Travel Snippets: The Grand Tour

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As a gentleman in the eighteenth century, it was considered obligatory to further your education and gather exposure to aristocratic European society by means of the Grand Tour of Europe.  The length of your trip was directly related to your purse, with anything from a few months to up to eight years being considered acceptable.  (Quite some gap year!)  In particular, a gentleman was expected to include Venice, Naples, Sicily and Rome on the tour, and to return with a fine collection of art and antiquities.  Some also returned with rather more exotic diseases.

Over time, the use of rail and steamship travel made the tour accessible to the middle classes, and the Cook’s Tour emerged via the one and only Thomas Cook, who began taking parties on the “grand circular tour” of Europe in 1851.

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One is Fun: Cruising Solo

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Having been asked for advice about cruising solo, I thought I would take this opportunity to bring my thoughts together and post them here for you.  I have been solo on a cruise ship – P&O’s Azura in January 2013 when my OH wasn’t able to join me  – so I have some personal experience to reflect on here, plus tales from table companions and other friends made on board.

Things to consider about cruising solo

Firstly, you won’t be alone.  According to Douglas Ward, the author of the industry’s most used Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2012, over 25% of all passengers are solo travellers.  Many ships have single cabins and add on rates for solo occupancy of double cabins.  Much like hotels, cruise ships base their rates on double occupancy, so you will find it more challenging to find deals.  Single cabins also sell fast, so be prepared to plan well in advance.

Strangely, you’ll be more likely to find a single cabin on an older or newer ship.  Fred Olsen’s older and smaller vessels are well geared to singles with a number of single cabins on each ship.  The newer and much larger Norwegian Epic has recognised the gap in the market, and has a particularly tailored set up (which I’ll tell you more about in a moment) for singles.  Similarly, P&O’s relatively recent-build Azura has a number of single cabins.

As is the case with all cruises, the first thing to consider is the kind of holiday you want.  Do you like to chill and watch the world go by, or are you constantly on the move and wanting to try new things?   Are you a culture vulture, a sun lover, or see no reason why you can’t be both?  Talk to your agent about what you really enjoy, and they’ll do their best to match you with the right ship for you.

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Norwegian Epic: Studio Cabin

My travel agent tips for cruising solo

  • Think about whether you would prefer a smaller ship, where you are likely to meet the same people regularly going about the ship, or a larger ship where there will be more to do, but it is less easy to meet people twice unless you arrange to do so.
  • Don’t be concerned about dining alone.  You will be seated each evening at a table where the ship will have done its best to link you up with like-minded souls.  I’ve met some lovely people through this arrangement, and have gone on to enjoy time with them outside of meals.
  • If you want to dine with others at lunch or breakfast, then go to the formal restaurant rather than the buffet.  You will automatically be seated with others and will have someone with whom to chat.
  • Check the daily newsletter carefully.  Some cruise lines operate get-together meetings for singles, particularly before port visits, so you can choose to explore together if you wish.
  • There are also plenty of activities on board where you don’t have to be paired up to have fun.  If you have an interest, go and learn to salsa/cook/craft or whatever else is offered.  A lot of couples who don’t share interests will go along as individuals, and it’s a great way to meet others who enjoy what you enjoy.
  • If you want to get to know people a little before you travel, join a cruise message board that offers a “roll call” for your voyage.   This is a great way to arrange to meet on ships, and potentially to do some shore excursions together.  Sometimes the group will have a get-together on board, or even the opportunity to do something special, like a backstage tour of the theatre or a trip to the bridge.

Some ships for solos

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Courtyard on the Norwegian Epic

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic came into service in 2010, with space for 4,200 passengers.  The cruise line is seen as the originator of contemporary cruising, with a focus on “freestyle”, and sailings from the USA and European ports (no ex-UK sailings).  Dining choices are extensive.  Epic has 128 single cabins, called studios, which have decent sized beds and share a studio lounge where singles can meet for a coffee and arrange further meet-ups via the well-used notice board.  Epic’s entertainment is, well, epic, including major production shows, comedy, cabaret, and even the ability to rent a Gibson to play -via headphones – in your cabin.

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Azura’s Theatre

P&O’s Azura is a family-friendly ship also brought into service in 2010.  She’s a large ship carrying 3096 passengers.  P&O is a traditionally British cruise line with a lot of sailings from the UK.  The cuisine is also traditionally British (with some rather good curries) and chargeable dining in Sindhu, Atol Kotchar’s restaurant at sea or Seventeen.  You’ll find 18 single cabins on Azura.  On board entertainment is offered in the Playhouse Theatre, the Manhattan lounge and Malabar, plus the Blue Bar and the Planet Bar, the latter having a video wall showing destinations.  Just the thing to distract a table of cruise travel agents at night!

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Black Watch – Dining with officers

Fred Olsen’s Black Watch first came into service in 1996 for Fred’s, although she originates from 1972.  She’s a mid-sized ship carrying 868 passengers, and she has 38 single cabins.  Black Watch is comfortable rather than luxurious, and is a very friendly ship.  With the size of the ship, it is easier to meet the same people again whilst on board. Entertainment is focused around the Neptune lounge, with production shows, and there are also a number of cabaret-style venues on board plus comfortable bars.

My final piece of advice: go enjoy!  Find the library or stock your Kindle for those moments of down time, and make the most of everything your holiday has to offer.

Cruise News: Passenger numbers up 10%

The Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) has been crunching its numbers, and came up with the news that more than 1.7 million Brits took a holiday at sea last year, and more than half of those went on two cruises.  Nearly 400,000 of you booked three or more voyages (ahem…yes, guilty, but then it’s my job).  Cruising accounts for one in eight overseas holidays.

After a record breaking 2012, a million cruise holidays are expected to sail from British ports in 2013.  Passenger numbers increased by 10% last year, despite the continuing recession.  The highest growth was from the port of Southampton, but Dover and most recently Portsmouth have also seen growth.  The ultra-luxury holiday sector also grew by 10%.

The most popular destination is the Med, with 698,000 British visitors.  There was a 29 per cent growth in numbers to Northern Europe to 443,000, with nearly half of those sailing to the Norwegian fjords.

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Celebrity Eclipse ex Southampton to the Baltics

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Marco Polo ex Tilbury to Antwerp

Travel Snippets: Falcons On A Plane

I’ve long been a lover of all things avian; in fact my first job in the morning is to ensure a well-stocked bird table.  So you can imagine my delight when I found that there are special arrangements made for feathered birds of the air by the aluminium variety.  Hat tip to the forums on http://www.flyertalk.com for making me aware of Royal Jordanian’s arrangements for the carriage of falcons onboard.

Firstly, you should be aware that falcons may only be carried in economy class.  They should be properly hooded, and must be seated by the window, along with their handlers, and only in the aft section.  They must be properly tethered to the seat leg, and carry valid health certificates and entry documents.

One falcon is charged at three times the normal excess baggage rate, and more than one falcon per handler requires that an additional seat be booked.  There is a maximum of two falcons per seat (to avoid squabbling over the arm rest?).  Finally, and somewhat beautifully, there is a restriction on the number of falcons depending on the nature of the aircraft: 10 on narrow bodied planes and 15 on wide bodied.

My mind then went free-wheeling on the potential for in-flight services.  Would they (on audio only, as they’re hooded) get Kes as the in-flight movie?  Seeded snacks? A special carrion service?

I’ve just checked the RSPB website and it reckons there are 1402 UK breeding pairs of peregrine falcons.  On that basis, they deserve all the on board pampering they can get.

Travel Snippets: A Piscine Diary

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Seafood eaten by my OH over 8 nights on the Queen Mary 2:

  • salmon
  • smoked salmon
  • shrimp
  • crab
  • clams
  • mussels
  • langoustine
  • tuna
  • cod
  • scallops
  • lobster
  • haddock
  • sole
  • blanchbait/whitebait
  • sardines
  • kippers
  • unidentified mollusc

My mother has for many years asserted that OH has gills (this being the only reason he can talk at such length without drawing breath).  He’s clearly been dining amongst his own kind.

Travel Snippets: Travel Firsts

  • the first motorway – May 1921 – was the German autobahn (it took Kraftwerk longer to get in on the act)
  • the first UK buffet car on the railway wa on the LMS train service from London to Nottingham in 1932
  • the first motorised coach trip went from Paris to Aix-les-Bains over six days in 1898
  • the first duty free shop opened at Shannon airport in 1947, selling neither tobacco nor alcohol.

Trending 2013: Where the experts think you’re heading this year

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At this stage in the year, the travel industry has finished inspecting its collective navel, and the hot destinations for 2013 have been cogitated, digested and published.

Here are some of the likely hot spots for the year:

Exotic Destinations

  • the Far East is tipped for travel growth, with Myanmar/Burma and Cambodia top of the list.  River cruising is also expected to be a big hit.  Myanmar is getting some 50 new hotels, so you may want to get in ahead of the rush.
  • Sri Lanka will get a new British Airways route in April, and is also likely to see increased traveller numbers.
  • Assume the position!  Gangnam Style has opened the way to increased interest in Seoul.  British Airways has a new route, and the Post Office reports an increase in demand for the Korean won which is up 34% over last year

Heading South

  • Google reports that the most searched for travel destination in 2012 was Rio, with Brazil itself hotly trailing in third place.  With the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, we’re set to be testing out some hot samba moves.
  • Ecuador gets a new Quito airport in 2013, making the gateway to the Galapagos Islands even more accessible.

Already Loved

  • ABTA says that in times of economic uncertainty “many people put their faith in what they know best”.  
  • Greece and Turkey will continue to be popular destinations, alongside Spain (the most popular choice for Brits in 2012) and France.  The port city of Marseille is one of two capitals of culture in 2013, the other being Kosice in Slovakia.

Life on the Ocean Wave

  • The all inclusive nature of cruising appeals to the ongoing focus on value for money. Penny Guy from the Passenger Services Agency says: ‘The popularity of cruise holidays comes from the sheer diversity of cruise itineraries, the ships themselves, the style of cruising and the unrivalled value for money.’
  • An estimated 1.76 million people are expected to cruise, with the most popular destinations remaining the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caribbean.

We’ll do it our way

  • In 2013, expect more bespoke and personalised tours (great news for us, because we love putting them together).  
  • There will be greener options in travel, from shared transportation services (London gets its first fleet of hybrid taxis and New York City takes on 10,000 bikes for hire in 2013) to sustainable excursions that support local communities.
  • We get wifi on long flights – yay!
  • We may love the staycation, but we still yearn for some guaranteed sun, and that will get us on the move.