Vernon Buxton's Cruise News & Views

May 23, 2007
Author: Vernon Buxton

Hello out there...welcome aboard!

What's on your wish list?

Presumably if you're reading this feature, then you're also into the pleasures of cruising? Obviously I am, and was thinking this week what ships I would love to cruise on...and a few I'd happily give a miss.

Top of my list would be Cunard's QUEEN VICTORIA, debuting this December. She'll be a hot ticket for sure. QV is to be rich in balconies and dining options, all rather de rigueuer these days. Yet, it's surprising how many lines took so long to catch on to the idea!

One hopes there will be a remaining semblance of the culture that once defined bouillon at 11, a white-gloved afternoon tea ceremony without peer (with pianoforte accompaniment, naturally) and with pre-prandial libations to a lively ship's band playing Cole Porter and Noel Coward, et I experienced on the last voyage of the QUEEN ELIZABETH from Southampton to New York in October, 1968.

Yes, I did. My friend, David, and I were walking through Trafalgar Square and we saw this sign in a window: “QE’S LAST VOYAGE TO NY – FROM 90 POUNDS.” We paid our 90 quid, and crossed the Pond in third class.

The old girl belched thick black smoke the whole way, and the ship was not even half full. The crew were morose and miserable, and an indefinable sadness permeated the entire experience. Which was all perfectly understandable.

There was no unforgettable greeting in New York either. One tug gave us a token spout of water. There could have been a better effort when the ship sailed out of New York for the last time ever that evening?…but by then David and I were already well our way to exploring America on Greyhound buses.

One tends to feel that Cunard is but a brand name these days? I would like to be proved wrong, hoping it remains as English as thickly-buttered toast.

I gather advance booking on the QUEEN VICTORIA is seriously robust...with many itineraries sold out, or selling fast.

The three QUEENS will meet up in New York in December. Think of the PR coup that will be? As it is, Australian bookings are pouring in after QUEEN MARY 2 and QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 met up in Sydney harbour recently. It shows the power of historic branding...backed by a mega-corporation like Carnival.

Crossing the Pond on QUEEN MARY 2 appeals mightily. Six days at sea, with the wild Atlantic as your ever-changing and tempestuous companion. I felt the power of a Force 10 gale mid-Atlantic on the old QE, and it was exhilarating to say the least. The old girl acquitted herself magnificently amid the turbulence...cutting through the giant waves like a knife through butter.

The QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 you can keep...she's done her day.
Her interior layout - though smart enough - simply cannot compete with today's offerings…but that doesn't stop a huge and loyal following from disagreeing with me entirely. To each his, or her, own!

Next on my list would be Crystal Cruises' CRYSTAL SERENITY. Oh yes, I've lunched on this beauty in Durban harbour (and on CRYSTAL HARMONY before that.)

Crystal has evolved a deliciously opulent on board ambiance that somehow sets it completely apart, and I just loved the decor in the public rooms, which are spacious and appealing. The service – should I say the interaction with the stewards and stewardesses - was in a class of its own. Waiters are your main link with a ship, so its vital they make you feel, welcome, at home and happy. On some cruise lines this aspect leaves a lot to be desired.

I know Silversea offers a similar experience, but when I lunched on SILVER WIND in Durban some years back I found the décor just a bit too understated for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a superior cruise offering, but it’s just that if I had a choice I’d go for Crystal.

I'd be keen to experience a Celebrity Cruises 'Millenium-class' vessel. This is the luckless cruise line that has suffered major financial setbacks because of recurringly faulty azipod engines, and there are lawsuits lined up with the manufacturers until Kingdom Come.

But the info I have gleaned about Celebrity attracts me. There is an emphasis on exceptional cuisine and entertainment is above average too. If you've done a Celebrity cruise, tell us about it.

Hapag-Lloyd’s EUROPA would be on any ‘must do’ list, largely because the Berlitz guide rates it as the most luxurious ship in the world, year after year.

Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines recently acquired NORWEGIAN CROWN from NCL, (who'd sell such a gem escapes me?) and will be re-launched as BALMORAL in January. I sailed on this vessel as CROWN ODYSSEY, and for those who prefer mid-size ships this is the answer to your dreams.

And, yes, I'd love to experience this vessel in FOCL's 'country house' ambiance. The wraparound observation lounge topside for'ard is a beauty, offering 180-degree views of sweeping sea vistas. I'm surprised all ships don't offer something similar? I’d go so far as to say it’s about the best feature on any ship I have ever sailed on.

Carnival? I'm not sure I'm the target market? But hey, that's perceptions for you. Maybe the ritz n' glitz and around-the- clock party could be fun? Maybe just once?

Royal Caribbean I have tested; it was on the MAJESTY OF THE SEAS in the Caribbean. It was an acceptable cruise offering, whilst deeply lacking in something? The sight of long queues waiting for the dining room to open was off-putting...passengers were behaving like boarding house kids, and I would know because I went to boarding school when I was six years old!

Today, I'd seriously only be interested indulging RCI’s 160,000-ton FREEDOM OF THE SEAS or LIBERTY OF THE SEAS ...boasting more facilities than a small town. LIBERTY not only has an ice rink, but a nine-hole miniature golf course, a 14-metre rock-climbing wall and a regulation sized boxing ring.

Gross, you reckon? Well, maybe, but I’d want to know myself.
You can take a dip in the full-sized water park, which has its very own wave generator for surfing, or relax in whirlpools in a poolside solarium. And what about the ‘Royal Promenade’ shopping mall running almost stem to stern along the centre of the ship?

How, one wonders, will the cruising public react when RCI's 'Genesis' project begins to flout its 220,000-ton enormity in a couple of years time? By which time, Carnival will be itching to spit back with a 250,000-tonner? (They're still just talking about it, but they've only got to get an inkling that the 'Genesis' ship will work, and an order will go in, you'll see.)

Holland America's ROTTERDAM Vl is also on my "have done" list. It was just a few nights during a world cruise segment. I found the whole atmosphere somewhat staid and unexciting, but I think you'd expect that on most world cruises…a sort of ‘God’s Waiting Room’. World cruisers generally have pots of money and not much time left to indulge it.

Nonetheless, HA's décor is warm and colourful...with a lot of darker tones, and some impressive giant murals of historic naval scenes here and there. Very attractive, and this line enjoys a loyal I won't be missed on any passenger list, will I? Who the hell do I think I am anyway?

I've lunched on P&O's ORIANA in Cape Town harbour. Hmmnnn? Staid, I'd say, with bland decor throughout. Not my cuppa tea.

Last week I received a mail from Ports & Ships reader, Henry Aitken in Durban: “My wife and I have mainly cruised with P&O and we are very happy with their service, etc. We have noticed, however, that there have been cutbacks and extra revenue areas but, on the whole, we would cruise with P&O again.”

Thanks, Henry…from the horse’s mouth, as it were. As for me, I'd opt for Cunard any day...even though the two lines are owned by the same corporation.

Truth be told, I'd enjoy just about any cruise on any ship. The essence of cruising for me is to be resting my elbows on a teak railing, watching a turquoise sea sweep by. To gaze out as the bow bites into a deep swell, with white foam being thrust away with immense power, and wave tops being blown horizontally whilst instantly evaporating in a stiff breeze. That’s cruising for me…because the effect is hypnotic!

The pampering and distraction that goes on inside is merely the cream on top, but hardly the raison d'etre.

Awaking in a new destination and a different weather pattern almost daily is also very stimulating, never mind not having to endure crowded airports, packing and unpacking, or having to make major decisions.

The sea has always been a source of adventure, excitement, romance and wonder. It is beneficial and therapeutic. There is no traffic, no crime and no pollution. When you want more, you head topside, and when you've had enough, you simply go below...what a pleasure! So bring on any ship...yes please...and thank you very much!

I fell in love with ships when I was a little boy, watching transfixed as these huge lumps of metal glided into harbours with utter gentility and quietness. I stood on docksides, hypnotised…hoping like hell I'd be able to ride on one when I grew up.

That day came in 1966 when, aged 24 I sailed from Durban to Southampton on the SA VAAL, the former TRANSVAAL CASTLE. It was 18-day voyage of sheer joy and interest, calling at East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Madeira. My desire to sail on large ships was sealed forever.

As a reporter on the-then Natal Mercury (now just The Mercury) in Durban in the mid-1970s, the news editor, Godfrey King, sent me off to the harbour to witness and report on the last voyage of the WINDSOR CASTLE…and the end of the Union-Castle Line.

There was bunting and flags, streamers and bands as the famous lavender hull eased away from the dockside for the last time...and someone sang 'Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye' on a loud-hailer. This supposedly tough-guy reporter had a lump in his throat. People waved from the ship and those on shore shouted “Bon voyage”…but it was a very sad occasion…the end of an extraordinary maritime era.

For many years a mailboat had arrived in Durban from Southhampton on Monday mornings, and then set sail again every Wednesday at 5p.m. sharp. I always went down to the harbour mouth on Wednesday evenings to see the WINDSOR CASTLE, EDINBURGH CASTLE, and a number of other “CASTLES” cross the bar, roll once or twice (as ships are still wont to do when leaving Durban)...three blasts on the horrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn...a puff of smoke to confirm acceleration...and then a slow turn to starboard, heading south overnight to East London.

As a kid I remember the STIRLING CASTLE, CARNARVON CASTLE, DUNNOTAR CASTLE, BLOEMFONTEIN CASTLE or DURBAN CASTLE…and there were others that have slipped from memory right now.

Oh hell man, how sad it makes me feel to write this. Damn those Boeing 707s that wrecked sea travel as we knew it. From the late 1950s, Union-Castle and other passenger lines began losing money with great rapidity, forcing them to close down and sell their ships to other operators. “My” SA VAAL ended up as a ghastly BIG RED BOAT lV...and, would you believe, she went to the breakers only last year!

The end of Union-Castle put paid to one heck of a wonderful way of travelling between South Africa and England. It was so civilised, so relaxing and gracious, and time was not the issue.

Suddenly, an overnight journey by jet between South Africa and England became the preferable choice, as it did across the Atlantic Ocean. Cunard was forced to moth-ball the QUEEN MARY and QUEEN ELIZABETH and to convert the QE2 into a cruise liner. The line teetered on the brink for many years after.

By the time I got to cruise down the South African coast on the QE2 in more recent years (Nelson Mandela was aboard, but I thought the huge crowd was waving to me?), she was looking like a third-rate old tub. I could not have been more disappointed…my long-held illusions all but shattered. Tatty, is what I felt…everything was just tatty!

It can be safely said that Cunard was saved when the Carnival Corporation bought the brand, and poured millions into a complete revitalization of the QE2. The result was really impressive, as I observed at a lunch invitation on board in Durban harbour, a guest of Carol McCarthy, the local owner’s representative.

Today the QE2 enjoys a loyal following, all of nearly 40 years after she went down the ways at Clydebank. She remains the 'world's most famous cruise liner'. QUEEN MARY 2 and the coming QUEEN VICTORIA have re-established the brand as a world leader in cruising…and in trans-Atlantic voyaging too.

It really distressed me when the original QUEEN ELIZABETH caught fire, keeled over died on her side in Hong Kong harbour. She had already been ignobly renamed SEAWISE UNIVERSITY. The ship I had only recently sailed on then was suddenly a burnt-out hulk. That hurt!

I have been aboard the old QUEEN MARY at Longbeach, California (on the same trip as my QE voyage), and it was pleasing to see what a better fate she enjoys as a hotel and museum.

So yes...bring on the QUEEN MARY 2, and the QUEEN VICTORIA, and any other ocean liner or cruise ship that can steal passengers from the sky. It’s time for retribution…and may it be swift…and deadly!

Bon Voyage!

in Johannesburg



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