Friday, 2 November 2018

Icelandic landscapes

I would guess that the majority of visitors to Reykjavik by cruise ships stay in the capital and, indeed, it is a lovely city, albeit with a lot of development currently taking place.

However, get out into the surrounding countryside and you will be blown away by the stunning landscape - vast lava fields covered in bright green mosses and lichens, mountains, roads edged with wild lupins, deep blue-green lakes and steaming volcanic mud pools.

I would suggest a half-day tour and then the rest of the day in Reykjavik.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Arctic waters

Last week I returned from a  wonderful cruise on the lovely Oriana to Iceland, Greenland and Scotland. P&O haven't cruised these waters for some years so I jumped at the chance to return.
Nuuk, Greenland, 2007
My first cruise to these countries was back in 2007 on P&O's Artemis. It was not a great success since we lost Glengariff in Ireland due to it being too rough to tender, Qaqortoq and Akureyri due to ice in the fjords and half a day in Reykjavik due to high winds! There was also thick fog slowing us down. Although this was the same time of year I was hoping for better luck this time.
Our first iceberg

I can understand why P&O do not sail these waters often as  huge amount of additional organisation is required. Once at Reykjavik we picked up two specialist ice pilots, one of whom was always on the bridge. We also sailed with an additional deputy captain, had searchlights mounted and manned at night and had to report home every half an hour whilst in potentially dangerous waters. 

In the event the weather could not have been better with mainly clear bright skies, comfortable temperatures and little fog. There were many highlights but two for me were the rare opportunity for a ship of Oriana's size to sail through Prins Christian Sund, the captain performing a 360 degree spin in front of one of the many glaciers, and the spectacular wildlife on display - whales, dolphins, porpoises, puffins, fulmars, seals and arctic terns. 

Prins Christian Sund connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. Around 60 miles long, it is as narrow as 1,600 ft in places. The fjord is surrounded by desolate mountains over 7,200 ft high and glaciers drop straight into its waters where they calve icebergs. It easily and favourably compares with Alaska or the Chilean Fjords and I spent the transit on he aft Terrace Deck, where I could dodge from side to side as waterfalls and glaciers appeared.

As I had spent an afternoon in Reykjavik before, I opted for tours into the countryside. Southern Iceland was so beautiful with vast lava fields covered with bright lush mosses and wild lupins. Occasionally steam rose from active volcanic fumeroles and boiling mud pools. The country is sparsely populated with most settlements along the coastline. 

Northern Iceland was different - more like Norway with deep fjords and high plateau. In some deep crevices the snow never melts. We had three ports of call - Reykjavik in the south west and Isafjordur and Akureyri in the north. 

Our first sight of Greenland was of high, jagged mountains with plenty of icebergs littering the coast. We  were calling at the capital Nuuk (otherwise called Gothab) and Qaqortoq (Julianhab). I had been to Nuuk on my previous cruise here, which was just as well since instead of tendering into the heart of the old port, we were berthed at the container port. Since this was one of the few places we had high winds and rain, I declined the very long walk into town, since there were no shuttle buses or taxis available. I wasn't happy about it though. 

Fortunately at Qaqortoq we had a lovely day and, once off the tender, we were able to wander round this small but very different port. There were two lovely churches and typical Scandinavian buildings dotted at random angles beside the roads. The only problem here were the swarms of ferocious mosquitoes and midges and I soon understood why the locals wore netted hats! It is also very hilly with a great deal of heavy vehicle traffic.

Callanish standing stones, Isle of Lewis

Loch Lomond

Our other ports on this cruise were the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, Greenock and Torshavn in the Faroes. Greenock was a repeat port but Stornaway and Torshavn were both new to me. I was lucky to get ashore at Stornaway and it was quite choppy and soon after tendering was stopped. I think the captain did well to get anyone ashore and certainly the journey back was bumpy enough to make the P&O tender assistant seasick! I loved this remote island with it's peat moorlands and craggy outcrops with grazing sheep. 
Torshavn, Faroes

The Faroes were surprisingly different with deep fjords and huge towering mountains criss-crossed with sheep tracks.

All in all, this was a great cruise in a stunning part of the world well worth exploring.  

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Goodbye, Farewell, Amen

In the last month there have been announcements, albeit expected ones, of the loss of two of the UK's favourite ships - Saga Sapphire and Oriana. I suppose it is my age, but over my cruising career I have slowly lost all my personal favourites - Cunard's Caronia and QE2 and P&O Cruises' Artemis and now Oriana

Artemis at Santorini
The big difference however is that, whereas Sapphire is being replaced by the brand new 58,000grt Spirit of Discovery carrying 999 passengers, Oriana's replacement is Iona at 180,000grt and over 5000 passengers.

Of course ships have a sell-by date but I do so wish more of the new-builds were not leviathans carrying over 4000 passengers, or should I say guests, since these huge vessels are more akin to floating hotels than cruise ships. Which brings me to my second point - their size limits the ports which they can visit, so very often they end up sailing the equivalent of bus routes like giant ferries, or they have to tender passengers ashore - not much fun when 4000-5000 people are involved. Although I love cruising and sea days I also want to explore the world and these sorts of numbers flood smaller, more interesting places. 

I also accept lines need to attract a new younger clientele but it feels as if it is at the expense of us older and loyal customers and let's face it; we are the generation with the time and money to cruise far more than younger people. 

Oriana at Trieste

To me, Oriana is the perfect cruise ship. She has lots of public rooms so many activities can run concurrently; loads of beautiful teak-floored open deck space (heaven under bare feet, while the modern composites can burn feet in hot climates), a separate cinema, open forward observation decks to watch the scenery when entering port or cruising the Suez or Panama Canals and those beautiful tiered stern decks. Not so big that you can't nip back to your cabin easily if you forget something but big enough to find quiet corners if that is your wish. 

Well done to lines such as Viking, Regent and Saga for still building new ships of this size, but if you don't like or want to fly, the choices are becoming sadly limited. Cruise & Maritime Voyages are busy expanding their fleet and if they can only get their act together re. organisation and better food, I can see them gaining many of P&O's older, most loyal passengers. Meanwhile P&O seem intent on becoming more and more like Royal Caribbean. In my view, a risky strategy, since, although not to my cruising taste, RCI do what they do extremely well, particularly in entertainment and family activities. 

I count myself lucky to have starting cruising when I did so have experienced many of the older cruise ships - Discovery, Vistafjord, Funchal etc. and perhaps that is the problem. Those starting their cruising now won't know any different and so won't compare the new megaships to those I knew and loved. After all, Canberra fans hated Oriana when she first launched too!

Monday, 9 April 2018

My solo cruise with Saga River Cruises.

I wanted a short break around the end of March and so chose a week on the Rhine. The boat was the Filia Rheni II, a Dutch river boat on charter, together with her sister, Regina Rheni, to Saga Holidays. Part of the attraction was the option of flights from my local airport, rather than having to take the train to Folkestone and then coach, or the Eurostar.

Filia Rheni takes just around 150 passengers in all twin outside cabins. There were 107 on my cruise, many solos like me. Aside from a couple of moaners, the other passengers were friendly, chatty and helpful (I am currently walking with one crutch). Being Saga of course, the majority were elderly but active, ex-professional types. The cabins are all the same internally, the only differences being those on the lowest deck have a small window, the middle deck where I was have a large picture window and the upper deck have Juliet balconies. The main public rooms consist of a large forward lounge with bar and tea and coffee self-service station; the restaurant is on the lowest public deck and at the stern is a small library/games room, fitness room and Jacuzzi. The latter has to be booked as it is not permanently filled. The top sun deck is huge, with some canopies, sun loungers, directors’ chairs and a small unheated pool. There is also a roofed lounging area there with planters and rattan seats. The lounge deck, middle deck and restaurant are served by a lift but you need to be able to manage stairs to access the lowest deck of cabins and the library. The sun deck has a stairlift on one of the two external flights of stairs.

The captain was Italian and all the other crew, from second captain to laundress were eastern European, mainly Romanian and Hungarian. They were, without exception, friendly and very helpful. We also carried a Dutch river pilot. This was the first cruise of the season and the boat had just undergone a refit. It was immaculate inside and out.
The cabin was a good size with twin beds pushed together to make a double, bedside shelves with lamps on, a double wardrobe and two cupboards. A small drawer held a hairdryer and there was a shoe-cleaning mitt, shoehorn and flat-screen TV. The safe was in the wardrobe. I was very pleased that the shower had a glass sliding door and not a curtain! There was a Milka chocolate on my pillow every night but I wasn't so keen on the fact that the duvet was folded in half lengthways and laid on the bed meaning you had to effectively make your own bed each night. There were also two quiet-voxs in charger units. These are used on tours and hang round the neck, transmitting the guide’s commentary wirelessly. Having your own unit permanently cut down on time at the start of tours.


We had a safety briefing on the first evening but muster drill was on day 2, when we had to wear our life jackets and muster on the sun deck. I did struggle with those outdoor stairs when I couldn't see my feet! Stewardesses checked cabins.
Breakfast is an open-seating buffet; a light lunch buffet was available in the lounge or a served open-seat meal in the restaurant. Dinner was at 7pm and was fixed seating. I was on a table of 6. I found the food delicious and it exceeded my expectations, although choices were limited. There was always a fish dish and a vegetarian one. The other varied between poultry, venison, lamb etc. There was one dessert or cheese and biscuits. A choice of white, red or rose wine or beer was included with lunch and dinner. The first night there was a birthday and the lights were turned off leaving just real candles on all the tables, while a proper cake with candles was brought in and we all sang Happy Birthday. Some nice touches were the hot chocolate (with brandy) served on deck as we transited the Rhine Gorge (the weather was sunny but freezing cold) and the large amount of carefully-arranged Easter chocolates we all received. 

Unlike an ocean cruise, there was no security. If we went ashore, we handed in our cabin key (literally, a key) in exchange for a boarding pass. Frequently, river boats moor to other river boats, meaning you have to cross from one to another to get ashore. In Koblenz, this meant crossing over to another larger boat, climbing up to their sundeck and then down a very steep narrow gangway. Gangways have ropes, not rails, making this quite impossible for me at the present time. Other times it was just a few short steps ashore.

Given their small size entertainment is limited. We had quizzes, a couple of musical evenings and, in Koblenz, a local folk group came on board, but you could go ashore if you wanted most evenings. I found a week was long enough as it is quite intensive but wouldn't hesitate to go again.