Part of Dubrovnik harbour

I’m sure many people will have read this story on the BBC News website yesterday (16 July 2017). My response to the story has gone through the usual gamut of reactions – annoyance, analysis of the errors in the article, and eventual acceptance that there is a problem.

I did notice the following issues that I’d take issue with in the story:-

  • the ship in the picture is MSC Divina, and the location is St Mark’s Basin in Venice. Since regulations were introduced for the 2016 season, ships the size of the Divina (which I agree is huge….) no longer call at Venice, nor do they (as Divina did) start and finish cruises there. So that image is certainly a couple of years old;
  • Despite the picture of Venice at top of the article, the text hardly mentions that city. It’s mostly about Dubrovnik and Capri;
  • and the article does accept that cruise passengers aren’t the only visitors to those places.

But – there is no question that many places do experience tourist visitors on a scale that’s hard for them to accommodate; and that the number of visitors is affecting the experience that the visitors have. My own visit to the Acropolis in Athens, for example, was awful, and in Florence we felt that (as the article suggests) we were encountering only tourists or those serving their needs.

Of course, many of these small, comparatively remote places have become much easier to get to in the last couple of decades. It’s not just cruise companies but also budget airlines – easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2, and so on – who have made access to Venice,  Dubrovnik or Capri so easy. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to get to Venice even as recently as, say, 1990 – flight to Rome (from where?), possibly followed by a really expensive flight to Venice airport, but more likely a complicated train journey through Mestre to Venice itself. Similarly, Dubrovnik might have been accessible during the 70s and 80s, as communist Yugoslavia followed its independent line (independent of Moscow, that is) but at that time tourism was quite tightly controlled – the great majority of tourists came on package holidays and were encouraged to stay in the resort areas, e.g. Pula or Rovinj in Istria;  visits to other places mainly took place as organised excursions. Then of course the Yugoslav war broke out in 1991 and it was the late 90s, or even the early 00s, before tourism recovered along the Dalmatian coast. By that time the budget airlines, and the cruise lines, were ready with their offerings.

I also think that in the places where the protests are biggest, there is another factor at play. I know that in the case of Venice many of the local people feel that they have lost control of their environment. This isn’t just because of the numbers of tourists, but because of the structure of local government. Many of these places are quite small – the population of historic Venice is around 50,000, for example – but they are included in larger local government units. For example, the municipality of Venice has a total population of about 250,000, some three-quarters of whom live on the mainland and not in the historic city. The elected officials – especially the mayor, who in the Italian system has considerable power – are likely to draw the majority of their support from outside the historic city, and from areas where the concerns will be different. Residents of the historic city may have a different view on tourism promotion from residents on the mainland, for example, but it is the latter – who make up the majority of the municipality’s population – who will have the major say in decisions. It’s also the case that a crucial player in the Venice infrastructure, the Port of Venice, does not appear to be controlled by the municipality; it’s an independent authority (or so I believe). And of course it, too, is mainly based on the mainland (where there are significant container-handling and bulk cargo facilities), so once again the people most connected with the historic city feel that decisions that affect them greatly are being taken by an entity over which they have little influence or power.

I apologise if this is coming across as rather rambling. That probably results from my own feelings, which tilt back and forwards on this issue. Of course I love going to these wonderful places, but more and more I’m wondering if, or to what extent, my presence (along with that of millions of other people, of course) is damaging the very places I enjoy visiting. It’s a difficult issue, and one on which I’m still undecided. Swithering, as the Scots say.

Holiday perils

This is a sad story:

Sint Maarten jet engine blast kills New Zealand woman

I’ve no idea if the woman who died was a cruise passenger or not, though probably not. But like many others I’ve looked at the YouTube videos of planes landing and taking off from the airfield on Sint Maarten. First just to see how low over the beach the aircraft were as they seemed to float into their landing, then later, I’ll admit, watching people standing in the jet exhausts as the planes took off. I was always aware, of course, that it had to be dangerous, but hearing the shouts of excitement on the YouTube videos somehow negated the obvious risks. “That must be exciting!” I probably thought.

This story is a tragic reminder that danger must never be ignored no matter how exciting it might look. As I say, this accident may well not have been to someone who was on a cruise but there are plenty of activities that cruise passengers undertake that could be dangerous. Please, everyone, take care.

Bergen from Floyen

Almost a week has passed since we disembarked from Azura and it’s time to do a summary of our thoughts on the cruise.

We chose this cruise well over a year ago for two reasons. First was the itinerary which included no less than six ports (out of seven in total) that we had never visited; in fact two whole countries, Iceland and the Faroes, would be new to us. The second reason was that we enjoy Azura – we like the cabins, the balcony size, the fact that you can walk (almost) round the promenade, and the collection of bars and restaurants. So how good were our decisions?

We ended up frustrated by the itinerary – or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we were frustrated by how it happened, day-by-day. Chief among this would have to be the weather. I think we were being realistic in our expectations – you don’t go almost to the Arctic Circle, even in June, expecting high temperatures and unbroken sunshine. We had in fact packed for all eventualities – lights clothes for some sunshine hopefully, but also reasonably heavy fleeces and of course waterproofs. In the end it was the latter that we seemed to need most days. The weather was good for the first two days at sea and we enjoyed the sun on those days, but thereafter the only time we saw significant amounts of sun was in Akureyri. It rained in Bergen and Alesund, it rained and was bitterly cold in Isafjordur, it rained on and off in the Faroes, and it was grey and overcast and not warm at Belfast. Sadly, the overcast & cold theme continued during the last couple of sea days – the first from the Faroes to Belfast, and the second from Belfast down the Irish sea and then around Devon and Cornwall and into the English Channel. I’d been hoping for some warmer weather and perhaps some sun during that day. Didn’t happen. So we seemed to spend a lot of time getting a bit wet and a bit cold.

Then of course there was the missed call at Reykjavik. I’m not criticising the decision to abandon the call because I don’t know the full details nor do I have the requisite knowledge of the requirements. Nonetheless it was disappointing. For us it was just one more port that we’d been looking forward to, but we gathered that for a lot of passengers Reykjavik would have been the highlight of the cruise, and many people were very disappointed indeed. Azura was a pretty subdued ship that day. It didn’t help that because of the high winds, walking round the promenade was cold and windy that day; and it was even more frustrating when the clouds rolled away during the evening and we had that spectacular sunset that night. So during the day the ship was full of disappointed passengers wandering around looking for something to do. (To be fair to the on-board team, they did arrange a programme of events at very short notice.)

We certainly enjoyed the ports that we visited; there was something at each of them that was rewarding. At Bergen we enjoyed walking the paths on Floyen (and I had the quiet satisfaction of getting the pre-cruise Floybahnen tickets right); we were delighted by the architecture at Alesund; we enjoyed the waterfall and the geo-thermal landscape at Akureyri (but were frustrated because we wanted to spend longer); we even found a couple of things at Isafjordur that were good – the photographs in the Library & Art Gallery, plus of course the coffee & cake in the cafe/bar, Husid; the Faroes were delightful, certainly out of Torshavn; and we enjoyed the Titanic experience in Belfast more than we expected. But we found the number of sea days too many – it should have been six but was actually seven, out of thirteen full days. Indeed, we also felt that a fourteen night cruise might itself be a bit longer than we really want, these days – we were ready to get off several days before we actually did so, and I have a feeling that would her been true even if the weather had been better.

As regards Azura itself, we had no complaints. The cabin was perfectly fine, we enjoyed the balcony on the first couple of days, Freedom dining worked well for us, we thought the food in the MDR was good, and as ever we enjoyed the drinks in the Glasshouse and the Planet bar. (And in the Glasshouse we enjoyed the food as well.) We had a couple of meals in Sindhu which were good, but perhaps not great – I think the concept needs refreshing a bit. We didn’t go to any of the shows in the theatre; instead we watched a couple of films in the cabin during the late evenings. We enjoyed a series of talks on ‘Literary Performers’ by Priscilla Morris during the day times, and we also watched a film in the theatre one day. And finally, we were impressed by the hardy souls on sunbeds around the Sea Screen – every time we passed that spot there seemed to be some people there, wrapped up in blankets.

Overall, we enjoyed the cruise – we certainly don’t have negative feelings about the ship or about cruising as a result of this cruise. Would we do a similar cruise again? – I’m not sure, but probably not. I’d love to see Alesund or the Faroe Islands in sunshine but that can never be guaranteed. If we went again, there’s every possibility that we’d simply repeat the experiences of this cruise.

So where does that leave us for future cruises? Well, after two successive years in northern waters we want warmer weather next time. We also think that we don’t want too many sea days, so that points us towards a fly-cruise. So (as I posted previously) we’ve booked a seven-night fly cruise on Oceana for September 2018, to be preceded by a two night pre-cruise stay at a hotel in Malta as part of the holiday. We’re already looking forward to it.

We all know that P&O are due to get a new ship in 2020. What’s often forgotten is that this new ship will be one of half-a-dozen or so on the same hull and therefore with broadly the same facilities, and these will ships will be distributed around the various Carnival Corp fleets. The first two will go to AIDA and Costa, and they’ll be in service in 2019, which means that details of the facilities for those ships at least will have to be become visible fairly soon.

So here’s a YouTube video animation of the AIDA ship. It’s quite short, very glitzy and I’m sure that the P&O ship won’t have the same details, certainly not configurable details – e.g. a bar here, a restaurant there – but the broad outlines will be the same. To that end, I was pleased to see what looks very much like an external promenade one deck above the boat deck.

More details in due course, of course.

(Many thanks to ‘danielundecided’ who posted the link to the YouTube video on Cruise critic, which is how I found it.)

Here are some images I took with the iPhone during the cruise. I’ve only had the chance today to do things with them.

The cafe-bar was called Hûsid, in Isafjordur. Probably the best cake Val has eaten for a long time!

 

Home again

So nearly 48 hours after getting home I’m just about able to raise my head and take a look around!

We did self-disembarkation once again. We had been wondering about doing normal disembarkation this time – we’ve found doing it ourselves getting harder and harder in recent cruises – but for this cruise we didn’t buy any duty-free (thus avoiding festooning ourselves with even more bags), and we felt that, given the typical age of passengers on this cruise, there wouldn’t be many self-disembarkers, and this looked to be correct.

We woke up at 6am on Friday morning after a bad night’s sleep (self-inflicted – too much food and alcohol the night before) to see the Southampton grain terminal just drifting past our balcony. By the time we’d got up, showered etc, and had breakfast it was 7:30, which was within the self-disembarkation time slot of 7:15 to 8:15. So we took ourselves down to deck 6 – we were able to get a lift –  and just walked off; the queue had already been cleared. We were in the car by 7:45. A slight navigation mishap meant that it was nearly 8 o’clock before we were properly on our way, and we hit the M3 at about 8:20. Then it was a simple drive home, arriving at 12:15.

Since then I’ve been washing and ironing, but I’ve nearly reached the bottom of it. Apart from feeling tired I’m OK, but unfortunately Val has picked up a cough and doesn’t feel too good. The perils of a holiday….

So that’s it for our 2017 cruise to to Iceland. In the end we were a bit disappointed – the weather fell below our expectations, let alone our hopes, and the cancellation of the call at Reykjavik was disappointing and just added a sea day, of which there were already plenty. More and more we’re thinking that the seven-night fly-cruise we’ve booked for next year, with a couple of pre-cruise days at a hotel in the departure port, will be a better choice.

I’ll do a fuller review of this year’s cruise in a day or so. In the meantime I hope that my readers have found the posts interesting and helpful.

Next Cruise Blues

We’ve been holding off making a booking for our next cruise, for several reasons. Firstly, we’ve been wondering if we’re ‘cruised out’. Well, we’re not sure about that but we haven’t completely gone off them. Second, we’ve been waiting until Val’s work situation was clearer, and it now is – she’ll be working on a big software implementation project until June or July next year. So armed with that knowledge we’d started making plans for September 2018.

We had already spotted a tempting itinerary for a 7-night fly-cruise on Oceana in the right period: Valletta, Split, Venice, Ravenna, Dubrovnik, and back to Valletta. We need to restrict ourselves to just 7-night itineraries for these fly cruises, as the fact that they start mid-week means that Val would have to take three weeks off work, certainly more than two weeks, to fit in the fourteen nights of the actual cruise. But that’s OK – we’ve been feeling on this cruise that perhaps fourteen nights was a couple of nights too long, and in any case P&O helpfully invite would-be passengers to extend their holiday with a pre- or post-cruise stay at the Excelsior Hotel in Valletta. So a couple of extra nights there before the cruise would bring it up to nine nights which feels about right, would give us a day or so to recover from a 6:15am flight from Manchester, and would also allow us to explore Malta, a place we’ve never been to.

We found ourselves opposite the Loyalty and Future Cruises desk here on the ship, ventured in and soon found ourselves in conversation with Jack and Christian, the Loyalty and Future Cruise managers for the cruise. They couldn’t have been more helpful. Flights from Manchester? – no problem. A night at the Excelsior in advance? – of course. A second night? – I’m sure that will be OK. What with promises of hassle-free transfers, plentiful OBC (especially for a seven night cruise) and a low deposit, we were convinced and duly signed up; and more importantly from Jack and Christian’s viewpoint, we produced the credit card.

Later that day we got the booking confirmation printout, and that was when one or two questions emerged. The second night at the hotel couldn’t be confirmed, and while the round-trip was described as being Manchester to Manchester, the flight out seemed to be from Gatwick. Driving from Sheffield to Gatwick is not a journey to be undertaken lightly, especially if you have a deadline by which you have to get to Gatwick. So various further discussions ensued.

The issue seems to revolve around the fact that we’re booking so far in advance – more than a year from now. P&O know they’ll be running the cruise so that’s definite. They also know that they will be chartering flights for those travelling on embarkation and disembarkation days, so even though the charters may not have been arranged yet for the dates of our cruise, everyone knows they will be. But P&O don’t normally charter flights on other days to cover passengers staying extra nights at the hotel – they book passengers onto whatever flights are available, and at the moment (late June 2017) none of the relevant airlines have published their schedules for September 2018. So the advice is – contact our TA (the booking has been passed to them) in October to sort out the details.

Our first reaction was to feel very uncertain about this, but on reflection we’ve decided that we’re being wusses. So we’re booked on a fly-cruise plus a pre-cruise stay in September 2018 for which we don’t know the flight details nor even how many nights we’ll be away, and by our standards this feels like living dangerously. I’m sure we’ll come to relish it eventually!

(Update later but before posting: we’ve had the second night in the hotel confirmed so we do at least know how long the holiday will last. That’ll do for now.)