* items include readers letters
2 MAY 2016
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Editor-in-chief Malcolm Ginsberg reports on a voyage that took him and his wife Linda from Hong Kong to Cape Town in 23 days. See also CRUISE NEWS MAY 2016.
This is a much longer ON TOUR than usual. Readers can skip those ports that are of no interest and BTN will also be expanding on certain destinations in future issues.
It was back in 1922 that Cunard undertook the world’s first circumnavigation by a passenger liner, the RMS Laconia, under charter to American Express. It went from New York to New York, east to west in 130 days passing through both the Panama and Suez canals, and docking at 22 ports including Havana, as well as, among others, Honolulu, Tokyo, and finally Gibraltar before crossing the Atlantic.
MS Queen Victoria will complete her first ever global voyage on 10 May after 120 days at sea.
She will not be the first ship of that name to circuit the earth by sea.
From September 1519 until September 1522 a Spanish fleet, initially of five vessels, did the same, only the Victoria (85 tons) returning with just 18 crew from the 237 who started out. Magellan, the original fleet commander and very fine navigator, was killed after falling out with the natives in the Philippines. In what we would term now a PR coup Spain quickly named the straits at the very bottom of today’s Chile after him, but his name is not the answer to the regular quiz question “who sailed around the world first?” Juan Sebastián Elcano commanded Victoria.
Queen Victoria left Southampton on 10 January, its route including the Panama Canal, Honolulu, Auckland, Sydney, Darwin, Bali, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and Hong Kong, where it overnighted at the long-established International Cruise Terminal.
We joined Victoria having flown Emirates (EK) A380 from Gatwick (LGW) via Dubai (DXB). The fares are such that certain of EK’s flights from LGW are less expensive than others. Whatever one you choose, you still gain the chauffeur experience, except at Hong Kong, where it has been withdrawn. And who minds a slightly longer wait in the Gulf when you can watch live the Germany v England with the dramatic final goal? Another beer please. The drinks were on Emirates too. The Business Class is superb, better than First on most carriers, the large bar area at the back the ‘pièce de résistance’.
It was to be a two-night stay before we joined the ship in the former colony, firstly at the Cordis (See Read Cordis for Langham Place in this issue), once the Langham Place, but now very much up-market, at the top end of Nathan Road in the area known as Mongkok. The hotel’s Chuan Spa proved to be a salvation after a long flight. Your editor is not as young as he used to be and some time back was introduced to the idea of a visit to the destination hotel’s spa and a massage straight after arrival. It really does perk you up after a long flight
The Cordis is attached to a fine shopping mall which has retained the Langham Place label and there is a MTR station underneath. The hotel’s Ming Court restaurant meets the five-star requirements and breakfast was taken 42 floors up at the Executive Club.
Night two was at the Langham itself, convenient for the international cruise terminal where Victoria was to berth, and also the massive Ocean Centre/Harbour City shopping complex with the ship check-in at one end. Dinner was at the Mandarin Oriental to the Island via what is still the greatest value in the world for a ferry ride, a must.
The Langham has been the recipient of a massive investment programme (which we will report on next week) and represents very good value by Hong Kong standards at £200 per room per night at a hight occupancy period. If you have time to spare a walk in the nearby Kowloon Park is to be recommended, an oasis in a very busy city. It is the home of the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre.
Cruise regulars please note that Hong Kong has a new ship terminal on the site of the old Kai Tak airport. It is 10m by bus to the nearest MTR station and 25 miles from the airport. BTN has been to Hong Kong before. See BTN 30 July 2012 www.cordishotels.com/en/hong-kong www.langhamhotels.com/en/the-langham/hong-kong www.discoverhongkong.com
Singapore (Three sea days from Hong Kong)
The city state of Singapore has always proved popular with cruise lines, its situation ideal at the cross roads of South-East Asia. There is a new cruise terminal, but be warned, it is a half-mile walk to the MTR station, although once on the train you can get to most places on the island. For reasons best known to others, there is no direct rail service to Changi, the international airport, from the city centre, an easy change having to be made.
BTN will review Changi in a later issue.
Gardens by the Bay opened its 250-acre site in 2012, and is a short taxi ride, or a one-mile walk from the cruise terminal. Admission to the outdoor gardens is free and it could be best described as an up-market version of Cornwall’s Eden Project. It is overlooked by the outrageously-designed winged Sands Hotel and includes the world’s largest greenhouse, the Flower Dome. www.gardensbythebay.com.sg www.yoursingapore.com
Penang Malaysia (The day after Singapore)
Located in the Strait of Malacca, Penang (Malaysia) is an island connected to the mainland by two of the longest bridges in the world. Founded by the British in 1786, George Town, the main city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, highly urbanised and industrialised and a thriving tourist destination.
We chose a Cunard tour to the unique Orang Utan Research Centre on an island in the middle of a 3,000-hectacre freshwater lake. It is dedicated to developing and promoting orang utan conservation, propagation, education and eco-tourism and a breeding sanctuary. What these intelligent primates make of the hordes of visitors we don’t know, but the experience is the reverse of a normal animal park visit. It is the humans who are in a cage, visitors traversing a 100yd long tunnel with the ‘hosts’ roaming free. There were 19 orang utans when we visited the island, with four of them being island-born. A short video film was shown but the very advanced medical facilities were not open to the public. The lake has water supply problems and the ferry access is closed from time to time. Best to check before taking the 30min drive from George Town. www.orangutanisland.org.my
Colombo Sri Lanka (Two sea days from Penang)
This time last year, we visited Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, at the start of a cruise on Minerva and found this old colonial capital fascinating. In the meantime, it has become even more bustling along the waterfront and Queen Victoria docked at a new facility, with once again a courtesy bus provided to the city centre. Chinese money is reputed to be behind what is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination from the UK, the domestic war with the Tamils disappearing into history.
No trip to Kandy this time, our chosen destination the Mount Lavinia Hotel, once the governor’s palace, and sitting on the coast about eight miles from the port down a very busy main road. It became a hostelry in 1877 with the opening of a rail line to the centre of the city. The station is outside the front door of the hotel, the irregular service said to be “interesting” by the Victoria patrons who chose the famous property for a swim and lunch. We came by taxi after the usual negotiations, joining another couple. Along the way we passed the 10-acre construction site that is the new Shangri-La hotel due to open in 2017.
Mount Lavinia is an ideal base for a Sri Lankan holiday, old fashioned in some ways, but a proper five-star hotel with 24hr room service and liveried doormen. There is a choice of the historical Colonial Rooms (with TV and wi-fi), or the more modern Sea View rooms. You can even take the train to Kandy. www.mountlaviniahotel.com
We then crossed the Equator, the occasion marked in traditional style
Port Victoria, Seychelles (Three sea days from Colombo)
“Welcome to paradise” they say as you arrive.
The Republic of the Seychelles, a member of the Commonwealth, is a collection of 115 tropical islands (mostly uninhabited), and with a population of 93,000 said to be the smallest African nation.
For the ship, it was a maiden visit to the capital, also named Victoria, a busy colonial town. The remote island of Desroches hosted Prince William and his bride Kate for their honeymoon. Those with the necessary resources can take the same 150-mile helicopter route from the international airport on the main island of Mahé. One hour over azure seas and very private luxury lodgings.
Our visit was just too brief. You can’t visit 26 white sandy beaches in just six hours, but it is a wonderful taster and a chance to dip into the Indian Ocean. We also managed a visit to the new Eden Island luxury waterfront development just outside Victoria. Shops and restaurants galore and plenty of space to moor your yacht. www.seychelles.travel
Port Louis, Mauritius (Two sea days from Victoria)
If there was one place visited on the trip that was a disappointment it was Mauritius. Perhaps it was destined to be thus. On any trip of this nature I try if possible to attempt a little research and at least obtain the local brochures from the UK Tourist Office.
Mauritius proved to be less than helpful with a 2014 brochure eventually arriving. The promise of the 2016 version never materialised.
For Queen Victoria it was a maiden visit to Port Louis, the capital, but no celebrations as far as we could see. Some ports really make a fuss of the first arrival for one of the world’s most famous liners. Perhaps we, and most other passengers, were not in a celebratory mood, the local authorities wishing to see every passenger personally with their passport, the lines opening at 06:30, and for late risers no opportunity to get off. Most ports trust Cunard and its security and manifest. Not so here. There are direct flights from London by Air Mauritius and British Airways.
English is the legal language but French is much spoken, the island one of the spoils of the Napoleonic wars. In 1992, Mauritius became a Republic within the Commonwealth of Nations having been independent since 1968. They drive on the left.
La Reunion (The day after Port Louis)
Any mention of the French island of La Reunion must include the question “Where is it?”
To put the record straight it is a region of France, part of the EU, driving on the right with the Euro the local currency. It is 500 miles east of Madagascar and 100 miles south of the nearest point in Mauritius. You can get there direct from Paris daily with Air Austral (about to take delivery of the first of two Dreamliners), Air France and Corsair in around 11 hours. From the UK alternative routing is BA (LGW) and Air Mauritius from Heathrow (LHR) to Mauritius and then a 45 minute ATR hop to one of the two La Reunion airports.
The official language is French, Reunion Creole the widely used local tongue. English is spoken and the official tourist leaflet one side French the other English. It is very welcoming and a regular call for the infrequent cruise ships on their way to and from Cape Town. Reunion is about 30 miles in diameter, a circular island, dominated by the Piton des Neiges, an inactive volcano rising to 10,000 ft above sea level and surrounded by lush vegetation and waterfalls. The ride up to the Salazie Cirque, a massive natural amphitheatre, is “interesting”, better perhaps in a small car rather than the tour buses, topped by the village of Hell Bourg, now given over to tourism, but nevertheless charming with old French colonial style homes. Folio House, owned by M Raphael Folio, typical, and part of the heritage story of runaway slaves, and even a thermal bath.
We took lunch in St Denis, the small (200,000 population) capital at the Jardin de l’Etat, a delightful park, with a busy cafeteria, plenty to keep children amused and free wi-fi. It was something of an oasis in the centre of the city. Then it was off to a change of culture at the Lux Hotel, at the seaside resort of St Giles Les Bianes, 5-star luxury, and a gourmet restaurant poolside with the beach beckoning. Once again there was also a complimentary shuttle bus to the seaside town where swimming, snorkelling and surf riding proved popular in a very warm sea. http://en.reunion.fr
Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Two sea days after Reunion)
The city of Port Elizabeth is the motor capital of Africa with both Mercedes and Volkswagen having large assembly plants. It has in more recent times renamed itself Nelson Mandela Bay, and is also called ‘The Friendly City’ and ‘The Windy City’ and tends to live up to both designations. It is about half way between Cape Town and Durban, the top end of the Garden Route, natural beauty running all along the coast. The area has been renamed Nelson Mandela Bay in honour of its greatest ever protégé.
PE, as it is known as locally, is very British in its outlook and is also the home of the St Georges Park Cricket ground which way back in 1889 hosted the first ever South African test match, England winning by eight wickets. The very centre of the old port and administration area is now given over to the Donkin trail, named in memory of a British Governor of the Cape Colony and linking 51 places of historical interest. The centre piece is the old lighthouse, which you can still climb, but not practical for those of a large girth or exceptionally tall.
Kragga Kamma Game Park lies on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Once a farm it can be compared with Woburn and should not be muddled up with a safari park which is much larger and more natural. However, if you want to see Giraffe, White Rhino, Buffalo, Waterbuck, Zebra. Wildebeest and Cheetah in their natural environment, and don’t have time for the more distant spaces it is perfect. No elephants. It seems that their water requirement, up to 150 litres per day, can put a strain on resources. What was particularly good was the tree walk, with a restaurant at one end. Monkeys, bush buck, nyala, a multitude of birdlife, including the striking Knysna Loerie could be seen. You can rent a game lodge too, perfect to see the animals rising as the sun comes up. www.kraggakamma.co.za www.nmbt.co.za
Cape Town (Just one day at sea from PE, an overnight stay on board plus three extra nights)
There is little doubt that except for its geographical position Cape Town would be one of the great cruising ports of the world. Sadly the season only lasts from at the most December to May and headed by Cunard just a few ships visiting.
As our full report in a later edition of BTN will note, it offers extraordinary value too for the tourist, the very well operated hop-on hop-off bus just £9 for a day pass including the cable car station for Table Mountain (£12). The bus commentary is particular clear and also gives you an insight into Cape Town. The cruise terminal itself is a simple but adequate structure with plenty of check-ins and taxi availability and its position, just a short walk from the massive and historical Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (V & A) shopping, eating and entertainment complex, makes it ideal if your ship is docking for the day, or overnight.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island for 18 years. The pre-booked ferry goes from near the lighthouse in the centre of the V & A. The local tourist board is to be complimented on its very helpful desk just as you get off the ship, and well laid out V & A Information Centre, which is supported by some of the major attractions in the Cape Town area. Sample wines are available to tempt one to the many wineries within one hour of the city. The V & A Waterfront Historical Guided Walking Tour map is gratis but twice daily there are hosted walks with a maximum of 10 people (£7.50). www.capetown.travel
For 2017 Victoria returns to Sydney via the Panama Canal, and takes the Cape Horn route back in the reverse direction. Queen Mary 2 is outbound via Cape Town, returning using the Suez Canal, while Queen Elizabeth more or less takes the same route as her sister ship is just about to complete, again in 120 days.
For the 2017 full World Cruise on Queen Elizabeth, prices start from £13,000 or just over £100 per day. You can join for just a sector. www.cunard.com
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