RCCL Captain takes lead in reviewing safety measures

Captain Wright_oasis_sbw_1290
At a hastily convened session of the Passenger Ship Safety Conference in London last week, Captain Wright, Royal Caribbean International’s Senior Vice-President of Marine Operations and marine expert for the US trade body Cruise Line International Association, took the unusual step of blasting the IMO (International Maritime Organisation). He was reported to have said that RCCL are planning to have muster (safety) drills in port before their ships sail, as the industry is now being urged to update procedures after the Costa Concordia accident. Captain Wright indicated that RCCL will not wait for years before the IMO passes new legislation on safety.
“To pass this through the IMO will be a slow process,” he is quoted as saying. “I believe this will be an immediate change by the industry. It has got to happen.”
Safety drills are not taken very seriously by the majority of cruise passengers. Socialising, eating and drinking are halted abruptly when the seven short blasts and one long one of the ship’s horn notify everyone that a safety evacuation drill is now to take place. It is a bit of an effort to drop everything, go back to your cabin to fetch your life jacket and make your way to your muster station. In the past, the muster station would have been next to your designated life boat out on deck; however nowadays, it make take place in a lounge or even, which I have already reported about in the lowest part of the ship – the ice rink on the Oasis of the Seas. It doesn’t really give the impression that an evacuation is something that is even a remote possibility.
And if you are on a large multi-lingual ship such as the Costa Concordia, you would be listening to the instructions being blasted on the tanoy over and over again in many different languages, waiting patiently for a language you understand. Of course, you might start socialising with the person next to you when the wait becomes tedious.
It will be a challenge for cruise lines to get passengers to take safety drills seriously. Or perhaps not, given the coverage the Costa Concordia incident has received?

Bulgaria and 'Lucky' Bansko

Dawn sun hits the mountains
Dawn sun hits the mountains
The Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria are a National Reserve and a beautiful setting for skiing. My first impression of this mountain range is of pristine, quiet grandeur. It was the third day of my trip to Bulgaria and we had arrived at the ski resort and town of Bansko. Though I was looking forward to going up the gondola to the top of the mountain to enjoy the scenery, due to my appalling lack of fitness, I wasn’t planning on skiing. Our hotel, The Lucky Bansko, probably sounds like a gambling establishment but is an aparthotel with all the mod cons you could want. Rooms were decked out with kitchenette, dining area plus living room and a completely separate bedroom. As well as having a well apportioned lobby – the adjoining reception area also has a coffee and chocolate drinks bar. The Lucky Bansko also has a good restaurant, spa and conference room that converts into a disco at night (more on that later)!
It is an early start the next day and we are off to the ski centre. The day dawns sunny and brisk, perfect weather for experiencing the mountain. I must admit, it is a faff getting everyone suited and booted for skiing, but we are finally ready. And the views as we travel up are staggering. Perfect alpine scenes. The ski facilities on the top of the mountain are excellent, with chair lifts taking the daring skiers to the very tippy top, while restaurants and rope lifts are available at this intermediate level. I spot loads of youngsters learning with their parents and being pulled about by their ski poles. Tiny tots were on toboggans and everyone seemed to be having a marvellous time. I crunch around on the snow and am at least warmly dressed for once. It was actually very relaxing and I enjoyed myself immensely.
I about to be treated to more relaxation! I race down the mountain to get back to the hotel for my spa treatment and, luckily, do make it to the appointment without being late. I am very glad, as I have decided to have a Collagen facial and it is superb. The bed I am laying on is heated (!) and I feel the stress of the last couple of days draining away. I can’t remember the name of my therapist but she is memorable because she is about 6’ 4″ tall and towers over me. Afterwards, I meet with my colleague, Sarah, and we have a good hour in the indoor pool, being blasted by the hydro jets and having a good gossip!
It was dinner time and we dust ourselves off and trot down to the town for a traditional Bulgarian meal. The Dedo Penne (loosely translated ‘Granddad’s Place’) is our destination and has been a family run business since the mid 19th century. The interior is suitably old and simple, punctuated with farming implements, scales, interesting art, wood crafty pieces all hanging from the walls and ceiling…a bit of a hodgepodge but fantastically atmospheric. There is the all important roaring fire near our table to keep everyone toasty warm. Oh, and an enormous set of bells were strung up next to each other from the ceiling by the entrance to the restaurant. The waiter would strike the first bell and then all of them would chime virtually simultaneously in a big swoosh. We had a gypsy band entertaining guests while we ate excellent Bulgarian food including Kavarma served with loads of meat, washed down with an excellent cask wine. At one point, the young waitress dons a scarf with jingly coins around her hips and dances in a gypsy style to the throbbing music. The men at our table appear to be mesmerised! The desert was, again, Baklava with syrup which was slightly disappointing. Even fruit, occasionally, would have been more refreshing.
The three village women who sang for us offered something completely unique. Dressed head to toe in typical national costume, they were a handsome sight. As they sang, the alto droned on one note, while the other two singers belted out close harmonies full of suspensions and dissonant notes. The whole performance was a bit cacophonous but very moving, even haunting.
After our meal and a celebration of one of our hosts, Atanas’, Saint’s Day (like a birthday but much more fun) we set off for the Bash Bar. This tiny bar is also quite rustic and reminds me of places I used to go to in California in the 1970’s, with almost the identical music blaring in the background. But the beer is cheap and everyone seems to be having a great time.

Bulgaria and Kissing The Finger

I couldn’t believe it. We were visiting the Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria which is, in fact, the largest monastery in the country. When entering the church, a tall monk took a local person to inside the altar. I quickly hurried over as I was sure, if I asked politely, he might let us see the relic of St. Ioan of Rila, the hermit monk and its founder. And you won’t believe this! The relic is… a finger! But, there was a concession (to prove that we were pilgrims and not just stupid tourists), we would have to kiss it. I know it sounds gruesome but it was covered with a plate of glass and, inside the darkened church, you couldn’t really see what was under that glass anyway. I felt really honoured that the monk had allowed us near this item so precious to their order. The monastery hotel and cells had been freshly painted and it was truly beautiful. And the brightly coloured frescos painted on the outside of the church building itself, though 160 years old, could have been brand new. There must not be any pollution in these mountains for those images to look so fresh.

That morning I had gone to visit the history and iconography in Samokov. I love being able to get up close to art objects and the icons were hanging within my reach. They were stunning. Histro Dimitrov started the movement in Bulgaria in the 19th century, long, long after other Slavic and Soviet cultures had been working in this ecclesiastical artform.

Of course, the two Zograf brothers were the highlight of this exhibition, particularly Zahari Zograf. It was all very wonderfully done. But I was intrigued as to why they were so far behind other European cultures in art trends? The answer could be the strict orthodoxy of the Christian Church. But it could also be the 500 years of Turkish Ottoman rule that took place before the 19th century.

There were also artifacts from the excavation of Shishmanovo Castle. There were mechanical working models of forges and ironworks which this town was renowned for and some beautiful examples of national dress with the exceptional embroidery and bead work that the locals are famous for.

At one time, the main core of visitors to this museum were British, but since the global meltdown of 2009, that has all changed. Last year they only had 300 UK visitors. Shame.

I flew to Bulgaria on British Airways and travelled on the Heathrow Express.

Heathrow Express is the fastest, most frequent way to travel between Heathrow Airport and Central London. Trains depart every 15 minutes with average journey times taking just 15 minutes. Tickets are available online, at the station, on board and via the Heathrow Express iphone app. Prices start from £18 for adults and £9 for children over 5 years. For more details visit www.heathrowexpress.com.

Bulgaria – First Impressions

Flying into Sofia, it should have been apparent from the snow on the ground that it was cold. But -4C on a windy tarmac is far colder than I anticipated. Still I was looking forward to zooming up to the nearby mountains to enjoy a bit of ski and spa in Borovets. Sofia has 1.3 million inhabitants and, sadly, we do not get to really visit the capital of Bulgaria but I will make up for this sometime soon as the history of this ancient city, named after St. Sofia in the 14th century, is quite fascinating.

It is amazing to think that it is just two decades since Bulgaria changed from Communism to Democratic rule. It was a bloodless event, with one leader leaving and a new one arriving virtually the next day.

To be really honest, what I had most wanted to see on this visit was the cultural equivalent of our Morris Dancing (exaggerating a bit here). Kukeri is a local tradition that takes place around the New Year in many villages, when men dress up in grotesque masques and animal costumes and dance about erratically and ecstatically to drive away evil spirits.

But, apparently, I have missed out. Sigh. A close second is being in the cold clear mountain air of Borovets. I must admit, that this resort is a bit ticky, tacky and people hawk their establishments, trying to drive tourists into restaurants and bars, in a rather aggressive way, but it still has some charm. Our hotel is rated 4 star but is actually more like a two star by Western European standards. The monastic bedrooms have quite small mattresses and boast feeble
curtains that do not cover the windows. This means that the garish outdoor lights will seep through into the room and keep me awake all night.

But I thoroughly enjoyed Maria’s aromatherapy sports massage at the Rila Hotel Sports Centre. It was administered with amazing strength and I walk out of the treatment room a puddle of relaxation. The steam room is the hottest I have ever tried and the multiple unisex saunas were a real hit with everyone using the centre as was the enormous pool and Jacuzzi.

Soon enough it is time for our buffet dinner which offered grilled meats, cooked beans and a wonderful red cabbage and meat dish called Kavarma. There was an excellent selection of salads,
one called Easter Salad, which I hadn’t expected to be as good as it was.

Everyone plans to ski tomorrow but I don’t fancy freezing and will go to an iconography museum in nearby Samokov instead.

Costa Concordia

Did anyone notice it was Friday the 13th when the Costa Concordia’s ‘number was up’ and she careened into rocks near Isla Giglio off the western coast of Italy? The unlucky omen might be as good an explanation of this accident occurring as any. It does seem virtually impossible that the captain and crew would not have seen the rocks, that the modern equipment didn’t pick up their presence of these formations nor did the charts, according to Captain Schettino, 52, indicate their correct position.
This 4,000+ passenger ship, which was one of the best in the Costa fleet, began to list to one side and sink as soon as her hull was punctured. It has been horrific hearing the testimonies of how passengers escaped, many jumping into the sea and swimming to shore and it is nothing short of a miracle that, at the time of writing, there were only 5 people killed.
The fact that it is only two months until the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is also very unlucky. Many people who are only remotely interested in taking a cruise are drawn to the story of the Titanic’s demise, the drama and horror making the tale irresistible
Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Cruises, has said the cruise line will co-operate fully with the Italian authorities to understand the causes of the catastrophe. Of course, passengers are already asking about compensation and one wonders if it will be the cruise line taking responsibility or travel insurance companies? A mine field is on the horizon.
I must admit that the first time I was on a very large cruise ship, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Oasis of the Seas, I was utterly amazed that the muster drill consisted of gathering in the bottom most reaches of the ship and simply having my room card scanned. That was it. No life jacket demonstration, no indication of where the life boats were located or how you would access these boats in an emergency when there might not be any lights and the elevators would not be safe to use. We were simply told to watch the safety video. Many of the Costa Concordia’s passengers reported having no safety drill at all due to when they had embarked. Most seem to have no clue as to how to handle this unforeseen situation and it is amazing that more people were not hurt.
I certainly would hope that, at the minimum, there will be a look at safety measures and rethinking how to best communicate these procedures to passengers.

Oriana has a new look

2012 is a special year. Not only is it the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympic games but also the 175th anniversary of P&O cruises. I have recently visited the unveiling of the newly refurbished 1,880 passenger Oriana in Southampton at the beginning of her 100+ day World Cruise. The ship will now be adult only and there have been 27 cabins added increasing the capacity by 52. Facilities have been altered in order to accommodate extra persons such as adding extra seating to the main dining room. Of special interest to me was the redecorated spa with subtle decor, treatment rooms, heated lounge chairs, stream room and sauna, it was a delectable space for relaxation. The Italian restaurant, Sorrento, has been added, as well as a Marco Pierre White’s Ocean Grill. In fact, Marco Pierre White was on hand to give us a sneak preview of the cuisine that guests will enjoy for a mere £12.95 pp cover charge. Our lunch started with Deep-Fried Soft Shell Crab and a sublime Cream Cauliflower Soup with Smoked Paprika Straws. But the piece de resistance was the Surf and Turf main course with Casterbridge 28-Day Dry-Aged Fillet Steak and Garlic King Prawn with Bérnaise Sauce, Triple-Cooked Hand Cut Chips, Field Mushrooms, Crispy Onions and Vine Roasted Cherry Tomatoes. All this was followed by a cheese course with a gorgeous Winchester Mature and Brie de Meaux and a few others.