"Quotation 50"
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Chugging out of Bangkok in a 100-year-old rice barge...
posted by Richard Green on 15/02/2017
 

The ungainly, yet rather endearing Anantara antique rice barge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The sky beyond the riverbank grew mauve as the temple bell tolled the dawn. I sat on the edge of the bed and gazed out of the window of my cabin, watching a longtail boat of schoolchildren piercing the rafts of water hyacinth. A tugboat passed, its captain, in a white vest, brushing his teeth at the wheel. I felt a world away from the stresses of Bangkok, but in fact I was just a dozen miles or so upstream from the city’s chaos.

The three-day cruise from central Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River in a 100-year-old rice barge, was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in or around the city. I’d always pegged cruises as being impersonal and distancing you from the culture on shore, yet these few days afloat proved to be both intimate and revealing.

Dawn from my cabin. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The Anantara Song is made of teak and looks a tad comical, with a bulbous front and rear, a deck high out of the water and a canopy on top — like a little Noah’s Ark. But the chief butler, Johnny, welcomed me aboard reverently. He rewarded my minimal effort of climbing up the few steps — as he did every time for everyone over the next three days — with a lemon-grass-scented cold towel and a glass of iced water. He introduced me to the first mate, Milky, Captain Lekky, and Witty, the chef, as well as my fellow passengers: couples from Guernsey, Hamburg and Bangkok.

The first stop was the Wat Arun temple, where the landing stage was taking a bruising from tourist boats. A different guide met each cabin group; mine was Tommy. After a whistle-stop tour of the rocket-shaped spikes of the temple, we sat by a fan in the throne hall discussing Buddhism, the traffic and, hushedly, the ailing king’s health.

A few minutes further upriver was the Royal Barge Museum, where eight 160ft barges were on display. Tommy explained that the Chao Phraya is called the River of Kings, and that its royal pageants started in the 12th century.

Once past the giant Rama VII road bridge, we ate lunch at the shaded table on deck. Then I sat on a padded lounger at the prow and watched the city give way, intermittently, to wooden houses, jetties and stalls, and countryside. To our right, a flock of large whitish birds descended gingerly onto a tree, their spindly legs treading the air in quest of a branch strong enough to support them. Johnny told us that they were Asian open-billed storks, and handed round binoculars.

Mon Temple, with offerings of Fanta Cherry rightly to the fore. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Our next mooring was at the island of Koh Kret, home to the ethnic Mon people, who arrived from Burma cen­turies ago. The tree by our barge was reputedly saved from being felled by two young boys. Now it’s part of a temple and bedecked in flags, with an offerings table and a line of cherry Fanta bottles in pride of place.

My cabin had a double bed, and a bathroom with a blue-tiled shower and Bulgari toiletries It was a delight to walk down the village alleyway. An earnest-looking man was crafting clay dioramas, a long-haired youth strummed a guitar and taxi-mopeds returned from the school run. I bought a cold drink from a stall holder, who tried to make it a job lot with a toy gun and a herbal tea — good for “removing beer bellies”.

That evening, with the boat moored by a monastery, we relaxed on deck. A mosquito buzzed by my ear, but almost before I could flap, Johnny handed round insect-repellent sprays. After a River of the King sundowner cocktail, we dined on lobster with green bean salad, chicken in coconut-milk soup, duck in red curry, kale with black mushroom and oyster sauce, and bread and butter pudding.

The barge passes a large Buddha statue in a little village. Photo My Bathroom Wall

A Thai woman, Sunree, talked about the importance of water in her culture. She was originally from a village with no roads and said: “My dad threw me into the water when I was three, with a coco­nut to cling to. I learnt to swim that way, and swam and swam, and didn’t want to get out for all my childhood.”

The next morning, after giving an ­offering to, and receiving a blessing from, the 91-year-old head monk, we sailed on to the former Thai capital, Ayutthaya. In its 14th-century heyday, it was a city of more than a million people, with 5,000 foreign traders and emissaries.

After a brief tour of Wat Panancherng, inside which the huge seated Buddha seemed too big for his building, a car and guide took me to the heart of Ayutthaya. The main island is a thrilling ensemble of golden stupas and crumbling temples. The city was founded in 1350 and remained the Siamese capital for 417 years. It’s not as jungly or as vast as Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, but there’s a similar romantic essence to it.

The on-land highlight for me, though, was the Bang Pa-in, or Summer Palace, a sprawling, Potsdam-like ensemble of royal whimsies 12 miles south of Ayutthaya. I climbed a 100ft tower, built so the king of Siam could watch herds of roaming elephant, and paused at a memorial to the king’s consort and three children who drowned nearby. None of her servants lifted a finger to save her, because to lay a finger on her — as royalty — would have attracted the death penalty. I saw a collection of vintage English-built king’s carriages — hence why Thais drive on the left — an opulent Chinese pavilion and several European-style palaces. Afterwards, I helped my guide, Ann, collect a bag of little white flowers for her friend’s chest infection. The infusion is a remedy.

The car dropped me by a small khlong, or canal, where saffron-robed young monks operated an electric gondola across the 100 or so feet of water to where the barge was berthed. It was a gorgeous spot, just off the Chao Phraya, by a bulky monastery and a lighthouse where a wordy plaque seemed relieved to wind up its historic spiel with “at last this lighthouse stopped working”.

A double bed in the bijou teak cabin, and the forward lounging deck. Photo My Bathroom Wall

There’s always scenery on a river cruise, so, despite the wood-panelled cosi­ness of my 260 sq ft cabin, which had a settee and a table, I preferred the deck. The four cabins are air-conditioned, with a small ladder to a double bed and, down some steps, a very decent bathroom: blue-tiled shower, wood-latticed floor, full-sized basin and Bulgari toiletries.

Weaknesses on the cruise were the slightly patchy level of guiding, tepid showers and bland spice levels, reined in for the western palate I imagine. Yet these things were far from my mind when we steamed back into Bangkok. I lounged at the prow with earl grey and biscuits, watching the longtail boats, ferries and giant barges as they churned up the muddy water. Just as I felt a drip of sweat forming on my forehead, Johnny swivelled one of the outdoor fans to waft in my direction.

I travelled as a guest of Anantara Cruises


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You need bucket loads of cash and two weeks off to go cruising right? Nope, here are six great mini cruises, from just £99pp...
posted by Richard Green on 06/12/2018
 

The QE2 parked up by Sydney's Circular Quay. Photo My Bathroom Wall

If you already love cruising, a mini cruise is a great way of sneaking in another voyage onto your holiday calendar. You can take a short no-fly sea break on a fine liner, enjoy an overnight ferry crossing, or build a short cruise your next big holiday by sailing from Miami to the Bahamas, from Sydney to Melbourne, or from Durban to Cape town. And it won’t break the bank either, with two-night full board cruises with a cabin from £happened. 

If you have yet to be convinced about a life on the ocean waves, with it’s tons of shipboard activities, fantastic food, and all aboard bonhomie, then the mini cruise is an ideal taster. You can find your sea legs without fear of cabin fever, and with a small outlay in time and money, suss to see if a longer cruise might just float your boat.

Here is my selection of the six best mini cruises around. All of the prices are based on two people sharing an inside cabin and don’t include international flights.

Weekend Cruise from the UK to Honfleur: the venerable Marco Polo is a small 22,000 tonne ocean liner built in 1965 and refitted since to carry around 800 passengers in comfort, but in a distinctly old world and somewhat worn style. But it is great value, is 'child free', has restaurants and a bar spread across five lounge areas. Anyone with a certain type of brain - like me - will be curious to know that the ship was built in East Germany and operated cheap cruises for largely Western passengers, before a British entrepreneur bought what was then the Alexander Pushkin and refitted it along neo-Art Deco lines.

The MV Marco Polo, still going strong after 53 years. Photo Cruise & Maritime

As an example of one of the short cruises, she leaves Cardiff, Wales at 7.30pm on the 1st of June and steams overnight to the 17th-century harbour town of Honfleur for a day sightseeing, before returning to Harwich for disembarkation at 7am. There is 70% off right now and so it's a steal at just £129pp, with Cruise & Maritime.

Cruise the coasts of Australia: think of Princess Cruises and you’ll probably conjure big luxury ships on grand multi-port journeys, but there are several overnight positioning cruises along the coasts of Australia. For example, with four swimming pools, eight restaurants, and carrying almost 2,000 passengers, the Golden Princess glides overnight from Sydney to Melbourne, from £179pp, or the Majestic Princess sails from Sydney to Melbourne in three nights, stopping in Hobart on the way, from £319pp.

Sample a huge Princess vessel from just £179pp (plastic paraphanelia not included). Photo Princess Cruises

There are several overnight cruises from Seattle to Vancouver too (from £90pp), a two night Pacific Coast sail from Los Angeles to Vancouver (from £230pp), and two night sails between Tokyo and Taipei (from £260pp). See Princess Cruises

Sample Cunard’s classic liners: here’s your chance to experience a life of luxury under the iconic red and black funnels of Cunard’s iconic liners. The Queen Mary 2 is the largest passenger ship ever built, carry around 3,000 passengers and 148,500 tonnes, while the newest ship on the line, the Queen Elizabeth carries around 2,000 passengers and was launched last year.

There are two-night Southampton to Hamburg short break sailings in 2018, aboard the Queen Victoria or the Queen May 2, from £319pp, a two-night sailing from Southampton to Bruges on the Queen Elizabeth from £273pp, and a three-night Kiel to Southampton (via Gothenburg), from £387pp. Cunard has other short cruises from Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. See Cunard.

Down Mexico Way: how about a break from driving with a glorious little three nights cruise to Baja California? The 70,000 ton Carnival Inspiration pull out of Long Beach, Los Angeles in the early evening and steam south past San Diego and into Mexican waters off Baja, with nine-hour calls at Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. Catalina Island is a pretty little playground off the coast of California, while Ensenada is a popular beach resort centred on the country’s best wine region.

An outdoor sunset screening. Photo Carnival Cruises

Optional shore excursions include La Bufadora (a nearby marine geyser), a winery tour, the Baja Bandidos horse riding trail, or some salsa and tequila tasting, You’ll be back in LA at 8am on day five. Cruise only prices are from £194pp. See Carnival Cruises.

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome: well nearly, but Fred Olsen Cruise Lines had 31 mini cruises scheduled for 2018, departing from several UK ports. The 34,000 tonne MV Balmoral has one-night cruises from Newcastle, Rosyth (for Edinburgh) from 99pp.

The MV Balmoral. Photo Fred Olsen Cruise Lines

Or there’s a three-night trip from Southampton calling at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, from £299pp, and a 'Cruise to Nowhere' on the MV Black Watch, which takes two nights to cruise from Southampton to - it turns out rather unflatteringly - Liverpool. See Fred Olsen Cruises.

Florida to Bahamas: this is mini cruise central , as many cruise companies cater the Floridian's and foreigner's demand for a short spell on board ship to visit the Bahamas. As an example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s vessel Norwegian Sky makes several three-night sailings a year from Miami and Port Canaveral (for Orlando) to the Bahamas.

Big enough for you? Norwegian's huge vessels run many short trips from Miami/Orlando. Photo Norwegian Cruise Lines

This luxurious brightly coloured ship has two pools, large decking, and an eight-story atrium, and berths for nine hours off miniscule Great Stirrup Cay, and nine hours at the bustling capital of Nassau, from £419pp. See Norwegian Cruise Line. Or Royal Caribbean has four night year round sailings from Miami to Nassau, Coco Cay, Key West, and Miami.


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Tafifa to Tangier, and Europe's other fabulous little ferry routes...
posted by Richard Green on 11/03/2017
 

The Tangier ferry looms over the old castle of Tarifa

Europe’s collage of countries and assortment of seas support hundreds of ferry routes. These handy sailings can be pretty cheap too, and Europeans think nothing of hopping on a ferry to holiday, save a long drive, or simply buy cheap booze for the weekend.

My favourite ferry route is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in Morocco. It takes less than an hour, costs under £50 return, and is about the most exotic little sea crossing I know.

I started in Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz in Andalucía. It has a 10th century castle and fine city walls, but is neglected by most tourists who pass without stopping on their way to Cadiz, Jerez and Seville.

Cantering into a tangle of Kitesurfers on the beach at Tarifa

That’s not true for wind and kitesurfers, who flock here for the dependable winds that lick along the Strait of Gibraltar and across the town’s seven-kilometre beach. The constant buffeting isn’t ideal for a landlubbing beach break, but step inside the city walls and you’ll find that the ancient alleyways are aligned to create an uncanny stillness. So I mooch around the hole-in-the-wall boutiques, stand outside a tiny tapas bar, and even unfold a map – an act of folly anywhere else in Tarifa.

Next morning I check out of my hotel and walk through the main city gate to the small ferry terminal. It’s 100m away and dominated by a Tasmanian-made red and white fast catamaran.

The motly and magnificent jumble of Tangier's Kasbah 

Spain and Morocco are just 14 kilometres apart at the narrowest stretch of the Mediterranean. It means that once I set sail, there’s just enough time for a cold beer and a walk on deck before the glistening skyline of Tangier appears - like a genie from a bottle. I watch the whitewashed walls of the Medina (walled old town) become distinct, followed by the hilltop Kasbah (fortress) and beach-fronted corniche.

The ferry docks to the whoops of Moroccan larrikins showing off their dives from the stone breakwater. There’s a lot more commotion in the port than in Tarifa’s, but soon enough I’m in a beat-up Peugeot speeding past packed shisha cafes and streets full of families and youngsters preening and promenading.

One of the entrances to the Kasbah in Tangier

The bifocaled man on the reception desk of the Continental Hotel handles my passport with immense respect – and then an extremely tall bloke shows me to my 2nd floor room and hesitates to leave. He’s not hanging out for a tip though, and gestures to the window. Happy with my reaction to the smashing vista of the harbour and the Mediterranean, he bows and goes.

The marvellous Hotel Continental, as seen in The Sheltering Sky

The hotel’s antique shop, like the hotel itself, is theatrical, and on the terrace a waistcoated waiter makes an outlandish twirl of the silver platter on delivering my mint tea. With similar flourish, he leaves me to gingerly sip tea from the hot glass and breathe in the warm-scented African air.

Later, the evening sky flames crimson and tangerine (a word given to the mini oranges that first arrived in Europe from here) and the city lights flicker weakly into life.

There’s no alcohol in the Medina, so I make for the city’s most famous hotel, just outside the walls. A fez-wearing doorman ushers me into the El Minzah. Built in 1930, it dates from Tangiers’s heyday as an International Zone, when the city was run by seven squabbling European powers and gained a reputation for intrigue.

The Al Minzah is opulent and calm, and probably the best hotel in Tangier

Spies were apparently rife and Rick’s Cafe in the movie ‘Casablanca’ is said to be based on the Al Minzah’s. Cue vast maroon drapes, high ceiling grandeur, and a raised piano area. After cocktails I cross the moonlit courtyard, where another doorman in calf-length baggy britches opens a door to the best restaurant in town.

I certainly feel as though I’m on a movie set. White robed musicians play on traditional Berber instruments as mounds of grilled sardines and lamb Tagine arrives, and a green-veiled belly dancer gyrates discreetly in the distance. I lift a glass of wine and consider that with a simple ferry crossing, I’ve traded countries and continents for a location that feels part fable, part fantasy.

***

04 Reasons to be cheerful: I've been to Tangier many times, and the short ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar never fails in getting the trip off to a great start. FRS sails from Tarifa to Tangier up to eight times a day and has impressive fast catamarans that make the journey to the atmospheric old port in Tangier (Tangier Ville) in under an hour. FRS runs a free bus service for its passengers from Algeciras to Tarifa port and vs. vs.

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You can't always get what you want: it used to be the case that all the crossings docked at the lovely old port of Tangier, but now a new port - Tangier Med - has been built 40 kilometres to the east. That's fine for drivers heading straight to the south, but for day trippers it's far less romantic, eats away at the amount of time you'll have in the city, and will involve a haggle over the taxi fare to Tangier city

puzzle Fitting Quilalea into a holiday: Gibraltar is the closest airport to Tarifa, about 30 minutes away by taxi, or under an hour by bus with a change in Algeciras. Or try Malaga, which also has busses to Algeciras. Tangier makes a great city break destination, but thanks to handy overnight train services from the city, it's also a good entry point from which to begin a journey around Morocco. The nightly train to Marrakech stops in Sidi Kacem, Meknes, Kenitra, Sale, Rabat, Casablanca, Oasis and Settat. Trains depart Tangier at 9pm and arrive at Marrakech at about 8am.
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Getting thereFRS runs ferries from Tarifa to Tangier Ville, as does Inter Shipping Inter Shipping. Both companies also operate crossings from Algeciras (22 kilometres west of Gibraltar) to Tangier Med, and FRS also crosses to Gibraltar and Motril (between Malage, Granada and Almeria). 

weather

When to visit: the humid equatorial climate here means temperatures change little across the year - and average around 30°C. There is hardly any rainfal between May and December, which are the best months to visit. The rainy season here is a proper one, with over 120mm of rainfall in each of the wet season months.

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More info: there's a super little boutique hotel in Tarifa old town, called La Sacristia. And in Tangier, Le Royal el Minzah Hotel is in a good central location. For more country information see Visit Morocco

 

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Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance and passport are valid, plus if you need a visa. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for Spain and Morocco.

Europe's other great short ferry journeys

Helsinki - Tallinn

Ferries crossing the Gulf of Finland between the Finnish and Estonian capitals are prone to party. Finns love Tallinn’s mediaeval Old Town, and they like a drink too. The bars are great and are a lot cheaper than home. Linda Line has a dozen sailings per day with a journey time of 1h:40m.

Athens - Santorini

Arriving at the Greek island of Santorini by ship involves steaming into a patch of sea that, until an apocalyptic eruption in about 1640 BC, was the centre of a volcano. Ferries dock at the base of a 260m cliff topped by the whitewashed capital, Thira, reached by taxi, cable car or donkey. SeaJets has three sailing daily with journey times under five hours.

Dover - Calais

There are swish Eurostar trains between Paris and London, but for anyone looking to dally across northwest France or Kent, the ferry is best. It takes 90 minutes to cross the English Channel, and on a clear day you’ll see the White Cliffs of Dover before leaving Calais. P&O Ferries has up to 23 crossings per day.

Rovinj - Venice

You don’t have to stump up a fortune for a fancy cruise to arrive in Venice by sea. Ferry routes criss-cross the Adriatic Sea and the most beautiful departure port for Venice is the red-roofed Croatian town of Rovinj - built on a rocky headland with an 18th Century belfry modelled on St Mark’s in Venice. The 2h:30m crossing sails along the Guidecca Canal and passes St Mark’s Square. Book with Venezia Lines


 
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