Table for three

Cruise lines have plenty of events for single travellers

Most big cruise lines offer social activities for minority or special interest groups, but I’ve never seen a line embrace the subject as enthusiastically as Princess Cruises does.

On the day we boarded (Monday), there was a Singles’ Mingle, which I missed as we were having dinner, a special gathering for 18-20 year olds, who are too old for the teen club, and a GLBT Get-Together (whatever happened to Friends of Dorothy?).

On Tuesday, the Friends of Bill W had a meeting (for those of you who are not familiar with the term, this is the wording used in the daily programme for an AA group and all big cruise ships have them).  I missed the Singles’ Mingle yet again on Wednesday as it was at a weird time (5.15) and we were swimming, although the golfers, scrabble players, GLBT and 18-20s on board all had a chance to hook up.

Today is a sea day and it’s non-stop opportunities for finding kindred spirits. There are social events for bridge players, first-time cruisers, Service Club members, GLBT passengers and freemasons, a Friends of Bill W meeting, a veterans’ gathering and a service for anybody wanting to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath.

No Singles’ Mingle today, though, which makes me worry that I’ve missed the boat, as it were. Maybe all the singles paired off on the first couple of days?

I appreciate that I’m including a religious event and an AA support group with the social activities all in one stream of thought here, but it seems there is something to encourage everybody to connect – except me, as a single parent on a cruise. Even if there were a single parents’ mingle, I expect I’d be the only one there as I haven’t spotted any other obvious candidates. Everybody is either paired off or travelling in a big group. The three of us – me and two kids – certainly seem a curiosity to the crew and every time we sit down in a bar or restaurant, I am asked, “Where is your husband?”

I don’t mind at all and this is not a sob story, although we are thinking of inventing some colourful reason as to why he’s not here; ran off with a showgirl, perhaps, or on a secret mission somewhere. It just seems strange to me that more single parents aren’t attracted to cruising, as it’s such an easy holiday. The kids love it, I’m quite happy lying around reading, we’re ashore every day and we’re very happy having dinner together and going to the shows in the evenings.  But if I did want to hook up with people, it might be easier if I were travelling solo, a scrabble enthusiast or a masonic Friend of Dorothy.

SJB

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Titanic, Part 2: Why all the fuss in Belfast?

Belfast. Image courtesy of Belfast Visitor Convention Bureau

As promised, here is part 2 of our visit to the new Titanic Belfast project, currently under construction in Belfast.

Why is there such a big fuss in Belfast over a ship that sank a long time ago? ”At the time Titanic was built,”  Bryan Gregory, the executive in charge of Titanic Belfast says, “Belfast had the four largest industries in the world, in shipbuilding, rope making, linen production and tobacco. The city really was a hive of industrial activity and that spirit has sustained us through the 30 years of the troubles.”

Also intriguing is this question: Why is Titanic, beyond Belfast, still such a magnetic presence? Gregory, I thought, had an interesting answer. “The romanticism of the ship,” he says, “is part of it, as it as a ship of unfulfilled dreams, one that is an uncompleted journey.”

The Titanic-obsessed, dubbed “Titanoraks” have had this city on the radar for years. Says Colin Cobb, proprietor of Titanic Walking Tour, the name is “a geek version of anorak, the name for plane spotters, but a Titanorak is an honorable geek”.

Titanic crafts made by children

Even local kids have Titanic fever.  Through everything from arts and crafts to history, Belfast children actually learn about Titanic in school! Particular kudos to the young interpretive artist who created a papier mache version of the ship – he got it right about Titanic’s four funnels (these were on display at Titanic Belfast’s marketing office).

If you’re a tourist visiting Belfast, there’s much to see and do. You can take a boat tour that gives a close-up look at the slips occupied by Olympic and the drydock in which Titanic was built.

Take a boat tour in Belfast (Westerdam is in the background)

In Titanic builder Harlan & Wolff’s headquarters down on the Belfast waterfront, the drawing gallery is on the Titanic Walking Tour itinerary; with its soaring glass ceilings, it’s the place where the ship’s architects and designers drafted plans.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum (a must visit on any trip to Belfast whether you’re interested in Titanic or not, and I figure you wouldn’t have gotten this far into the story if the ship is a snore!) has still and moving images and the world’s largest collection of photographic negatives.

Dry dock

But the highlight, the real moment of “wow!” has to be the dry dock in which the ship is built. It’s still here (and still dry) and the view, alongside the historic pumphouse (which houses a café and gift shop) is the most interesting visual of all.

Ultimately, the dream for the creators of the glossy new Belfast Titanic museum complex see it as a magnificent centerpiece for the magnet in this city that the ship has become. And it’s one that will connect, as well, with all of the disparate Titanic offerings, from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to walking tours and to the boat rides that sail up to ship slips.

Stay tuned; we’ll continue to follow Titanic’s progress in Belfast. And whether you’re thinking of booking a cruise that will call at Belfast in 2012, the anniversary year, or considering a more intensive visit (count me in there!), you might want to start planning the trip!

CSB

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Can England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland Compete Against the Med?

My round-Britain/Ireland cruise aboard Holland America’s Westerdam, which concluded yesterday, was one of the best voyages I’ve taken in years. And while the ship was superb (especially the food and service), what made it so special was the itinerary. We revisited some of my favorites (Belfast, Guernsey, Dublin, Edinburgh) and got to experience some new places, too (Newcastle, Waterford, Holyhead, Glasgow).

As an experienced cruiser to the Mediterranean (east and west) and the Baltic, what puzzles me about round-Britain/Ireland cruises is that they’re not more popular than they are. Rarely do cruise lines offer more than a handful of these voyages every year (as opposed to full season and full year schedules in other European regions). Ports here have every bit as much to offer as those on Med. and Baltic routes.

In a hotly debated story on The Scotsman this week, it would seem that one reason that British Isles itineraries lack the hot-popular factor that other regions enjoy is a lack of infrastructure and inspiration by ports, with Edinburgh in particular coming under fire. Certainly the fact that a city of such stature as Edinburgh (which incidentally was voted “most popular” U.K. port by Cruise Critic readers) requires all ships larger than small ones to anchor at S. Queensferry and tender passengers on to land, is a big disappointment (and frankly a huge time-sucking hassle for passengers and cruise line crew alike).

You can tell from shore excursion menus which ports are starting to understand that cruise travelers are no longer limited to the traditional “newly wed and nearly dead” cliché. Those that offer family-oriented tours (families are the largest growing niche in cruising) or active, recreational opportunities (cycling trips in Holyhead and Glasgow’s Loch Lomond were highlights of our trip) get it – cruise ships are increasingly roping in an incredibly varied type of traveler.

There were some incredibly warm and welcoming moments by some of the ports. In Newcastle, passengers returning back to the ship were greeted with local cheeses to sample. Upon arrival at Greenock, the port for Glasgow, kilt-wearing chaps greeted passengers with an effusive hello and a handshake.  And in Holyhead, a harpist played at the pier all afternoon – and offered a memorable, and haunting, send-off. Contrast that with your welcome at places in the Med. (when was the last time you got a hearty greeting at Civitavecchia, Barcelona, Naples, Pireaus?) Or even on Baltic cruises (when was the last time your ship’s send-off came with local music and snacks?)

Clearly, cruise ships are valued in the British Isles. And from a passenger perspective, the itinerary possibilities are beautifully varied (nature in the Orkneys, shopping in Guernsey, culture in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow, gorgeous scenic cruising past the Isle of Skye that rivals the fjords of Norway and Chile, and history — everywhere!). Not only would I happily cruise around the British Isles anytime — I also plan to revisit places (Inverness is top on the list) that I was introduced to via a cruise stop.

As well, a story in today’s Times seems somewhat timely on this issue. David Cameron says that half of all Britons need to take their holidays here — in order to foster economic recovery. His quote in the paper is pretty stark and reminds me that in spite of some successes, ports in the British Isles need to try harder when it comes to attracting and enhancing cruise visits: “For too long tourism has been looked down on as a second class service sector. That’s just wrong.”

Indeed, traditionally, British Isles cruises were aimed mostly at Americans. But as cruise vacations continue to gain steam among British, European, Asian and Australian travelers, what do you think should be done to increase cruising’s popularity in your own neck of the woods?

CSB

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It’s Thursday, So It Must Be Naples

A funny guide makes all the difference; Diego indicates the direction of the brothel in Pompeii.

August is peak season in the Mediterranean and a leaflet has arrived in the cabin explaining exactly what this means. There are caveats galore: crowds, traffic delays, renovations of historic sites, heat, guides with funny foreign accents. Clearly, expectations have not always been met on shore excursions and Princess Cruises wants us all to be fully prepared for reality.

The truth is, running the shore excursions for a couple of thousand people is, and has to be, a well-oiled machine; a sightseeing factory.

While the excursion we’ve just done (Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius) was excellent, let’s not pretend there is anything romantic or exclusive about these tours at this time of year and with this many people. We arrived at the top of the mountain road, 25 minutes walk from the crater of Vesuvius, and there were 15 coaches lined up. Pompeii was heaving, drooping tour groups trailing behind jabbering guides bearing giant cardboard lollipops designating their cruise line and tour number.

If you want Vesuvius to yourself, or to enjoy air clear enough to see all the way to Capri from the top, or to get photographs of Pompeii without someone else’s baseball cap in the foreground, come in October!

Having said that, many of us are limited to travel in school holidays, which means making the most of the situation. Happily, our tour today was really good, brought alive by a funny and entertaining guide, Diego, who has been guiding for 33 years and sometimes does Pompeii three times a day. “Vesuvio e last erupt 1944 and e blow every 64 years,” he drawled (do the maths). “Imagine. Catastrophic eruption. More exciting than boring Pompeii. Everybody on bus dead. Except the guide.” Makes a change from an endless string of dates and facts, I suppose.

Pompeii, too, was perfectly judged. We had a lot of teens in our group and as we approached the site, Diego announced: “Vesuvio, e wake up one day in AD79 after really bad McDonald’s and e explode for three days and three nights.” And even when it’s packed, I find Pompeii awe-inspiring, especially the warehouses at the end of the tour where a lot of the artefacts from the site are stacked up, waiting for labelling or display in museums; today, we saw plaster casts of a writhing dog and of a pregnant woman, killed by the eruption and frozen in time from 2,031 years ago. Both have toured the world in Pompeii exhibitions and, today, they were just sitting there, gathering dust. Makes you feel very privileged to see these things, even on the hottest and busiest of August days.

SJB

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Titanic, Part 1: Doomed Ship or Magical Journey?

The construction site

It’s always struck me as highly ironic that the mighty Titanic, which was launched with much fanfare and then sank in the Atlantic on its first voyage, is responsible for introducing cruise travel to a whole new generation of travelers. (Well, perhaps credit goes as much to the fictional love story played out in the flick “Titanic” by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.) But nowhere will you find a passion for Titanic as strong as in Belfast.

Titanic is already a huge tourist attraction in Belfast, where the ship was built, and is slated to grab an even higher profile in 2012, when the city will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its construction (and demise). Yesterday, on Westerdam’s day-long call in Belfast, I got a tour of the new Titanic Belfast project, currently under construction, and got to visit a few locations of historical import, including the dock in which the ship was built. Here’s part 1 of our visit in photos. Stay tuned for part 2, which will launch tomorrow.

Titanic in Southampton. Courtesy of Titanicinbelfast.com

The mighty Titanic was built for White Star Line in 1912 by Belfast shipbuilders Harlan & Wolff. (The company is still in existence — though with no ship orders at present, it’s involved in producing industrial strength windmills.) The ship, along with its sisters Olympic and Britannic (both of which enjoyed longer lifespans than Titanic), was meant to be the most luxurious ever constructed. Its keel was laid on March 31, 1909; the ship underwent sea trials on April 2, 1912, and it arrived in Southampton on April 3. Titanic was heralded then as a masterpiece of Edwardian engineering and design.

Titanic was the Oasis of the Seas of its time — the biggest steamship ever built when it set off on its maiden sailing on April 10, 1912. Four days later, it had a fatal encounter with an iceberg and sank; 1,517 of the 2,223 passengers onboard perished.

A rendering of the museum

The under-construction building will be the heart and soul of the new Titanic Belfast, the £97 million project that includes what sounds like an incredible interactive museum. (It’s essentially designed as four ship hulls that meet in the middle). When it opens in 2012, the museum will be comprised of different galleries that showcase the building of the ship and also the role it played in Belfast.

So what’s different about this project at a time when there are already 20 exhibitions floating around in North America? Says Bryan Gregory, the executive in charge of Titanic Belfast: “Titanic is Northern Ireland’s history. The big difference is that we own the boat. You can’t be any more authentic than that.”

Gregory says that the other exhibitions across the pond primarily focus on the artifacts uncovered at the bottom of the sea. Titantic Belfast willtake a different approach. “We’ll tell the story of what, in the end of the day, is an immigrant ship.”

Gregory showed us the design plan for the museum’s exhibitions and while visually there’s not much to share yet, the ideas for the museum are fantastic! This will be a place not only for Titanic romanticists but also for shipbuilding aficionados. Its interactive features on the design and conception of the vessel look fabulous. Exhibits will include, for instance, a re-creation of a section of ship and shipyard; visitors will be able to inspect, up close and personal, the hull via a gondola-like ride.

Another gallery will focus on the fitting out of Titanic, with life-size models of cabins (from first, second and third classes) and a piece of the dining room, as well as its engines and funnels. There will be a multi-dimensional show that will make visitors feel as if they’re walking through Titanic’s rooms, an immersive theater with shows yet to be decided, and other galleries that center on topics such as Titanic legends and myths, and the rescue effort.

Of course the museum will spotlight stories about people onboard — but just as interesting are the tales of those who didn’t take the voyage, such as the priest who had to get off at the ship’s last land call, Ireland’s Queenstown, because he was ordered to return by his superior. His photographs survived as a result. I also heard the story of Belfast craftsman hired to make a dining table for the captain’s quarters. He didn’t finish the work on time and the ship sailed without it – and as such the handmade table still exists!

That’s all for today. We’ll have more Titanic tidbits from our Belfast visit tomorrow.

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Just how big is Oasis of the Seas?

Click to see the full-size version. Image courtesy of IGLU.com

So just how big is Royal Caribbean’s mammoth Oasis of the Seas?

Our friends over at U.K. travel agency,  www.iglucruise.com, have created this fun graphic to show the true size of the 225,282-ton,  5,400-passenger ship!

It just goes to show how cruise ships have advanced over the years — according to this chart, Oasis is three times the size of the QE2 and five times bigger than the Titanic.

The picture also gives some handy information about ship building and the fast facts on how much food is consumed at sea!

One staggering fact is that Disney Cruise Line serves up 5,000 eggs each morning! Mind you, after seeing plates piled sky-high in the buffet restaurants at breakfast, we can see how this may be possible!

Do you have any fun cruise ship facts? Share them with us!

KR

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Bienvenue a Monaco!

Monaco

We’re alongside in Monte Carlo today and it’s unbelievably hot and humid; the kind of heat that leaves you lethargic and drained. Flat sea and no wind, and it’s only now, in the late afternoon, that a few yachts are pottering out of the harbour in search of a bit of evening breeze.

Because of the heat, we’re all too floppy and apathetic to do much and besides, have been here before and ‘done’ the sights. And in Monaco, what better activity is there than people, car and yacht-spotting anyway?

There’s a vessel just across the yacht basin from Ruby Princess that’s bigger than some small cruise ships: Al Mirqab. I was so blown away by its enormity that I Googled it and found that at 436 feet and displacing 5,000 tons, it’s one of the largest private yachts ever built and belongs to the prime minister of Qatar. A mere 10 guests are accommodated and cared for by a crew of 60! Six crewmembers each!

Meanwhile, up in Casino Square, the scene was as insane as it ever is and we played a game of spotting locals and yachties (men in loose shorts, baggy shirts and loafers, the women in huge, stacked heels, glittery sun dresses, immaculate hair, improbable tan, carrying Louis Vuitton bags), who stand out among the throng of tourists. A round of one milkshake, one Evian and one iced coffee came to 23 Euros.

I photographed a Rolls Royce with the numberplate ‘1 ME’. A crowd suddenly materialised from nowhere like bees around honey and started snapping shots of a young man cruising past in an open-top white Merc.

I’ve no idea who he was but a woman rushed up to the car and threw a bottle of water over him as he drove away. This place is barmy. OK to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here!

But for all its conspicuous consumerism and unimaginable wealth, Monte Carlo provides a fine and surprisingly unsnooty welcome to cruise passengers, whose vessels, after all, change the entire look of this tiny place.

Singer Dame Shirley Bassey once complained that billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Le Grand Bleu, ruined the view from her Monaco apartment. But the Russian’s boat wasn’t a patch on Ruby Princess, which effectively creates an 18 deck-high wall along one side of the harbour.

Our handy welcome pack

Yet we’re greeted by a cool, air-conditioned cruise terminal with an information desk staffed by helpful locals. Little welcome packs are given to everybody, including a map, postcards, a leaflet detailing all the attractions and their opening times and a handy discount book worth 26 Euros off entrance to museums. There are details of restaurants offering a cheaper ‘plat du jour’ menu and discount vouchers for shops.

The boat man on the Taxi-Bateau that crosses the harbour for one euro each was chatty and even the waiter in the Café de Paris had a certain brusque charm.

Although Shirley Bassey might not approve, you get the feeling that Monaco makes a real effort to host cruise passengers. Even if we do stand out somewhat.

SJB

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