia.

From Miami, the ship could offer a series of breezy, very destination inclusive Caribbean itineraries. Passing through the jungle shrouded magnificence of the Panama Canal, she could sail on to San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The ‘Big U’ could swing out from under the Golden Gate and set a course for the gorgeous Hawaiian islands. Her speed would make short work of the long haul out and back to those islands. From L.A, she could make a run for the dramatic, sun splashed hot spots of the Mexican Riviera.

The liner could run immersive ‘wine cruises’ up to Santa Barbara, and down to oft neglected Catalina Island. And all of these options- so numerous and diverse just in this listing- presuppose any potential European deployments, for which I think there will be a huge, ultimately irresistible demand.

A series of dream voyages on a ship that has yet to cut salt water again? For sure.

But, if ocean voyaging is anything at all, surely it is the sublime pleasure of savouring the often improbable. Not in some chilly, technicolor virtual reality scenario, but for real. Up close and personal.

I’ll leave you with that though, and let those voyages begin to take form in your heads.

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CELESTYAL CONFIRMS YEAR ROUND CUBA SAILINGS

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The Celestyal Crystal at Piraeus in March, 2012

After three successful winter seasons cruising round trip from Cuba, the Celestyal Crystal will begin year round, seven night cruises around the island from this November onward, owners Celestyal Cruises have confirmed.

The 24,000 ton, 1,200 passenger Celestyal Crystal will operate on an all inclusive basis, on a program that allows for a full, two night stay in Havana. As well as embarkation at the Cuban capital on a Monday, potential passengers are also able to embark the ship in Montego Bay, Jamaica, each Friday.

The seven night circuits offer a genuine, Cuban-centered cruise experience, with local entertainment brought on board, and Cuban fare featured on the ship’s menus.

As well as the aforementioned Havana stay, the Celestyal Crystal will also call at Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Maria La Gorda.

The 480 cabin ship recently underwent an extensive interior refurbishment, that also saw the addition of balconies to some sixty-two cabins and suites.

During the summer season, Celestyal Crystal typically sails from Piraeus and Lavrion on short three, four and seven day circuits of the Greek Islands and Turkey, before crossing the Atlantic for the winter cruise season around Cuba.

This year, however, the Cuban season will commence on November 21st, 2016-  a full four weeks earlier than normal.

Stay tuned for updates.

THE TENDER TRAP- GOING ASHORE BY SMALL BOAT

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Love me, tender. A waterline perspective

When you take a cruise anywhere in the wotld, there is almost always a good chance that, at one port or another, you will have to go ashore by tender.

That means that the ship will anchor offshore, and you will transfer down an inclined gangway into a smaller tender boat, often via a floating platform. That incline can vary greatly depending upon tidal or swell conditions.

The tender in question might be some local, hired vessel, but more often than not it will be one or more of the ship’s own, motorised lifeboats. There are crew on hand to guide you every step of the way and, as long as you follow their instructions, there is nothing alarming about the process.

In fact, it can be a bit of a joyride, bumbling ashore in a small launch as it splutters across the sparkling briny. For sure, you will never get a better opportunity to take pictures of your mother ship as she sits out in her natural element.

But tender operations anywhere are always subject to certain weather conditions. With the cruise industry’s rightful insistence on passenger safety as a priority, no captain worth his salt is going to put tenders in the water if he considers the sea conditions to be even remotely dangerous or uncomfortable.

So sometimes, this can cause the inevitable cancellation of a certain port of call, owing to the already cited sea conditions. Similarly- as I have just witnessed- thick, sudden fog can also play havoc with a scheduled tender service, too.

Obviously, this can cause disappointment. But you always have to bear in mind that a ship, even the most luxurious, is not a hotel. It is subject to the causal effects of wind and wave alike. In short, it is not an immovable object.

More than once, I have heard a tidal wave of moans and groans as a captain announces that he has had to cancel a port of call due to just such conditions. Do these people honestly imagine that the captain does this deliberately, in a determined attempt to spoil their day? Obviously not.

I have heard these same naysayers whinge that the sea looks perfectly calm from where they are standing. Perhaps so. But, down at the shell door near the waterline, that same sea might look much more unpredictable. And, at the end of the day, it is the duty staff- and ultimately the captain- that would take the blame for any mishap at a tender station. You can imagine the law suits rolling in like storm clouds.

I would far rather sail with a captain that displays an overabundance of caution, rather than one who might ‘wing it’ (unfortunate phrase) to keep a handful of blowhard passengers appeased. Missing out on a port of call is unfortunate. But the Titanic disaster it is not.

And you need to exercise patience when getting on and off the tenders. Loading each one at peak times can be a slow, time consuming process. Not everyone can bound up or down those slowly moving step ladders at lightning speed. And, often as not, it will be the same process in reverse when you return from your day’s foraging around some palm splayed foreign paradise.

And, of course, it takes time to organise the whole process from on board. The ship must first stop, and drop anchor. Then the shell plating doors have to be opened, and a floating pontoon lowered to sea level. Then the gangway has to be rigged and lowered, down to the pontoon. Only then can the boats be lowered into the water, released from their davits, and come around to the pontoon to get ready for the first, shore bound passengers.

Ashore, a reception and security area has to be rigged up on the quayside; a visible focal point for passengers that also acts as a first line of protection for the ship, her passengers and her crew.

And, of course, the whole process has to go into reverse when the last tender returns to the ship. Anyone who has watched the entire, labour intensive slog involved in just preparing a ship for tendering ashore will appreciate the complexities of the operation, and the time involved in just getting everything safe and ship shape.

But-tendering is a slice of the cruising adventure as a whole, and it can often be tremendous fun. The views alone often make it a rewarding little jaunt. You just need to be prepared to have a little patience, show a little courtesy and yes, sometimes, just grit your teeth and wait your turn.

Of course, none of this is rocket science. But, based on the trips I have done thus far this year, it’s amazing how many people seem to forget it.

EMERALD PRINCESS OVERVIEW

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Emerald Princess docked at Vigo, Spain

I’m just back from a very enjoyable week on the 2007 built Emerald Princess. It took us from Southampton on a round trip to Vigo, Lisbon, La Rochelle and Guernsey.

Each of these ports is worthy of a separate blog in itself and, over the next week, each will have one. But, for now, I’d like to start by giving you some kind of overview of the ship herself.

Emerald Princess comes in at around 114,000 tons, and has a passenger capacity of roughly 3,100, tended by a crew of 1,200. She’s a bubbly, busy ship, suffused with a good slice of Italian styling and ambiance that underpins the whole dolce vita lifestyle that Princess continues to promote.

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Upper level of the Piazza on Emerald Princess

It is instantly most evident in the central, four story atrium lobby, styled as the Piazza. Here, a soaring upward sweep of brass, marble and shimmering glass creates a central crossroads for the ship that buzzes and hums with life at all hours of the day, and well into the small hours.

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Vines wine and tapas bar

It features two distinct, yet complementary venues at the lower level. Vines is a dedicated wine bar that also offers a wide range of complimentary tapas through the day and evening, while the adjacent International Cafe serves up a range of rich, exotic coffees, teas and lattes, together with free pastries, cakes and sandwiches, almost around the clock.

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Another view of the Piazza. Vines and the International Cafe are on the lower level. The middle level features the Reception area

A ‘coffee card’ costs $31, and allows you some fifteen drinks in all. For a week long cruise this is wonderful value; lingering over  a coffee in the always busy lobby allows for some platinum chip people watching of the finest kind; the downside is that the entire area is so popular that even getting a seat can be problematical at peak times.

Most of the public rooms, however, run from fore to aft on seven deck, some two levels above. From the forward facing, five level Princess Theatre to the Club Fusion right aft, you stroll past a string of venues offering every different kind of music and entertainment imaginable.

Crooners is the dedicated piano bar on this deck. It overlooks the Piazza on one level, and has a row of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the outside promenade deck on the port side. Suffused with everything from show tunes to modern classics, it’s a plush, popular venue, where the bar staff actually shake and pour your selected martinis at table side. That’s a truly classy, retro touch in and of itself.

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Explorer’s Lounge, Emerald Princess

On the opposite side further aft, the capacious Explorer’s Lounge is an inward facing, semi circular venue that is used for quizzes, competitions, and sometimes live shows as well. Forward of the Piazza, the same deck has the nautically themed Wheelhouse Bar, with its complementary, in house Salty Dog eating house. The food venues as a whole will be covered in another blog on this ship.

The passenger flow as a whole through this central main deck is good. The shops are arranged around the starboard side of the Piazza, and thus form a central break point between the theatre and the other entertainment venues. The one aberration in this otherwise flawless, beautifully furnished run of rooms is the photo gallery.

This is simply too big and open on a ship where genuine lounge seating is at a premium. In this digital age, it could surely be halved in size, with the surplus converted into a lounge overflow area. One thing that this otherwise well thought out ship definitely needs is more seating; partly because so many passengers simply ‘hog’ seats for hours on end, and partly because occasionally bad weather drives most people inside from the open decks.

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The gorgeous Adagio Terrace

For my money, the most beautiful public room is situated right aft on deck sixteen. Adagio is a lush expanse full of comfortable sofas and chairs. Swathed in rich, deep wood panelling, it oozes style and expansive largesse at every turn. Large windows on three sides admit a welcome wash of sunlight during the day, and the rich, deep piled carpet underfoot lends this upper deck venue a truly raffish, elegant vibe. The outdoor terrazza has artificial grass underfoot, sprinkled with tables and wrought iron framed chairs, set against a backdrop of a bubbling fountain and gorgeous, arched window frames. The location gives it a natural shade from the breeze, and it soon became my favourite spot on board. I should imagine it would be wildly popular on some balmy, star filled Caribbean nights.

I’ll be back shortly with another blog on the outdoor areas on board this quite extraordinary ship. As ever, stay tuned.

FIVE THINGS THAT I LIKED ABOUT CARNIVAL MIRACLE

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The magnificent Carnival Miracle

Readers of this blog will be aware that I have just returned from a week aboard the Carnival Miracle to the Mexican Riviera. Despite covering Spring Break, this was a hugely enjoyable cruise on almost every level.

It marked my first time on one of the Carnival Spirit class ships, and I was really interested to see how these compare to the likes of the Fantasy and Destiny classes, and even the Carnival Splendor.

My overall impressions are noted in an earlier blog but, as something a little extra, here’s five highlights that ‘made’ the Carnival Miracle experience something quite special and unique.

ATM/TELLER MACHINES

Carnival Miracle has a series of self service machines on Deck Two that allow you to check your on board balance, make deposits, and even take cash withdrawals from your on board account if you want to.

These save an inordinate amount of time standing in line at reception, and avoids the need to phone, either. You can print out statements using the simple, touch screen set up as well. It’s easy, user friendly, and a smart bit of thinking all round.

SERENITY DECK

Of course, all of the Carnival ships have the dedicated, adults-only Serenity Deck. The format on Carnival Miracle broadly follows the same as on the rest of the fleet.

So you have hammocks, comfy sofas and chairs, and shaded pod beds sprinkled around an area that also includes a pool, hot tub, and bar service. So far, so Carnival.

But here, location is key. Serenity on the Carnival Miracle is located right aft. Sheltered by the ship’s superstructure, it offers marvellous views out over the wake, without the breeze. Part of it is under a sheltering overhang, the rest is directly in the sun.

Both offer wonderful chill out points to savour those peerless Pacific sunsets. With a glass of chilled Zinfandel at hand, this sheltered, secluded location adds enormously to the pleasure of a voyage on this ship. And, with the hot tub open until midnight, take at least one night to admire a sparkling canopy of brilliant starlight from this unique vantage point. Lovely.

NICK AND NORA’S STEAK HOUSE

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Nick and Nora’s steak house on the Carnival Miracle, seen from the outside

Here, location and menu combine to create a truly elegant, elevated experience. Located in the forward part of the funnel base on the topmost deck, Nick and Nora’s has windows looking out right across the horizon on both sides. That stunning vista is, however, merely an appetiser to the food and service here.

Sumptuous, seductive cuts of prime beef. steaks and lamb chops are served with as many sides as you can manage. Surf and turf? Of course. I had the ten ounce Filet Mignon, and it was so soft that it almost crumbled at the touch of my knife.

For starters, consider Escargots (if you must) or some delicious New England Crab Cake. In all, there are some eight different choices, and all will seduce the true food lover.

Desserts include a quartet of diverse chocolate samples that I went for yet again. Deft service, pared with some strikingly good wine choices, make the steakhouse experience a must. At just $35 per head, it is the best deal on the ship by a country mile, and worth it simply for the ambiance.

FRANKENSTEIN’S LAB

Only on a Carnival ship would you find a two story disco, done up as the laboratory of Doctor Frankenstein. His most infamous creation looms twelve feet high on the right hand side- a model of the infamous monster, complete with ‘electric flashes’ that ‘interact’ with him. The glass dance floor, with it’s colourful, flashing squares, is pure Saturday Night Fever revisited.

It’s a fun, frivolous enclave, and as gloriously tacky and over the top as a real disco should be. And, on our dedicated Seventies Night, it was packed to the rafters with party goers well into the witching hours. Great fun.

TEAK DECKS

Real teak decking is getting rarer and rarer these days, but Carnival Miracle showcases vast swathes of the stuff. The walk around Promenade Deck is a stroller’s delight (though it would benefit from some actual sun loungers to chill out on). But teak adds class, style and a sense of timeless chic to any ship and, on one the size of the Carnival Miracle, it also creates a fresh, clean feel. Never underestimate the therapeutic power of watching early morning sunlight flowing across freshly scrubbed teak- it is truly heart warming.

So, there we have it. Five of my favourite things about a week spent in what is, to all extents, a floating town. No doubt, other people will go out and find their own favourite places on board.

And, after all, that’s what ‘fun’ is all about.

 

 

CAPTAIN SMITH’S DILEMMA; TITANIC IN EXTREMIS

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Death of a dream; the Titanic sagging helplessly into the calm, starlit Atlantic on the night of April 14-15th, 1912

Bearing in mind that today marks the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, I’ve been giving some thought to putting together this post.

It mainly concerns Captain Smith, and his situation once the ship had already hit the iceberg.

This is not a condemnation, nor yet another of those attempts to rationalise the events and omissions that led up to the actual accident itself. It is simply an attempt to put the man in context at the most extreme and momentous point of his life.

By midnight on April 14th/15th, the situation of his command can be summed up as follows:

The Titanic was sinking, without any hope of salvation. At best estimates, she had less than three hours to live. The nearest responsive rescue ship- the Cunard liner Carpathia- was a minimum four hours’ steaming time distant.

In the meantime, he had 2,200 plus passengers and crew on board under his charge, and lifeboats with a maximum capacity of 1,180, assuming every boat was correctly loaded to capacity and lowered safely.

Even then, under those optimum conditions, that left over a thousand people with nowhere to go, other than into a freezing ocean where they would almost certainly expire within minutes.

And Smith- as the sole master, under God, for the duration of the voyage- would ultimately be held to blame for their loss, as he very well knew.

Under those circumstances- the sure and certain knowledge that responsibility for at least a thousand deaths would be laid at your door forever- that would be enough to break any man.

So, for those wondering at Smith’s almost complete lack of involvement in the botched evacuation of his ship, there largely lies the explanation. Captain Smith imploded mentally under the sheer strain, the awful enormity of it all simply overwhelmed his normal rational thought processes.

In terms of the actual evacuation, almost everything was left to a handful of increasingly desperate deck officers, literally working against both time and tide, who were constantly having to improvise in a situation that worsened every minute. And all without any overall sense of direction.

This is why Smith’s initial ‘women and children first’ order was interpreted differently on opposite sides of the ship. Separated by just ninety-four feet, Lightoller and Murdoch each formed his own interpretation of the order.

In that situation, Lightoller- loading the port side boats- allowed ‘women and children only’ into the boats. No men at all.

Slaving away on the starboard side, Murdoch allowed men in the boats if no more women and children were in evident sight.

Smith, of course, never clarified the order either one way or the other. He ruled in favour of neither of his officers. But was he ever asked for a clarification? We’ll never know, of course.

But that fateful lack of co-ordination was largely responsible for the needless loss of at least another four hundred plus lives over the night of April 14th-15th, 1912.

Other than joining the officers for the issuing of firearms at about 1.30 in the morning, exact information on Smith’s whereabouts during those final, desperate hours is scant indeed. As with the luckless Murdoch, there are numerous theories on his final fate, but no really substantive evidence.

I think it extremely unlikely that the emotionally shattered Smith would even have contemplated trying to survive the loss of his command. The sinking of the Titanic also marked the wrecking of his mainly superlative, glittering thirty eight year career. As his great command sagged helplessly into the freezing ocean underneath his feet, Edward John Smith would have known that, too.

No, the evacuation of the Titanic was not a ‘text book’ situation, but there is no such thing as a ‘text book disaster’, either. It is easy to be critical of the individuals involved, and the decisions that they made. Indeed, for the sake of posterity, some rational attempt at analysis is absolutely vital.

But, once the full, ghastly horror of the situation became clear to them, both the captain and his deck officers were placed in an appalling conundrum, one that got more acute with every passing minute. If the sheer scale and horror of what they faced almost overwhelmed then, it is hardly to be wondered at.

Placed in such a horrifying predicament, I sometimes wonder how any of us might have fared. And that is why, today of all days, I retain more than just a little sympathy for that handful of embattled men and their stunned, effectively neutered captain.

 

LOUIS AURA- THE END?

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The Louis Aura seems to have come to the end of her road

It looks very much like the end of the line for the Louis Aura.

The 16,400 ton ship has been towed from Piraeus to the outer port of Salamina and placed in what is described as a ‘state of permanent lay up’.

For several years now, the Louis Aura– the only ship in the fleet not to be rebranded with the Celestyal livery- has survived on a series of French charters, as well as making short summer cruises from Limassol for the Louis group itself.

Though the decision to lay up the still elegant, 1968 built twin stacked ship is sad, it has been somewhat inevitable for a few years now. Louis Aura has grown increasingly more expensive to operate, and that, combined with her advanced age, was bound to accelerate her ultimate demise.

She was originally built in Germany in 1968 as the Starward, the first year round, purpose built Caribbean cruise ship, for Norwegian Cruise Line. As such, she was nothing less than the pioneer of the modern Caribbean cruise ship. Starward sailed for NCL until as late as 1995 and remained an immensely popular ship to the end.

She then went to Festival Cruises and sailed for nine years as the Bolero on mainly seven night long Mediterranean routes. In this role, she was often chartered out during the summer to the British holiday operator, First Choice.

Then, in July 2006, sailing under the name of Orient Queen, she gained world wide media attention when used to evacuate refugees fleeing the conflict in war torn Lebanon.

After a $15 million dollar renovation, the ship was sold in August of 2006 to the then Louis Cruises, who operated her on a series of three, four, and seven days cruises from both Piraeus and Limassol, to the Greek Islands and Turkey. Her relatively small size and large amount of open deck space made her the perfect ship for these itineraries. I enjoyed a memorable weekend aboard her in September, 2012, on just one such cruise. For the following season, she received her final name of Louis Aura.

Even then, there was a sense that the still pretty ship was very much on borrowed time. She managed a couple of seasons on European charters before the decision to lay her up in Salamina was finally taken.

Sadly, it seems almost certain that her last voyage to the scrapyard beckons. She was one of the true, pioneering cruise ships, and many people retain fond memories of their time aboard what was one of the most forward thinking and evolutionary cruise ships of all time.

She will be sadly missed, but few ships have served so well, for so long. Her dignity remains intact to the end.