In line with it’s stated determination to continue offering the best entertainment afloat, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that it will add Jersey Boys to it’s roster aboard the new Norwegian Bliss when she comes into service next year.
The new ship- part of the ‘Breakaway plus’ class- will offer a debut season in Alaska, before switching to Eastern Caribbean sailings for the winter of 2018-19.
The award winning Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and their rise from performing ‘doo wop’ standards in the back streets of New Jersey, to global super stardom in the 1960’s as one of the biggest selling acts in the world.
With most of their songs written or co- written by founder member, Bob Gaudio, the Four Seasons created a kind of sound that has been often imitated, but never equalled. From the low bass tones of original member Nick Massi, to Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto range, the ‘Four Seasons sound’ became unmistakable.
Their first worldwide hit was Sherry, a rhythmic little thumper of a tune with a simple, irresistible hook that swept all before it. By December of 1962 it had become the first of three consecutive American number one records for the band.
Internal wrangles, run ins with the mafia, and the always present tensions within the music industry, all but sidelined the Four Seasons as a major chart act by the turn of the seventies. But a stunning return to form with a series of edgier, more relevant tunes saw them make a massive comeback in the mid seventies, both on the charts and as a live act.
Jersey Boys itself is an evocative retelling of the Four Seasons story, from the point of view of each of the original band members. It’s a bittersweet roller coaster through the hinterlands of triumph, tragedy, loss and betrayal, and the personal element really shines through.
But it’s that deathless roster of hit songs- Let’s Hang On, Rag Doll, December ’63, Who Loves You- that will really bring down the house aboard Norwegian Bliss. Each one of them is like a kind of emotional lightning rod that strikes an amazing connection with people of all kinds, right across the world. With the personal endorsements of both Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio themselves, Jersey Boys took award after award on Broadway (including the Tony). Once it opened in the West End of the UK, it wowed crowds for years.
The unveiling of Jersey Boys aboard Norwegian Bliss is more evolution than revolution in truth; a continuation of mining the rich seam that Norwegian Cruise Line has tapped into in terms of musical entertainment. I expect it to be an enormously popular addition to the entertainment roster on board this fabulous new ship.
As part of a massive refurbishment project that will also include several new dining options, both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity will be dry docked to allow for considerable enhancements to their current passenger accommodation.
Some existing rooms will be replaced with an entirely new class of room, designated as Seabreeze Penthouse suites. They will be pretty much the same size as the current penthouse suites aboard both ships, but will come with an entirely new design.
Approximately forty to fifty suites will be added to each ship and, as well as featuring new touches, some will offer use of the first ever washer/dryers ever seen in rooms of this size, the new, expanded suites will also have the effect of lowering the current guest capacity on each ship, thereby increasing the already generous on board space ratio.
In the case of Crystal Symphony, the count on board will revert from a current 922 down to 848. For Crystal Serenity, the figures go from the current 1070 guest down to a svelte 980- just over half of the 1800 routinely carried on the similar sized former Cunard flagship, QE2.
In addition, Crystal will introduce unlimited, free internet across both ships, 24/, for the duration of each cruise.
In stealing an edge on the competition, Crystal will enhance and revitalise the dining options available aboard both ships with a whole range of new eateries. These will include:
The Crystal Dining Room on both ships will be rebranded as the Waterside Restaurant, offering open seating dining and featuring a range of classic dishes and modern, contemporary favourites.
Tastes will morph into Silk, a venue that offers casual breakfasts, lunches, and family styled dinners that will showcase many Chinese style favourites.
The Lido on both ships will be restyled and reorganised as The Marketplace, offering buffet style tapas and ceviche during the day, along with other casual fare. At night, one part of the venue will become a Brazilian styled steak house- a churascaria- where succulent cuts of meat will be served up on skewers.
Silk Road will go on both ships, but will be replaced by a new Nobu venue entitled Umi Uma. In a nice nod to Crystal’s twenty seven years’ heritage, the phrase actually translates to ‘Seahorse’, the company logo. Suite guests will be entitled to unlimited dining in here, with other guests being offered one free dinner per voyage.
Popular Crystal stalwart, Prego, will remain and, once again, suite guests will be able to avail themselves of unlimited dining here. The Vintage Room will also remain, but with a modified menu that will also feature a ‘lunch and lecture’ programme on sea days, featuring fewer courses than the evening menu, and all paired with appropriate wines and beers.
With both the Crystal siblings going to open seating for dinner, entertainment options throughout will be redefined to enhance the roster of evening choices, under the supervision of former Norwegian and Costa entertainment guru, Keith Cox.
Overall, this programme of retrenchment and refinement to both of these fabled ships must be regarded as the most comprehensive in their history, and something of a leap of faith for Crystal Cruises itself. With expanded dining, accommodation and entertainment options, plus free internet and a higher guest/crew space ration than ever, these ships- like fine wine and good music- just seem to get better with age.
Increasing rumours are circulating which state that the veteran Vistafjord, the last cruise ship ever to be built in the United Kingdom, has been sold for scrap.
Built by Swan Hunter on the Tyne in 1973 for Norwegian America Line, the 24,000 ton Vistafjord was for many years the absolute epitome of suave, upmarket cruising luxury.
In 1999, the fabled ship was renamed Caronia. Under Cunard ownership effectively since 1983, she continued to sail on after her transfer to Saga Cruises and restyling as the Saga Ruby. With her beautiful sense of elegant maritime styling intact, she continued to remain a very popular ship indeed.
None the less, Saga felt inclined to dispose of her. She was sold to go out to Yangon (Rangoon) as a hotel ship, running under the name of Oasia. It appears she never got there.
After a while lingering in Southern Thailand, the condition of the ship has now reportedly deteriorated to such an extent that she can no longer be considered either seaworthy or salvageable, hence the inevitable sale to the scrappers as noted above.
At the time of writing, the veteran ship has yet to leave her lay up berth for a rumoured final berth at an Indian scrapyard.
Her demise marks the lowering of a curtain on the last flowering of British commercial passenger ship construction, as well as the end of a fine, much loved, highly regarded ship. In the context of the present times it must also be considered as inevitable, however sad that truly is. Stay tuned for further updates.
Fred. Olsen has always been a company that prides itself on the quality of its food and service. My recent return to the company’s Black Watch after something like twelve years provided me with a great opportunity to run the rule once more over the culinary landscape to be explored on this stalwart cruise line, a favourite of British passengers for more than three decades now.
FORMAL DINING The main dining room- the Glentanar- is situated in the middle of the ship, on Deck Six. It spans the full width of the ship, and offers tables for two to eight passengers at a time.Within set times for breakfast and lunch, the Glentanar is an open sitting venue. At night, it reverts to being a formal, two sitting venue- first seating at 6.15, secondseating at 8.30. Most of the passengers still seem to like it that way, and many do enjoy dressing up for the experience.
The food throughout the ship is tailored to the taste buds of the predominantly older, primarily British clientele that is Fred. Olsen’s staple diet, so to speak. There are typically five courses for dinner, with three choices for each dish, plus an ‘always available’ section that offers options such as Caesar Salad, Norwegian Salmon, and steaks. served with a variety of vegetables.
There are some nods towards continental tastes and twists, and also sometimes some Filipino styled options that passengers really do seems to enjoy. Tables are still set with traditional linen cloths, unlike many of the modern place mat style settings on newer ships. There is plenty of room around the tables, and the service in general is deft, attentive, without ever feeling overly intrusive. In terms of formal dining, the company can give any rival a run for its money.
THE ORCHID ROOM BUFFET
The preferred alternative for those who eschew the main dining room, Orchid Café is- most unusually- a completely indoor space, with floor to ceiling windows down one side. Located just behind- and adjacent to- the main dining room, it features many of the menu items offered in the Glentanar for breakfast, dinner and lunch but, being a buffet, the Orchid Room is open sitting for all meals.
There are a surprising number of tables for two here, a very welcome boon on such a relatively small ship. The Maitre’ D sets guests personally- a very nice touch. Again, there is plenty of space between tables. The two centrally sited, hot and cold buffet lines effectively divide the room in two, at least visually. The effect is to make the Orchid Room appear much more intimate than it actually is; a clever sleight of hand.
It has the look and feel of a sunlit French sidewalk café, and it is enormously popular. So much so that some tables in the adjacent Courtyard are sometimes also used for potential spill over passengers, especially in the evening. Because of the proximity to the galley, food comes out piping hot for all main meals. Quality wise, this buffet is far superior to many so called more upmarket lines, and a leisurely breakfast in this setting is one of the most pleasant dining experiences available on the British market cruise ships today.
As well as the three main staples, the Orchid Room/Courtyard area also serves up afternoon tea each day, with scones, sandwiches, and biscuits on offer free of charge. From around eleven each night it offers up late night snacks, including at least one main hot dish. Fish and chips is typical of this fare.
Both Glentanar and the Orchid Room post menus outside in advance of opening times, allowing passengers the option of shaping their evening entertainment and dining choices to suit their mood every night. On such a relatively small, intimate ship as the Black Watch, this works quite beautifully.
THE GRILL (Not available every day)
Situated outside aft on Deck Six, The Grill is something new to Fred. Olsen; their first extra tariff restaurant, which has now been rolled out right across the four ship current fleet.
While the choices are limited compared to many steak houses and a la carte restaurants on bigger ships, the food and ambiance is nothing short of sublime and- for a cover charge of £20 per person- it is one of the best bargains anywhere at sea. Specially commissioned glassware sets the scene, in a sheltered location just behind the superstructure, and adjacent to the swimming pool.
On a beautiful, mellow August night, I feasted (no other word is adequate) on a ten ounce Fillet Steak, complete with Asparagus spears and hand cut chips, served up in a gorgeous red wine sauce. There was a chocolate cup with berries to follow that looked almost too good to eat- I still ate it.
Complemented by a very fine red wine (extra charge) and a fulsome, frothy Cappuccino (included), this collectively constituted the best meal that I have eaten on any ship this year. Out in the open air, garnished with a side order of sea breezes and a stunning sunset as we sailed down Aurlandsfjord, The Grill is, quite simply, a must do when the weather permits. It really is that good.
ELEGANT AFTERNOON TEA (Not offered every day)
I mentioned the free afternoon tea served each day in the Courtyard earlier, but Fred. Olsen now also offers an extra charge (£7.95 pp) ‘elegant’ afternoon tea, served up in the forward facing Observation Lounge, with views out over the ocean. I got to sample this one day, too.
What do you get for your cash? Well, there are three tiers of beautifully presented finger sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and scones, together with all the gooey jams and clotted creams that anyone could ever desire. There are several kinds of teas- and these are refilled as often as you want. I tried a variant called Imperial Gunpowder, and it was love at first taste.
It’s quite Downton Abbey-esque, with a string trio playing genteel melodies as a backdrop. The setting, the stylings of the food offerings, and the deft service combines to offer something that is truly a little bit special, especially for a birthday or anniversary celebration. And all at a price that no London hotel could get anywhere near, either.
In sum, Fred. Olsen continues to punch way above its weight in terms of food offerings, the flair with which that food is prepared, and the finesse with which it is offered up to passengers. There may not be enough variety for some with more exotic tastes, but the range and sheer, well rounded and well thought out variety of the menus on board will leave most people on board more than happy to come back for more.
Although the great transatlantic liners were almost always associated with the west side of Manhattan in New York, it was really in the 1930’s that what is now known as ‘Luxury Liner Row’ truly came into its own.
In the early 1930’s, as the size of the average ocean liner grew from around 50,000 tons to a new generation of 80,000 tonners, it became obvious that the old piers in Manhattan would no longer be long, wide or deep enough to accommodate this new generation of ocean monsters.
The harbour authority envisaged the creation of a trio of massive new, two story piers, along the west side of Manhattan, near 48th Street. These new complexes would allow passenger traffic access directly from the west side highway.
Known as ‘finger piers’, each of these enormous creations jutted out a full 1200 feet into the Hudson River. They were able to accommodate the largest ships of the day. And, inevitably, the biggest and most prestigious liners on the transatlantic run gravitated to them like moths to a flame.
Aptly, the first of these terminals to open-Pier 88- made it’s debut on June 3rd, 1935, just in time to accommodate the legendary Normandie at the end of her record breaking maiden voyage. It was her moment of greatest triumph, and in due course, the scene of her great tragedy. The burning and capsizing of the Normandie at this same spot in February, 1942 remains one of New York’s saddest spectacles to this day.
Across the slip, Pier 90 became synonymous with the rival Cunard Line. Until their last days in 1967 and 1968 respectively, both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth used Pier 90 for each New York turnaround, a tradition carried on by the Queen Elizabeth 2 in her turn.
Even the German liners left their traditional berths at Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the river, to gravitate to Manhattan. By the late thirties, it was nothing unusual for six or seven of the world’s largest liners to be seen sitting, side by side by side, along the waterfront. From a passing car, their looming prows seemed almost close enough to touch.
This was the era when those astonishing aerial photos of those epic convocations- the famous ‘stack ups’- began to hit the newspapers and newsreels around the world. On any given day, one might see the likes of the Rex, Europa, Normandie, Berengaria and Ile De France in brief repose. Some of those photographs have gone down as among the most celebrated in the entire history of travel.
Even in the sixties and seventies, when air travel had long since supplanted the ocean liner as the obvious main means of travel, the great ships would still converge at those same, west side piers, almost as if huddling together for mutual support from the chill winds of economic reality. At any given time- especially in the summer- you might see the France, the United States, the Queen Mary and one of the great Italian sister ships, Michelangelo and Raffaello.
In due course, this doomed, gilded rump would be joined by the Queen Elizabeth 2. Eventually, that last great liner would have the piers to herself. She would often sit in solitary splendour at the foot of West 48th street, the waters all around her rippled by the memories of her long gone fleet mates. As she sailed, her siren would boom out across the concrete canyons of Manhattan. In her wake, an entire fleet of ghosts could almost be heard replying in kind.
Of course, the arrival of the large, purpose built cruise ship proved to be the salvation of the piers. It was no accident that the Norway, the reborn SS. France, tied up at her old French Line Pier 88 at the conclusion of her ‘second’ maiden voyage. Her arrival was epic enough in itself, but few savvy souls missed the exquisite symmetry of her Manhattan homecoming.
Now branded as the Manhattan Passenger Terminal, the trio of great, historic piers have been sympathetically upgraded and updated to accommodate a new generation of cruise ship, many of them far bigger than their old Atlantic forebears.
Of course, new, purpose built cruise terminals have sprung up, too. Cape Liberty in New Jersey; Red Hook in Brooklyn. Slick, spick and span and state of the art, they make the whole embarkation process a breeze.
But they are not the real deal….
Even now, nothing beats the thrill of departure from those great old Manhattan piers of yore, where the benign shades of the Liberte, the Conte Di Savoia and the Ile De France still bask in the summer sunshine, just across the slip from where thousands of excited passengers embark on the ships of Norwegian Cruise Line to Bermuda and the Caribbean. The piers still have what they always had; location, location, location….
Here, the great monolithic bulks of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are almost close enough to touch; and the pace and buzz of the Manhattan traffic is an exhilarating, endlessly addictive thrill. And the sudden sight of the giant bows of a cruise ship, gradually rising above you, quite literally, at the bottom of the street- is as much of an adrenaline surge now as ever it was.
Boarding the QE2 at Pier 90 verged almost on a religious experience for true travel lovers. And the procession down the west side of Manhattan, even to this day, is so magnificent and compelling that it draws almost every passenger out on deck. Try a glass of champagne on deck, as the siren booms out and you glide past that vast forest of glass, steel and concrete called Manhattan, and you’ll feel the same, age old magic as those voyagers from the past, setting out on business, or on their summer vacations to Europe.
While everything seems to move forward, some things in travel remain as subtle and understated as ever. Boarding the Norwegian Breakaway for Bermuda at Pier 88 feels every bit as epic and monumental as embarking on the Normandie for Europe did from the same pier, a full eighty years ago.
Those celebrated mass gatherings of the great liners remain like so many touchstones, emotional lightning rods if you will, that connect us to what seems to be a more evocative past. But the good news is; sailing from those same piers now will still thrill and inspire generations of ocean voyagers for decades to come.
For those used to the mega ships that now dominate the world of contemporary cruising, the Marco Polo might come as something of a conundrum. At only 22,000 tons, the ship is quite a way smaller than the new generation ships that often tower above her in the ports that she visits.
But, before making a judgement based on size alone, it is worth considering that the Marco Polo carries only something like eight hundred passengers maximum. And none of these are children.
Essentially, you have a trim, tidy, adult only ship that can often slip into the smaller, more secluded harbours that the big resort ships have to bypass. That same size allows you to enjoy a more intimate, up close and personal kind of exploring.
If you’re an active type, she might not be best for you. Marco Polo does not have the rock climbing walls, flow riders and ice rinks of the modern ships. There is a small, aft facing upper deck gym and sauna complex that will help keep you in reasonable trim, and a promenade deck that wraps neatly around one of the most sublime, spectacular hulls afloat anywhere today.
You won’t find balcony cabins, either. But the cabins that are on board- both inside and outside- are beautifully panelled little alcoves, with more than ample wardrobe and drawer space. Not all of them convert into doubles so, if booking, best to check the deck plans, or ask your travel agent to do so for you.
Another strong point is the ease and accessibility to almost everything on board, from any one given spot. The restaurant is just a couple of flights down from the main lobby, which contains the Reception and Shore Excursions desks. From this central lobby, the main run of passenger lounges and bars runs fore and aft, ending in the open fantail behind the Marco Polo buffet.
Only Scott’s, the late night entertainment lounge and disco, will require you to ascend another flight of stairs. But, once you’ve checked out the room itself, with it’s stunning, aft facing open terrace allowing Olympian view out over the stern, you’ll probably make it a focal point of your sea days. Half of that terrace- the starboard side- is devoted to smokers.
On the top deck, aft of the funnel, is a trio of Jacuzzis that offer both bubbling warmth and brilliant vistas, right out over both sides of the ship, as well as astern.
Most importantly for many passengers, the Marco Polo is a very strong, stable ship. Built with an ice strengthened hull and a very deep keel for a ship of her size, she can shrug off ocean swells that would have many, much larger ships rolling about like so many drunken dowagers.
In many ways, the Marco Polo plays the part of the traditional, agelessly elegant cruise ship to absolute perfection. She is exactly what she appears to be; an enigmatic sixties throwback that offers solid comfort rather than screaming cabarets and endless, round the clock casino action.
Naturally, this might seem like ‘not enough’ for some, and that’s fair enough. But the Marco Polo does offer something of an alternative to the mega ships; a totally different, dignified and distinctive piece of maritime architecture. If she does not attract your interest, than she should certainly at least command your respect, simply because there is nothing else quite like her in the world.
Regardless of which ship you might happen to be sailing on, lifeboat drills are even more dreaded than the dentist’s drill, and yet they are just as necessary. Safe to say, too, that they are frequently far more noisy.
Let’s be clear; nobody likes doing boat drill, and that includes both crew and passengers. When you’ve done it a hundred times, it seems like the most tortuous thing imaginable. Most people would rather have their nails pulled out one at a time, while listening to a Justin Bieber mega mix, than endure one more lifeboat drill.
How have we come to this?
Look at it from the point of view of a ship’s crew. Embarkation day is the busiest of the voyage. There are a million and one different things for everyone on the ship- from pursers to pot washers- that require immediate attention. Adding something as laborious, unloved and time consuming as conducting a lifeboat drill is seldom viewed as manna from Heaven.
The crew knows full well that the embarking passengers do not want to take part. They are on holiday, newly embarked on some glittery, shiny wonderland that will soon cast them away to new horizons. They board with the eagerness of puppies that want to explore everything, They want to see all the fun stuff, not partake in something than can sometimes seem interminable. In many cases, they simply do not understand the point of it.
When sailing from a foreign port, many of the newly embarked passengers are fresh from arrival and processing in some charming airport. They are frequently frazzled, tired and hot; most just want to get to their cabins to shower and change, or chill out over a first lunch in the sun. Lifeboat drill has no appeal whatsoever.
And the crew know the drill (so to speak); how the passengers simply talk over the top of any instructions that they are supposed to listen to. Often as not, they turn up carrying items of food and drink, despite being specifically told in advance not to do so. They ignore the drill; and sometimes screaming children often make it impossible to hear anything. It is anything but ideal.
For the passengers, lifeboat drill represents an abrupt brake on their first, fun day; an unpleasant slice of reality that brings their joyride shuddering to a temporary halt. Corridors and staircases become packed with people heading to and from cabins to grab lifebelts, before embarking on the struggle to find their proper lifeboat station. People get confused; children cry and, of course, the elderly and less infirm move so, so, slowly. None of this does anything positive for the blood pressure. And, at the conclusion of what seems like a string of endless, convoluted announcements, the entire process goes into a grinding, tortuous reverse.
Speaking of languages… if you are on one of the huge mega ships that carry several large groups of different nationalities, you will be required to listen as the instructions are repeated in French, Italian, German, et al. It will make you feel like contacting the European Court of Human Rights. But there it is.
Thinking of giving it all a miss, and just hiding out? Don’t go there. The crew do a full check of all names and cabin numbers and, if you don’t show up for the drill, you will be summoned to another session later on. Trying to take what seems the easy way out is ultimately counter productive. For everyone.
Best, then, to adapt an attitude that helps everyone get through the damned process as quickly and painlessly as possible. Try and be as attentive as practical in the surrounding hubbub; don’t add to it. Put your phone on silent or, better still, turn the damned thing off altogether.
If it’s one of the old style drills that still require you to bring your life jacket from your cabin, then please, please, don’t let the straps trail along the floor after you’ve removed it at the end of the drill. All it takes is one inattentive person to trip on those flailing straps, and there’s a real potential for a serious accident to take place. You don’t want to be travelling with the knowledge that your carelessness has crippled somebody, after all, do you?
Grit your teeth, and have patience with the slow moving, the poor, confused folks and yes, even the terminally stupid and inconsiderate ones. Even if you would prefer to see some of them in the Atlantic rather than at your dinner table. At boat drill, short fuses are in plentiful supply.
And, if you really need some truly sober perspective, remember why you are obliged to go to boat drill at all.
Visualise a giant ocean liner in the mid Atlantic, her stern pointing up at the sky like some great, accusing finger. 2200 people on board a ship with lifeboats for less than 1200, and even those filled with just over seven hundred souls. Remember the rest; catapulted into a pitiless, freezing ocean where the temperatures will kill you within minutes. And the nearest responsive rescue ship is still more than two hours’ away.
This might seem a stark, overly dramatic way to end a blog like this. But so many passengers today treat lifeboat drill with the same flippant, impatient lack of concern as those victims back in `1912. We all know how that one worked out.
The bottom line? Suck it up. It’s a necessary evil. And just remember that everybody else would rather be somewhere else, too. It’s not all about you.
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