Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Med's Top 10

I thought this press release, ahead of the April launch of the new Voyages to Antiquity operation (using the former Aegean I, heavily rebuilt as Aegean Odyssey), was worth repeating for those who like to enjoy the classical side of the Mediterranean.

With the new operation - which is being pioneered by Gerry Herrod, the man who created Orient Lines and Discovery Cruises (now Voyages of Discovery) - now just 2 months away, the company asked its historical advisor and author John Julius Norwich (aka Lord Norwich) to select his Top 10 historical sites from around the Med.

Here's what he said:

“To list one’s 10 favourite places in the Mediterranean and its hinterland is a tall order indeed. No other area on earth possesses a tenth of the quantity of superb historical sites to be found between the Pillars of Hercules and the coast of the Levant; and if we extend our range – as Voyages to Antiquity does – to cover Upper Egypt and St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, Petra and Palmyra, the task becomes more difficult still.”

However, Lord Norwich has been able to complete the task, and his 10 ‘never-to-be-forgotten’ sites are listed below. More importantly, all the destinations are offered in Voyages to Antiquity's inaugural season (personally, I'd have Istanbul No 1, but I'm not going to quibble!):

1. Palermo, Sicily - Visit the Sicilian capital to experience the dazzling Palatine Chapel and the Cathedral of Monreale, with its almost unbelievable 12th-century mosaics and equally magical cloister.
2. Cefalu, Sicily - The mosaic of the Pantocrator in the apse of Cefalu Cathedral is among the greatest portraits of Jesus in all Christian art.

3. Istanbul, Turkey - Istanbul is home to the Church of St Sophia, one of the greatest buildings in the world. And don’t miss the Harrowing of Hell fresco in the 14th-century Church of St Saviour in Chora.

4. Venice, Italy - You could single out St Mark’s Square or any one of a number of churches, but the ultimate miracle is the city itself.

5. Petra, Jordan - To come upon the ‘Treasury’ – a spectacular example of rock-cut architecture probably dating from the first century BC – is one of the great coups de theatre that the world has to offer.

6. Palmyra, Syria (pictured above) - The ruined capital of Queen Zenobia, far out in the Syrian desert, is a site as mysterious as it is beautiful.

7. Krak des Chevaliers, Syria - The most complete Crusader castle to be found anywhere, and the most impressive. To step into this fortress atop a 650-metre-high hill is to return to the 11th century.

8. Aphrodisias, Turkey - Thanks to its remoteness in the hills surrounding the valley of the Meander River, this remarkable ancient city is relatively free of tourists and utterly unspoilt.

9. Luxor and Karnak, Egypt - Ancient Egypt exerts an extraordinary spell on all visitors. The temples open at 6am, so get up early and enjoy the cool of the morning. (You will also have them virtually to yourselves.)

10. Leptis Magna, Libya - Roman ruins don’t come more magnificent than these – and they remain utterly unspoilt by the modern world.

Cruise note: The 382-passenger Aegean Odyssey will be sailing around the Mediterranean from May to November 2010. Fares start from £1,995 for a 15-day cruise, including shore excursions, gratuities, wine with dinner and scheduled flights on British Airways.

Monday, 22 February 2010

An Epic Moves Closer

Some heartening news from NCL re the launch of their Norwegian Epic this summer:

16 February 2010: Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Cruise Line’s largest and most innovative ship to date, returned from her first successful sea trials on Sunday, 14 February 2010, after four days of sailing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

During the sea trials, 300 technicians and engineers from STX FRANCE SA, along with 30 Norwegian Cruise Line representatives, checked more than 60 different aspects of the ship’s performance by running trials of the vessel’s speed, maneuverability, hydrodynamics and propulsion, amongst others.

“During her first time ever at sea, Norwegian Epic performed above expectations with excellent marine behaviour,” said Roberto Martinoli, Norwegian Cruise Line’s president and COO, who was on board during the sea trials. “All tests were conducted with positive results. She is a beautiful ship with outstanding performance. Now that sea trials are completed, we can concentrate on finishing the ship and showing her to the world in June.”

A second round of sea trials is scheduled for mid-April in order to finalise all tests, including final speed measurement. The 153,000-gross ton, 4,200-passenger ship – the largest ship ever built in Saint-Nazaire - is scheduled for delivery on 15 June, 2010.

Following her UK inaugural, seven-day transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York departing on 24 June 2010 and inaugural activities in New York and Miami , Norwegian Epic will sail alternating seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from Miami from 10 July 2010 through to 30 April 2011.

Ports of call on the Eastern Caribbean itinerary include Philipsburg, St. Maarten; St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and Nassau, Bahamas. The Western Caribbean cruises visit Costa Maya, Mexico; Roatán, Bay Islands, Honduras; and Cozumel, Mexico.

Norwegian Cruise Line also recently announced that Norwegian Epic will be based in Barcelona from May to October 2011 from where she will sail a series of seven-day Western Mediterranean cruises.

Enter the iLounge!

When Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Eclipse launches in April, guests will find the first “Celebrity iLounge” onboard. Designed to offer what guests said they wanted most in an internet café: easy access to the internet, inspiring classes and new products.

(PS: That latter is a euphemism for new ways to sell you things!)

The iLounge will be composed of three main areas: a series of 26 workstations where guests can check their email, or print boarding passes; a retail space offering cruisers the opportunity to see and try out the latest MacBooks®, iPods® and accessories; and an 'enrichment centre' where staff will offer guests tips on Mac or iPod usage.

“Our new Celebrity iLounge is a direct expansion of our new ‘Designed for you’ brand platform, and our commitment to listen to our guests and offer experiences expressly designed for them,” said Celebrity President and CEO Dan Hanrahan. “Our surveys show that our guests rely heavily on the Internet for research, learning and staying in touch, so we think this new offering will be a big hit, as will the contemporary online classes offered through the ‘Discover’ series of our inspiring and enriching ‘Celebrity Life’ experiences.”

The iLounge will offer a series of engaging new courses designed to suit its guests’ interests – including DIY photo books, movie editing and web design, through programmes including iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iWeb. And, whether guests are savvy or novice users of Mac or iPod products, Celebrity staff will be well-equipped to assist, following more than 125 hours of training in operating systems, applications and products.

Guests eager to expand their collection of merchandise will also find the iLounge an "enticing venue" (say Celebrity). As an authorised Apple reseller, the line will have products available for guests to purchase, including iPods, MacBooks and various accessories.

Located on deck six, the iLounge will house the 26 MacBook Pro’s, classroom and retail area, in addition to display pods, a 56-inch flatscreen TV for use during classes and an accessible workstation.

The iLounge will also feature on Celebrity Silhouette, which launches in 2011, and the fifth ship in the Solstice Class, which launches in 2012.

It all adds up to quite a thoughtful and new onboard programme (albeit quite heavy on the Mac sell) which should help to make the Eclipse (and her sisters) even more attractive against all the various competition.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

We're on Countdown Central here at Chez Veness, ready for our big epic adventure of the year - off to Chile and a week's cruise with Nomads of the Seas followed by a post-cruise stay in the capital Santiago.

It marks the start of our loose 'theme' with World of Cruising magazine for 2010, the whole subject of adventure cruising and the best ways to do it in different parts of the world.

We have already highlighted the new Adventure Cruise Collection just published by our sister company The Cruise Line Ltd, but our subjects for the magazine promise to go into a lot more depth in each case.

We will open the Spring edition with the great Pacific North-West, exploring the little-known region between Seattle and Vancouver (including the charming San Juan islands), and then go on to present Chilean Patagonia in all its splendour. After that, we go on to sample river-cruising in Indo-China; the classic Norwegian Coastal Voyage of Hurtigruten; the Galapagos with Haugan Cruises; Alaska in the company of American Safari Cruises; and discover how to enjoy a true African safari with your cruise.

But, for now, we are suitably excited about the prospects of a flight from Miami to Santiago and then Santiago to Puerto Montt (both with LAN Airways, about whom we hear good things) to meet up with Nomads and their unique operation.

It is certainly one of the most unusual and enticing trips I will have tried as editor of the magazine, and one which has been a long-standing ambition since I first saw the BBC TV documentary series Flight of the Condor back in the 1970s.

The whole region of sub-equatorial South America has long been a major fascination for me and this will be the ideal opportunity to discover if the fantasy lives up to the reality. We should get to see a lot of the Chilean Andean landscape and its wildlife (the whole week is subtitled as a Wildlife Cruise), and I will have the camera very firmly primed for lots of pictures - many of which you will see in our Summer edition.

Following that up with a few days in Santiago and a chance to visit the neighbouring wine country should be equally captivating. It is a city and region about which I know little (apart from what the Lonely Planet guidebook has told me so far!), but it promises to add an extra dimension to our trip.

So you'll have to excuse me if I seem a little distracted this week. But it should be worth waiting for...!