Tag Archives: cunard

CHANGING THE PLOT; WINTER CRUISING’S SHAKE UP

MARCO POLO
CMV’s popular Marco Polo is a veteran of the winter cruise circuit

Cruise ships and sunshine; the two go almost hand in hand in popular perception, just as they always have. Broad, sun splashed lido decks full of people soaking up the indolent seagoing lifestyle, has been at the heart of cruising’s grand, global pitch since the early 1920’s.

But that is now starting to change over the winter months…..

These days, many people are simply put off by the perennially overcrowded winter Caribbean cruise circuit, with it’s flotillas of vast, floating leviathans routinely descending on the same, cowed, cluster of islands. And the idea of flying long haul in advance certainly puts off many other people these days, too.

The result is that many cruise lines are now getting really creative with winter itineraries. And warm weather cruising-even in the depths of a European winter-is by no means the Holy Grail that it once was.

The Mediterranean is now a full on, year round cruising destination. Both MSC Cruises and Costa have a robust, year round presence in the seven to twelve day cruise markets in the region, with cruises that sail from Barcelona, Genoa and Venice, among others. Short flight times, together with much less crowded tourist sites, both make for quite impressive plus points. And, while the cooler temperatures may not fire everybody’s enthusiasm, the region in winter is still generally sunny, with clear visibility to boot.

Of course, the true, die hard sun worshippers can still set sail for the Canary Islands. You can neatly avoid the joys of a winter time Bay of Biscay buffeting by flying to join your ship at any one of a whole raft of Italian and Spanish embarkation ports, and then sailing from there. And many of those same ports also benefit from having frequent, good priced air lift from the UK and mainland Europe via a string of no frills, budget airlines.

Most unexpected, however, has been the slow but steady growth in winter cruising to the Baltic, North West Europe, and even Northern Norway. Round trip sailings from the UK on lines such as Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Fred. Olsen, P&O and even Cunard, can take you to some amazing, pre-Christmas market cities such as Copenhagen, Hamburg and Oslo. You can count on bitingly cold days that are still quite often blessed with amazing clear visibility. Crowds are much thinner, and you also get a much different, calmer take on cities than the crowds which flock to those same streets and squares in the long, light summer nights.

Another growth area is in cruises to witness the bone chilling, ethereal flourish of the Northern Lights, the spectacular natural panorama that quite literally lights up the skies of North West Norway during the long winter months. Both Fred. Olsen Cruises and Cruise and Maritime Voyages have found these cruises to be slow but consistent growers over the winter season.

Growing numbers of people each year are now more willing than ever to eschew that once mandatory winter sun tan for a raft of more eclectic, arcane adventures at sea. The convenience of home port departures, coupled with good pricing and fuelled by simple, neatly tailored marketing, has created a series of natty, nicely packaged travel options for the winter that are guaranteed to pique the curiosity of today’s most avid cruising fans.

CUNARD ORDERS NEW BUILD FROM FINCANTIERI

NEW CUNARDER
An artist’s rendering of the proposed new Cunarder, slated to enter service in 2022. Image credit: Cunard Line

In a move that has surprised many, Carnival Corporation has signed an agreement with Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard for a new build for Cunard. The new ship, coming in at around 113,000 tons and with a passenger capacity of around 3,000, is currently slated to enter service in 2022.

While there will be many synergies with the current, three ship fleet, this new vessel will be of a different design to the popular duo of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, while also being a smaller, slightly more high density ship than the current flagship, Queen Mary 2. Inevitably, the name will also be the subject of much speculation to come.

Will Cunard go for a fourth ‘Queen’, or will the line itself seek to revive one of the more revered names from it’s storied past? While many think that another ‘Queen’ is a slam dunk in terms of a name, it’s worth remembering that the first so named ship was the Queen Mary back in 1936, by which time Cunard itself had been in the passenger business for almost a century. There was also the Berengaria of 1921, named after the wife of Richard the Lionheart. But she was an ex-German prize of war, built as the Imperator back in 1913.

By that time, many legendary Cunarders had already passed into the annals of seafaring lore, or were about to. Mauretania, Aquitania, Berengaria and Caronia are just a few of them. Reviving any one of these treasured names would signal both recognition of an illustrious heritage, and assumed continuity of what those great names represent. Cunard might just surprise everyone with this new ship.

And, for those who say that it won’t happen under Carnival management- well, it already did once. Recall the line’s restyling of the venerable Vistafjord into the Caronia back in 1999, a full year after the Carnival takeover. A repeat, while likely improbable, is by no means impossible.

And, it has to be noted, the availability of suitably regal names is actually pretty damned thin on the ground. Against that, the roster of evocative names from more than one hundred and seventy seven years of Cunard history is as substantial as it is stellar. While Cunard want a ship that will be complementary to the current trio, it will also be looking to make the ship as distinctive and original as practical. And nothing would do that quite so sweetly than by breaking with the sacred idea that all new Cunarders have to be named after a Queen. They don’t.

Interesting times, for sure. As always, stay tuned for updates.

THE BRITS AT SEA; A USER’S GUIDE

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Thomson Majesty is an enduring favourite of the British cruise passenger

For some people, there is nothing more appealing than the idea of setting sail on a ship surrounded by their fellow countrymen. And no other race seems as wedded to this idea than my own, British kin.

Lines such as P&O, Thomson, Cruise and Maritime and, of course, Fred. Olsen, have made their almost all British passenger sailings a cornerstone of their marketing efforts. And, while Cunard markets it’s ‘Britishness’ it has, in truth, always been more of an international product.

So, what is it actually like, setting sail with a shipload of Brits? With a certain amount of tongue in cheek latitude, here are some of my observations, based on over thirty years of making just such voyages.

Firstly, the British reputation for politeness and ‘waiting in line’ remains true. Often, they might be waiting in line to complain at the Purser’s desk, but the fact remains that we are, as a whole, true to our national trait of exercising patience, and not ‘cutting in line’ as so many of our more excitable neighbours might be prone to do.

In many ways, we are also predictable to a ‘T’, Nowhere more so than, as it happens, at afternoon tea. Whichever the ship, and wherever in the world it happens to be sailing, most Brits will partake of the whole ritual, many for every single day of the voyage, And they will be there from first to last as well.

Deck chair hogging, whereby passengers arise before the sun and place personal items on the best situated sun beds, blocking them for literally hours on end, is something most Brits sniffily like to think that they are above.

In my experience, the reverse is true. Brits are every bit as selfish, avaricious and possessive over such prime real estate as our famed Germanic cousins, the people we are so fond of lambasting for the same obsession. In an old English analogy, this really is a case of ‘pot calling kettle’ black.

Largely, the Brits still follow formal dress codes at sea, and probably do more so than any other single race. While certain standards have dropped through the floor in the sartorial stakes, the Brits do like to posh it up and put on the Ritz. The older generation, in particular, can be relied upon to do it, and God bless ’em for maintaining a proper standard.

On the other hand, there are some these days- a worryingly increasing number- that feel it is perfectly OK to come out of an evening, sporting a look best described as ‘dragged backwards through a hedge’. No. It isn’t.

Brits rightly show disapproval aboard foreign accented ships when people move around ash trays to designated, non smoking areas to suit their whims. But some of us are far from being above doing the same things themselves in certain situations. It is often done ever so surreptitiously, in the hope that us non smokers will either fail to notice, or simply accept it as a fait accompli.

We do notice, love. Cut it out. Nobody wants your second hand cigarette smoke as a post dinner culinary treat.

While Brits are fond of lambasting our American cousins for their often overly enthusiastic penchant for buffet food, the fact is that many Brits are just as bad. That sweet, little old lady who smiled as you held the door open for, will turn into a whirling dervish, her elbows sharper than a Sultan’s sabres when it comes to getting exactly what she wants from a food outlet. And all at a speed that would make a rampaging Panzer division seem as benign as  a Sunday school picnic.

And yes, we like our money’s worth. If we do not get what we perceive to be proper service, we will frown over our frappes, mutter darkly over the froth, and then make a point of thanking the server that delivered it as we leave, never to return..

So, there it is. Just some of my observations. Thoughts?

A TALE OF TWO MARYS….

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The Queen Mary arriving in New York on her maiden voyage, June 1st, 1936

Sometimes, maritime history conspires to throw up some pretty beguiling co-incidences. One just such is unfolding today. In two venues- Hamburg and Long Beach, California- two very different ships are celebrating awesome chronological milestones.

Two ships, separated by several thousand miles and seven decades, and yet inextricably linked by a heritage that is anything but common. Each has become a legend. Each was an improbable piece of construction, in and of her own time. The survival of each continues to inspire awe, pride and, in some cases, sheer disbelief.

It was on May 27th, 1936, that the brand new Queen Mary set out on her hugely anticipated maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She emerged, shining and pristine, from the blood bath following the shotgun marriage of Cunard and White Star. A bloodbath that was actually necessary for her existence in the first place.

It is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world were on the new Queen Mary. The new Cunarder was a thrilling diversion for a world already twitching nervously at the bellicose sabre rattlings of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. That May day, hopes flew as high as the flags that festooned the great three stacker as she was warped majestically into mid stream.

QUEEN MARY 2
The superlative Queen Mary 2 is about to go ‘under the knife’ in a German shipyard

Fast forward to today, and the arrival of the Queen Mary 2 in Hamburg for her first major structural alterations since her maiden voyage in January, 2004. Over the next three weeks, Cunard’s mighty flagship will undergo a substantial refit and refurbishment, the sum total of experience gained over a decade of highly successful operation, both on the Atlantic and as a cruise ship.

To date, this is the most significant update for the ship that, even before her launch, had already become known as simply QM2. But, like her dowager ancestor resting quietly in Long Beach, Queen Mary 2 is anything but simple.

Even at the conception stage, the ship seemed extraordinary and unfeasible. A 154,000 ton ocean liner in the 21st century seemed like a sure fire way to bleed a company dry. Only the deep pockets and forward thinking of a company the size of Carnival Corporation could ever have wrought such a fantastic creation from the realms of fantasy into hard, solid reality.

Yet here she is, braced for her first major surgery. Fast in the hands of Hamburg workers who, over the next few weeks, will give her the upgrades, the alterations and the amenities that will make an already extraordinary ship into something even more compelling.

In an exquisite irony, part of that refurbishment will include the embellishment of Art Deco detailing and carpets, deliberately designed to evoke the elegance of the original Queen Mary. I can think of no ship better suited to wear such finery anywhere.

Like her exalted predecessor, Queen Mary 2 will continue to cross the Atlantic between Europe and New York, weaving her own, enduring legend in a series of fantastic, processional voyages that will gradually embellish her own status as time unfolds. She will become as enduring as any Queen before her.

Two ships. One heritage. Each, in it’s own way, still taking people on a series of fantastic voyages. Fast in her berth in Long Beach, the dear old Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified time capsule, taking people from all over the world on a trip back into the hey day of the transatlantic liner.

As for Queen Mary 2, she continues to embrace and enhance those proud old traditions in a stunning, modern style, one shot through with a hefty dollop of elegant, enchanting nostalgia. A ship that is part of a fleet, and yet paradoxically one that is, in so many ways, truly out there on her own.

Each of these two extraordinary ships is like an emotional lightning rod, marking not just our passages across the ocean, but through time and history itself. Long may both continue to reign in their respective spheres.

Long live the Queens.

 

QUEEN MARY 2 REFIT- THE LOWDOWN

QUEEN MARY 2
The superlative Queen Mary 2 is about to go ‘under the knife’ in a German shipyard

It is now little under two weeks before Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 embarks on what is her most significant refurbishment since she entered service in January of 2004.

The last remaining ship offering a regular Transatlantic liner service, the QM2 will commence a three week long dry docking in Hamburg on May 27th, with work scheduled to be completed by June 21st.

In addition to giving the huge Cunarder an overall Art Deco feel and flavour redolent of the original Queen Mary of 1936, the marketability of the ship will be massively enhanced in two primary aspects of her hotel operation, namely the food and cabin services and choices offered on board. It all looks something like this;

In terms of accommodations, the Queen Mary 2 will receive some fifteen brand new single staterooms; a first for the ship. An additional thirty new Britannia Club balcony staterooms will be installed on the upper deck. All of the current existing Britannia Club balcony staterooms will be refurbished.

All other Britannia staterooms on board- both inside and outside- will be completely refurbished in a rolling programme, beginning in 2016 and extending through to 2017.

Queens Grill and Princess Grill suites will be completely refurbished, with their own exclusive art work framed by a predominantly Art Deco look, with blue and red accents complementing a cocoon of neutral backgrounds and contrasting timbers. New, bespoke carpeting will be heavily influenced by the original Queen Mary herself, now serving as a hotel and convention centre in Long Beach, California.

In terms of the dining operation on board Queen Mary 2, the Britannia Club restaurant will be redecorated and expanded to accommodate the new extra cabin occupants. There are complete redesigns for both the Queens Grill and the Princess Grill, with the stated intention of creating a dining experience that will be elevated to new levels.

A new Carinthia Lounge option will be unveiled, allowing passengers to enjoy light breakfast and lunch choices, as well as a dedicated patisserie counter.

And an option surely to be welcomed by many, a new restaurant- The Verandah- will be added to the ship. Reminiscent of the old Verandah Grills on the original Queens, this room will place a prime emphasis on serving up classic, platinum chip French cuisine. I expect this to be enormously popular.

Most of all, the central Kings Court buffet on Deck Seven will be redesigned to incorporate ‘speciality stations’ such as American Smokehouse and Pan Asian. There will also be significant upgrades in terms of the hot and cold buffets in the same area- a much needed remedy to this often confusing area.

These cumulative additions, enhancements and extensions to the Queen Mary 2 collectively represent the most profound and comprehensive refurbishment of the ship to date. The Queen Mary 2 will return to service on June 21st, with a ten night transatlantic crossing from Hamburg to New York, via Southampton.

No doubt, the heavily revamped Queen Mary 2 will be the subject of much media and travel industry scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how the new overall look of the great liner is received.

As always, stay tuned for updates.

SHOTGUN WEDDING- CUNARD AND WHITE STAR

OLYMPIC
The great Olympic was one of the first casualties of the Cunard-White Star merger of 1934

On this day in 1934, the British government forced through the merger of the Cunard and White Star lines to create Cunard White Star.

Both lines had been leaving broad trails of red accountant’s ink in their respective wakes since the Great Depression of October, 1929. Within a year, overall passenger numbers on the Atlantic crossing had fallen by some fifty per cent.

Both lines were faced with the same problem; running a fleet of increasingly ageing and expensive vessels, in the face of opposition from far more modern ships, run by state subsidised lines from Italy, Germany and, most ominously, France.

Work on the new Queen Mary on the Clyde had been brought shuddering to a halt by the depression, effectively ending Cunard’s attempt at challenging the opposition. For White Star, the promise held manifest by their bruited Oceanic had effectively ended when the company simply ran out of money.

However, the British government was adamant that British supremacy on the Atlantic crossing should be restored. To that end, it offered Cunard a deal.

Her Majesty’s government would advance the sum of £7,000,000 to Cunard, money enough to resume construction on Queen Mary and to build a sibling vessel- the eventual Queen Elizabeth of 1938- from scratch.

Of course, there was a catch….

That being that Cunard would be frog marched into a shotgun wedding with it’s old, avowed rival- the White Star Line. The two most famous names in British shipping history would become one.

In a seriously weakened state, Cunard was in no position to turn down this deal. White Star, flirting even closer with oblivion, had absolutely no choice but to comply.

The newly registered Cunard White Star Line was announced on May 10th, 1934, as a single entity. Cunard held sixty two per cent of the shares; White Star was lucky to get the remaining thirty eight.

The end result was inevitable, painful restructuring and consolidation. Within two years, a whole host of famous, now superannuated names made a sad procession to the block.

They included all three of the prime White Star flag bearers on the Atlantic- the Olympic, Homeric, and even the Majestic, the fabled ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ were either scrapped or, in the case of the later, sold for use as a static accommodation ship.

On the Cunard side, the beloved, legendary Mauretania went for scrap. Berengaria and Aquitania would soldier on until 1938 and 1950, respectively. The latter ship had been due to retire in 1940, but the advent of World War Two meant that even her worn out, weary carcass found final breath as a troop ship.

The surviving ships would fly the house flags of both lines. In the case of the Cunarders, the company flag flew above that of White Star. On the few White Star survivors, the famous old burgee flag flew above the Cunard one.

It was a situation that lasted until 1950, when Cunard finally bought out the balance of the White Star shares, and the company simply reverted to being the Cunard Line once more. But, in a fittingly apt touch, the last surviving White Star Liner- the Britannic of 1930- retained her White Star colours and flew the company house flag to the end of her service life in 1960.

By then another unbeatable foe- the jet airliner- was already truly in the ascendant. No merger of any kind could have stemmed that airborne tide.

RETURN TO THE QUEEN- THE MARY ENCOUNTERED

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Triple stacked welcome from a Queen

The familiar sight of those three great funnels welcomed me back to the port of Long Beach. Proud, perfectly spaced and gleaming in the fresh spring sunshine, the towering trio of red and black smokestacks that still crown the Queen Mary provided the perfect welcome aperitif to a fun, seven day cruise down to the hot spots of Mexico and back.

Sadly, of course, it would not be aboard her.

Looming across the pier, and looking equally as resplendent in her own way, the Carnival Miracle was waiting for me. Even larger than the venerable, petrified Cunarder that she was docked adjacent to, the 2004 built Carnival Miracle would prove to be a fun fuelled travelling companion for the week.

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Seldom seen starboard side of the Queen Mary, shot from the Carnival Miracle

But, in those first minutes, my eyes were drawn inevitably back to her. Queen Mary, a legend the world over. A Blue Riband holder, war heroine, and a genuine, larger than life celebrity that still exists today as a hotel and convention centre, her wooden decks bleached by decades of static exposure to the year round California sun. Still, it is impossible to remain unmoved by that still majestic presence.

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Queen Mary, seen from Deck Three on the Carnival Miracle

I gazed at the raised wedding gazebo tacked on to her stern, and could not help but smile as I imagined the shade of Commodore Edgar Britten scowling with disapproval at the thing; a necessary concession to keeping this great institution afloat financially these days. The good commodore, more interested in prudent seamanship than pretty settings, would probably have had it thrown overboard at once.

Seeing the great lady had special poignancy for me this year. It is eighty years since her famous maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, when the hopes and expectations of an entire empire trailed along in her wake as she thundered to the west.

The Queen Mary had first set sail on a sunny May day in 1936, almost four hundred years to the day after another famous English queen- Anne Boleyn- lost her head on Tower Green.

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Queen Mary’s original port of registry- Liverpool- still adorns her stern

I couldn’t help but wonder what the feisty, free spirited Anne would have made of this doughty new British monarch of the seas. With her continental upbringing and lifelong taste for all things French, perhaps she would have been more naturally drawn to the Normandie.

Of course, the Normandie lived fast and died young. Much like Anne herself. And- like Anne- that same brief, spectacular reign guaranteed her a kind of immortality. A kind of exquisite coincidence.

But the Queen Mary, even at the age of eighty, is still very real indeed. And very much alive. Her stance is every bit as majestic and commanding as it was back in 1936. Her sheer stage presence and charisma pulled me in as if to some incredible black hole. Stage struck was no understatement for how I felt. My adrenaline was flowing like tap water right then..

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The changing shapes of ships. The 1936 built Queen Mary, seen from the Carnival Miracle of 2004

Even once aboard the Carnival Miracle, I found my eyes drawn almost helplessly back to her. The hull is in desperate need of painting, and a glimpse of her starboard (seaward) side indicated that it is in even worse shape, if anything.

Eighty years on, I wonder what Queen Mary feels as she sits shackled to her berth, while a conga line of vast, sassy cruise ships come and go, loaded with passengers looking for a sunny, fun vacation. Does she instinctively, almost imperceptibly heel at her ropes, as if impatient to follow them, back out into her natural element? The thought simply would not leave me alone.

I kind of hope not, in a sense. For, if any ship has done more than her duty, both in peace and war, it is surely the Queen Mary. Today, people still thrill at the sight of that massive, majestic presence, just as they did back in 1936.

She shortened the course of the most destructive conflict in human history by at least six months. And, with the Queen Elizabeth, she formed the most successful two ship transatlantic service in ocean liner history.

Ordinarily, even the grandest liners wither and die. But this is no ordinary liner. She is a piece of world history, an emotional lightning rod every bit as potent as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, or the Great Wall of China. She connects us instantly to a past that, for most, is vicarious at best.

But step back aboard those decks- the same ones trodden by Churchill, Noel Coward, Walt Disney and a whole, gilded cast of glittering extras- and you arrive in actual, living history. Tethered as she is, the Queen Mary still takes passengers back on a voyage in time and space. She is a portal to another era, and a damned fine, grand one at that.

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The Dome and the Dame

It was nice to see you, old girl. And, come the end of May, as I set foot aboard another glittering new cruise ship, I will happily lift a glass to toast your memory.

I am pretty sure that I won’t be on my own in doing this. Thank you for everything.