Cruises

Crystal Symphony cruising Rome to Istanbul

Posted on May 13, 2013 | Comments Off on Crystal Symphony cruising Rome to Istanbul

Crystal Symphony from Santorini DSC4194

Cruising from Rome to Istanbul through the islands of Greece on the Crystal Symphony is a voyage through the origins of Western Civilisation. Even the one-hour limousine transfer to the ship in Civitavecchia from the grand Majestic Roma Hotel on Rome’s stylish Via Veneto is a reminder that ancient Rome was a long way from the sea. By contrast, Athens is within sight of the sea and Istanbul (once Constantinople and the heart of the Holy Roman Empire) spans the Bospherus that separates Europe and Asia.

It’s a trip through film culture, too. In Rome we downloaded and watched Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn scootering through “Roman Holiday”, looked for “The Godfather” in Sicily, viewed the museum jewels to be heisted in “Topkapi” and recalled friends who were roped in as beachside extras for “Shirley Valentine”. Clever Crystal Cruises had a television channel running movies that featured ports along our route.

The first stop on Crystal Symphony’s voyage was a port the line had never visited before. It’s hard to believe that there are any new Mediterranean ports after millennia of civilisation have washed across it like a tidal flow but the island of Ponza was a first for all of us. Midway between Rome’s port of Civitavecchia and Sorrento, Ponza has been an escape for Neopolitans (the people of Napoli, not the icecream) for centuries.

In April we were reminded how seasonal European summer resorts (and indeed summer) can be. Shuttered cafes lined the harbour front and a tunnel, built by the Romans, to Chiaia di Luna Beach backed by a towering crescent of black tuff cliffs, was closed. The steep hills provide a good workout and walkers and cars sharing tunnels through the cliffs between the parts of the village was, um, challenging.

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Storme Brown, Crystal Symphony’s Shore Excursions Manager, told me that the company had been planning Ponza as port of call for two years before this visit. “Some of its infrastructure isn’t up to our standards – for example the buses are pretty basic,” she told me. “But, on the other hand, there’s the excitement of a new destination. That’s particularly important to our repeat passengers.”

In the pecking order of cruise lines, Crystal is consistently rated as one of the best among the rarefied ranks of luxury lines. Crystal Symphony has a different atmosphere to other ships. She was built in 1995 so she is far from new but she radiates refinement and the public areas gleam without being brash. Substantial expensive refits in 2006 and 2009 succeeded in making the ship contemporary (including raised bathroom basins and effective wifi ship-wide) and sophisticated bars and restaurants. This year she became all-inclusive so not only do Australians not have to fret about tipping etiquette but drinks are included, whether from your minibar or the various bars and dining venues. Also “Dining by Reservation” has been introduced – a great system whereby most guests can still select first or second sittings for dinner but others can reserve a table for a different time each night, depending on the day’s activities.

We found “Dining by Reservation” achieved its aim of making you feel the ship provides fine dining restaurants, rather than a set-seating dining room experience. The greatest freeform option we discovered was the Sushi Bar within the specialist Silk Road Restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. About half a dozen chairs front the open kitchen so the lucky few have a front row view of three sushi and sashimi chefs working their magic. It was excellent food and great interactive entertainment.

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Sorrento poses a dilemma for the visitor. Do you stay in the charming little clifftop town itself, take a boat to the Isle of Capri, drive down the winding road carved into the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast where villages like Positano seem suspended in space or visit the volcanic ruins of Pompei? Fortunately, Crystal Symphony spent two days in Sorrento so we did it all in a couple of very crowded days. Part of the joy of cruising is that you can accomplish so much more each day because your home comes with you and you aren’t battling with luggage, taxis, transfers and check-ins at each destination. We had been travelling for a few weeks and unpacking for 12 whole nights was great. Inclusive luxury cruising also deletes the decision of whether to spend three Euros for a drink in town or $15 for a cocktail in the comfort of the ship.

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Sicily was a revelation to me. I’ve never been before but I left vowing to go back. Taormina is set back from the sea almost in the shadow of Mount Etna. It’s an unusual cruise destination because, after tendering ashore, there’s a 20 minute coach transfer to a car park where you catch the lift up seven levels to emerge in a quaint cobbled pedestrian street where the inevitable jewellery stores abut fashion stores like Cellini and Zegna. There’s no doubt about when you reach the end of town – you pay your Euro and enter the Teatro Greco that, as the name suggests, was built in 300 BC by the Greeks when they occupied Sicily. The Romans expanded it (of course) and introduced lions to the program. Now it’s used for concerts from rock to classical on many summer nights. Sitting in the back row watching Mt Etna erupt directly behind the stage would be worth any admission.

After voyaging on a few cruises over the years I’ve learned that you should always pick a sailing that has sea days. Our 12 day voyage had two – one during the 645 nautical mile crossing between Sicily and Rhodes and the other, on Anzac Day, as we sailed through the Dardanelles towards Istanbul while Turkish military aircraft flew in commemoration low over our heads. Both were days to appreciate the ship at leisure but they turned into packed agendas where spa appointments had to be squeezed in between French classes, an informative lecture on Istanbul, time on deck and meals.

Unlike most of the Greek Islands Rhodes is a stolid place of Crusader and Knights Templar solid castles, cobbled streets and greyness. Fortunately, the food is Greek so we found a tavern in the sun and ordered dolmades, souvlaki and Greek salad doused in olive oil. It was a moment of pure bliss.

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I once lived on Mykonos for a winter, met a Canadian girl and followed her to Vancouver, split up, met and married another Canadian, etc, etc. I’d never been back to Mykonos. Decades later I can report that the town has grown but hardly changed. You still get hopelessly lost in the winding alleyways (legend says to confuse pirates) and the sea appears in front of you at unexpected turns. I remembered houses so whitewashed they resembled sagging wedding cakes but I’d forgotten the whitewash continued between the street stones. The whole main town is a fantasy village and I fell in love with it all over again.

Santorini has a cable car! On my previous visits the only options to get from the port to the town 564 metres above on the rim of the flooded volcanic crater was by climbing the 588 steps or overloading an expensive, wheezing donkey. I paid the cable car fee with pleasure. The geometric white houses hanging off the cliffside were as picturesque as ever and the town remains a whitewashed step machine that provides an excellent workout.

Constant news reports of the dire state of European economies gave us some trepidation about travelling through Italy and Greece. We always looked but saw no signs of economic stress – not even any sales. The tourist regions appear to have quarantined themselves from the general economic malaise.

On the other hand, you have no doubt you’re in Asia when you visit Turkey. My feet had hardly touched Turkish soil before I was offered a taxi (1), Turkish delight (lots), a guide (1) and rugs (several). Everyone comes to Kusadasi to visit Ephesus but we rented a car to drive to Pamukkale, a hillside covered in white calcium pools. Driving several hundred kilometres across Turkey in one day revealed that the road system has definitely improved and you can’t always believe photographs – as visitors are no longer allowed near the main pools of Pamukkale and the water flow to fill the pools had been diverted.

After a day exploring Istanbul – from the Grand Bazaar to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia it was time to leave the Crystal Symphony. There was more than a twinge of sadness in our farewell as I’ve never felt so welcomed or so well treated on a ship as I was by the Crystal crew. We never had to wait more than a minute for a tender boat and that efficiency was matched by the speed of our first arrival and final departure from the ship. One minute we were in the pampered cocoon of the Crystal Symphony and the next we were in a car bound for the airport. The variety of destinations across the Eastern Mediterranean makes it a very appealing cruise destination. Crystal Cruises’ new inclusions and greater dining flexibility have enhanced an already excellent cruising experience.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul DSC4818

TRAVEL FACTS

  • Getting There – Of course, many airlines fly to Europe. Try Qatar Airways from Melbourne for excellent service and good deals for Business Class. If you are returning to Europe from Istanbul check the baggage allowance with that airline as it may be just 20kg.
  • Getting Around – Crystal Cruises offer comprehensive tour options at each port. Or it’s easy to organise your own. For post-cruise touring in Turkey: Timeless Tours Toll Free: 1800 671 610, : www.timeless.com.au
  • When To Go – Crystal Symphony cruises Rome to Istanbul June 27, 2013 and returns on July 25, 2013. This is summer in the Med so pack resort wear.
  • Where To Stay – In Rome the beautiful Majestic Roma Hotel, is so central you can walk everywhere and the staff are exceptionally helpful. In Istanbul, splurge at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski – you’ll see it on the waterfront when the Symphony is tied up alongside. Both are members of Leading Hotels of the World (www.lhw.com).
  • Further Information – Crystal Cruises’ information, both before and during the voyage, is so good you hardly need more, except a good history book. Crystal in Australia is Wiltrans Toll Free: 1800 251 174, www.wiltrans.com.au.

By David McGonigal

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Smoke on the Water: Europa 2 World’s Best Cruise Ship?

Posted on May 11, 2013 | Comments Off on Smoke on the Water: Europa 2 World’s Best Cruise Ship?

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What’s the most highly rated cruise ship in the world? If you may start thinking of the ships of cruise lines like Crystal, Silversea or SeaDream you’d be wrong. The “bible” of cruise ratings is Douglas Ward’s Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships and the 2013 edition has, like so many in the past, rated Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa as the pinnacle of cruising perfection.

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However, there’s a new kid on the block. This week the German cruise line launched the 516-passenger Europa 2 this week and it’s undertaking shakedown voyages around Europe right now. Space and lightness and close connection to the sea are some of the initial reactions to the ship. It’s largely all inclusive and it’s certainly not cheap and has the greatest ratio of space per passenger of any cruise ship in the world. It has also moved to a more casual atmosphere: “21 knots without a tie” is the clever marketing phrase being used.

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Chances are that Europa will have to give way to Europa 2 when the 2014 Berlitz cruising guide is released in November. For those who can afford it some consideration may be given to the fact that it is a German-language vessel that’s aiming for up to 20 per cent English-language passengers. And, in a typically continental manner smoking is allowed more generally than Australians may be used to. As the cruise line clearly points out: “All the restaurants with the exception of the portside of the terrace of our Yacht Club Restaurant are non-smoking restaurants. The theatre, the Belvedere and the Atrium are also non-smoking areas. In the Jazz Club and in the Sansibar there are smoking and non-smoking sections. Cigars, cigarillos and pipes can only be smoked in the Gentlemen’s Room and in the outside area on the starboard side of the Sansibar. All outside decks with the exception of the Magrodome area are smoking zones. Please use the ashtrays provided. In the interest of all passengers we would ask you not to smoke in the suites. Smoking is allowed on the veranda. Here, too, we kindly ask you to use the ashtrays provided.”

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For more information visit www.hl-cruises.com/ships/ms-europa-2/

 

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A Passage through the Panama Canal

Posted on Apr 23, 2013 | Comments Off on A Passage through the Panama Canal

entering the Gatun Locks Panama Canal DSC1660

 

By David McGonigal

It takes all day to sail the 80km of the Panama Canal. Still, that’s not a bad day’s travelling when it saves a 13,000 km voyage around Cape Horn if you’re merely sailing from one coast of the USA to the other. I was on Royal Caribbean’s 90,000 tonne Radiance of the Seas when our chatty local canal pilot blabbed that the total bill for our canal transit was a resounding $US300,120, paid well in advance.

The six great milestones in cruising are said to be sailing around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, through their manmade shortcuts the Suez and Panama canals, an Atlantic crossing between Europe and America or a voyage around the world. Of all these only the Panama Canal gives you the sundrenched delights of the Caribbean and the natural delights of Costa Rica and the Baha. And it’s pretty special being on a ship of almost 100,000 tons as it’s lifted 28 metres to cross a mountain range.

When France first started to cut the Panama Canal through the thinnest part of the isthmus that joins North and South America in 1880 the plan was to dig down to sea level so ships could simply sail through. After all, that had worked well for the Suez Canal that opened a decade earlier. It’s hard to imagine looking at kilometres of mountains and disease-ridden jungle filled with sloths and howler monkeys then pick up pick and shovel and think “we can dig a trench through this and link two oceans”. It’s even more surprising that it was first proposed in 1534 by the king of Spain.

However, they underestimated the environment. Excavations collapsed in the rain and thousands of workers died of disease in the swamps. It’s estimated that 30,000 of the 80,000 people that worked on the canal perished – and most (perhaps 22,000) died during the French attempt. In 1903 the US took a lease over the site with the enthusiastic support of President Theodore Roosevelt and a more-conservative lock-based crossing was designed. The first ship sailed through the canal’s three sets of locks on August 15, 1914.

Almost 100 years later I view our approach of Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the canal in the early hours of the morning with some trepidation. Our captain has confided that Radiance of the Seas shouldn’t fit through the Panama Canal. Many ships have been built to fit the canal – the so-called Panamax dimensions – and this is one of them. But a German construction error (now there’s a term you don’t hear very often) resulted in the ship being 106.5 feet wide – the maximum permissible beam is 106 feet. So when Radiance first passed through the canal in 2001, the President of Panama came down to watch the show. The ship squeezed through.

As I watch, Radiance appears to spill over both sides of the lock so its passage resembles trying to put a champagne cork back in the bottle but we make it through and into the manmade Gatun Lakes area. There’s a procession of ships heading in both directions and there are only a few passing lanes. I hear later that in Pedro Miguel lock the ship scrapes both sides and we leave some paint behind.

Even when I go inside to escape the tropical heat, the canal is ever-present. As many have found during Radiance of the Seas’ summer sojourns in Australia, the most impressive feature of the ship is the Centrum area amidships: soaring seven storeys high, the exterior walls are clear glass so from the lounges and bars you are constantly looking at the sea and sky – and canal workers. The walls of the elevators are glass, too, so as you ascend you are either looking down to the central bar, over an ocean panorama, or onto the tractors escorting us through the canal. Radiance OTS (as fans write it) is a big ship, but you can never forget you are at sea. In fact Radiance has been a viral YouTube sensation for its self-levelling pool tables, using technology created for North Sea oil platforms. Even in rough seas they provide no excuse for bad shots.

After lunch we pass through the Gaillard Cut where the canal slices through 12.6 km of the mountains of the Continental Divide – the link between the Andes and the Rockies. There’s extensive excavation work being done to widen the canal here and new, larger locks are due to open in 2014. At the southern end of the cut is the Centennial Bridge that looms overhead – it was built in 2004 and looks very much like Sydney’s Anzac Bridge.

Finally we reach the Miraflores Locks and emerge into the Pacific Ocean. Before heading out into open ocean we sail under the Bridge of the Americas of the Pan Americana highway that links North and South America. We’ve just sailed over a continent.

 

Trip Notes

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean International

Vessel: Radiance of the Seas

While Radiance has no more Panama Canal transits scheduled at present, the Legend of the Seas has15-night voyages from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego and vice versa scheduled for November this year and March next year.

For more information contact Royal Caribbean Cruises (www.royalcaribbean.com.au) on 1800 754 500 or (02) 4331 5400.

 

Fast facts – Panama Canal

•           Panama Hats are from Ecuador – they became known to the world when worn by Ecuadorians working on the Panama Canal.

•           The Panama Canal runs north-south though it joins the Caribbean Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.

•           The Panama Canal was owned and operated by the US until it was handed over to the Panama at midnight on December 31, 1999.

•           The centenary of the Panama Canal will be marked by the opening of new locks and passages 25 per cent larger than the current ones.

•           The cost of enlarging the canal is budgeted at $US5.5 billion.

•           Ships are already being designed for the New Panamax standards.

•           No transit through the Pamana Canal is free, ever. The cheapest toll was paid by an American adventurer named Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928. His body displacement was calculated, just as it is for a cruise ship and he was invoiced 36 US cents.

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Queen Mary 2 sets record with maiden Milford Sound visit

Posted on Mar 19, 2013 | Comments Off on Queen Mary 2 sets record with maiden Milford Sound visit

Queen Mary 2 Milford Sound

Cunard’s magnificent flagship Queen Mary 2 made history on Saturday 16th of March , becoming the largest ship to visit Milford Sound in New Zealand’s stunning World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park.

Measuring 345 metres long and reaching 62 metres above the water, the 151,400-tonne liner cruised the waters of Milford Sound as part of her maiden circumnavigation of New Zealand.

Queen Mary 2 is carrying more than 2500 guests on her 12-day journey around New Zealand which will end in Sydney today (March 19).

More Photos from UK Mail Online

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Carnival Cruise dreams fall short

Posted on Mar 17, 2013 | Comments Off on Carnival Cruise dreams fall short

 

CARNIVAL GLORY

Things look like they are going from bad to worse for Carnival, with news another of its ships is returning to port with technical problems.

Carnival Legend is returning to the port of Tampa after experiencing a technical issue with one of its Azipod propulsion-systems, affecting the vessel’s sailing speed.  The ship’s safety systems and hotel services are all functioning normally, Carnival said in a statement.

Another Carnival cruise, the Dream, which is docked in St Maarten was forced to fly passengers home on Thursday after the ship experienced overflowing toilets and power outages.

It comes just a month after sister ship, Carnival Triumph, was stranded for five days in the Gulf of Mexico. The latest stranded vessel, the Legend, made its scheduled call yesterday in Mahogany Bay, Roatan, in addition to visiting Cozumel and Costa Maya earlier in the week.

Because of the reduction in sailing speed, today’s visit to Grand Cayman has been cancelled and the ship will proceed to its home port of Tampa, where it is expected to arrive on Sunday as scheduled.

Guests on the current voyage will receive a $100.00 per person credit and a full refund on pre-purchased shore excursions for Grand Cayman. In addition, guests will receive 50 per cent off a future Carnival cruise.  Direct Carnival news 

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