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7 things you (probably) didn't know about Stavanger
She's called Scarlet Lady and I was one of the first to step aboard and stay overnight on Virgin Voyages first cruise ship when she came to Dover. What did I think? Read on ....
As far as size goes, Scarlet Lady is not one of the behemoths of the ocean. She holds 2,770 passengers and 1160 crew. Not small by any means, but she is what is termed 'mid size'.
Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder said “....... The benefit of our five decades in business .... is that we can offer a voyage like no other.” Ah, but besides calling passengers 'sailors' and travel agents 'first mates', is this ship really like 'no other'?
In some ways, yes it is. For starters, this is where to find the only tattoo parlour at sea. (A tattoo from 'Squid Ink' starts at £80 if you're interested.) 'Voyage Vinyl' is the first and only record shop at sea where 'sailors' can wear head phones to enjoy current albums and blast-from-the-past greats. Fancy a drag brunch? You'll be in your element here then and maybe you'll also enjoy the Korean barbecue that promises noisy drinking games. Now apparently millennials (the market * this ship is aiming at) consider public karaoke totally uncool, so private karaoke booths are available and there's an app instead of a cruise director. So far, so different.
These days though, when wellness is the buzzword, Scarlet Lady's so-called 'Vitamin Sea' offerings are not so different from those on other ships. There's a space on the top deck for outdoor yoga, meditation and stretching, a gym, spa, running track and classes in cardio and spin. The Athletics Club features a boxing ring and there's a small swimming pool.
As far as accommodation goes, my small Central Sea Terrace cabin had little in the way of storage space. A tiddler-size bathroom had no toiletries except for a bar of black soap which left sooty marks on the wash basin every time I used it. However I understand that 'sailors' paying for their trip are provided with a more interesting selection of goodies. The bed was different though. Called a Seabed, it converts from bed to lounger meaning more space for those 'sailors' who want to lounge by day or bring friends round. The balcony hammock is a first too. They were handwoven by artisans from a social enterprise that fosters community transformation in Thailand.
Millennials with cash to splash may want to bag a RockStar suite. They come with hot tubs, personal music room and outdoor shower where you can rinse off under the moonlight. What's more, you get a dedicated RockStar Agent (that's someone you can ask to bring you what you want, what you really, really want ... and they get it for you. I suppose there are limits though.) But that's not all. You'll have a glam crew on hand (that's a hair and makeup team in case you don't know) and fully stocked bar with mixology equipment.
What about food? Branson didn't want the dreaded cruise buffet to be part of his dream but, you know, I feel the Galley is just that, a buffet restaurant in disguise. 'Razzle Dazzle' serves mainly veggie fare with the odd piece of chicken and pork finding its way on to the dinner menu, then there's the aforementioned Korean barbecue restaurant and Test Kitchen which is a cookery school by day and morphs into a restaurant in the evening. Oh and there's an ice cream shop - guess what it's called? 'Lick Me Till Ice Cream' . Clever. A plus point is there's no set seating or assigned dining times as is the case on some ships. That's something I'd definitely be glad to see disappearing into the ether. Cruise lines who are guilty of that, please take note!
Now, Scarlet Lady's entertainment may not be everyone's cup of tea but it is definitely different from the usual Broadway-type shows most cruise ships insist on wheeling out. The Untitled Dance Show Party Thing is best described as an immersive dance experience on a rotating stage. Parts of the show are narrated by a cosmic cat. No, I don't know why, either.
Design is open plan so one area flows seamlessly into the next. However, it gave me the impression of being in a large, narrow corridor which I didn't feel was comfortable or cosy.
One overnight doesn't give a lot of time to really get to grips with everything so I don't know whether this cruise ship - and Branson has three more in the same mould coming along soon - will prove to be a hit or miss. As it is with a lot of things, time will tell.
All dining, group workout classes, basic beverages, gratuities and wifi are included in the cruise fare.
* Besides millennials, Richard Branson is hedging his bets by saying that if you're young-at-heart, no matter how old you actually are, you'll love being on board. One thing that is definitely an on board no-no and that's kids. Yes, no kidding.
All images copyright me, Mike & Virgin
Protecting the Ocean
Virgin Voyages is one of first cruise lines to use Climeon, a technology that utilises heat generated from the ship’s engines to generate electricity, so decreasing the demand for fuel.
For those unfamiliar with press trips, I’ll just say here that they are hard work, not at all like being on a free holiday.
(Those who say to me, ‘did you have a good holiday?’ every time I return from a media trip, please take note,)
Asterisks (*) have been used instead of names to save host/ country embarrassment
Over the years, I have been on many, many press trips. Most are fabulous, others okay, but until now, none have fallen into the ‘awful’ category.
Media trips are usually PR-organised outings intended to drive coverage – hopefully, but not always, positive - to keep the PR’s client happy. In this case though, any PR reading this needn’t fret because this disastrous affair was organised by a government ministry – (referred to hereon in as ‘Country X’) . The global group trip was set up to promote ‘Modern 'Country X' culture in the global world.’
Anyway, let me start at the beginning (as Julie Andrews famously sang, ‘it’s a very good place to start’.)
I try my best not to write negatively, I really do. Normally there is no need to because press trips are enjoyable events full of creative and even fun activities that appeal to the invited journalists and their markets. They also include a reasonable amount of downtime – totally lacking in this trip to Country X where the day’s events started around 8 am after breakfast and continued without a break to around 9.30 pm - 10 pm. This meant that there was no chance to stop, take stock, answer emails, have a shower or change of clothes before dinner. Bearing in mind the intense heat in Country X at the time of year I visited, the latter should have been an essential. After all, who wants to sit beside sweaty travelling companions at dinner?
Note to Country X : if you decide to run future media trips, here are some more suggestions to help reduce negative publicity/ seriously bugging journalists.
Itineraries must be agreed in advance
Sending the travel writer an unfinished itinerary a couple of days before departure, then adding things willy nilly while the trip is in progress is a bad plan. So is not running to time. For instance, please don’t tell participants that the lunch break is at 1 pm then that same morning drop the bombshell that lunch has been moved to 3 pm. This is not good.
Food is important
Bad or insufficient food should not happen on a press trip. This leads me to tell of my first meal on this trip to Country X at a ‘traditional’ restaurant. After a long wait in this non air conditioned room where the outside temperature was circa 39°C , several platters were laid on the table. This was meat – animals of many varieties, chopped, boiled, braised and fried with the odd potato and rice finding its way into the mix. I sat patiently waiting for my lunch to arrive. As the hosts requested, I had given a couple of weeks advance notice that I am vegetarian. The ministry hosts, one male, one female, who I'll call 'Fred' and 'Freda' to avoid embarrassing them too much, wolfed down the meaty lunch with hearty enthusiasm without asking why I was still sitting right opposite them with an empty plate. To cut a longish story short, it turned out that, yes indeed, they knew that I am veggie, but unfortunately had forgotten / message hadn’t been passed to appropriate source / couldn’t be bothered to organise whatever needed organising. Not sure which of these reasons it was.
So another 55 minutes passed – yes dear reader, a whole 55 minutes, before my lunch arrived. I wish that I could say, ‘wow, it was worth the wait.’ But sadly I cannot. I was presented with a plate containing one piece of boiled broccoli, four strips of red pepper and some potatoes which had possibly been boiled then grilled. Not the best lunch example in this modern ‘Country X’ of the trip title.
It wasn't the only time food fail happened for me during this visit though because at the next meal in a different venue, I was again presented with sliced peppers and one piece of broccoli for my main - indeed, only course.
Toilets at ‘modern Country X’ attractions are not for the squeamish/ fussy
When I asked where the toilets were during an excursion, the pony tailed guide ‘in charge’ of our group who had told us that he had been a tourist guide in Country X for years, pointed me in the direction of a hut in a field. I cannot begin to describe what lay behind the hut's door. Worse than gross is all I will say. As for hand washing facilities, don’t be ridiculous, of course not. But Ponytail who thought he knew it all didn’t know that there was a better option nearby. It wasn't great and had a basin of water to flush the toilet with, but a deal better than the one he sent me to first. Heck, this one even had a basic hand washing option in the shape of a wet hand towel to wipe hands on. (Goodness knows how many hands had used it before.)
Another day, another toilet. Picture this. Four rickety tin shacks in a row. Three doors displaying the universally recognised paper cut-out style symbol of a man, the fourth displaying the skirted woman figure. Outside the door to the ‘ladies’ was a uniformed guard. No, I don’t know either. As I approached; he held open the door. Inside there was no lock so, to wedge it shut, I put my camera case on the floor in front of the door. The facility itself was a hole in the ground. A dirty hole at that. No toilet paper, no running water. Disgusting. Okay, I admit it. I’m fussy. I prefer nice, clean loos. Then the door was pushed open from outside and a man came in. I yelled at him and he went out again. Why did the ‘guard’ who knew I was in there let this man come in? Who knows? Country X, take note and perhaps think about bringing these tourist attraction 'facilities' into the 21st century. If you want to sell yourself as 'modern', you know it makes sense. And, ministry hosts *Fred and *Freda, perhaps a ‘sorry for that’ would have made me feel better instead of being criticised by *Fred for ‘complaining’.
Helping the writer get the story they need is in everybody’s interests…
… was it really a good idea for Ponytail to make another on-the-spot change to the itinerary to take everyone to a shopping mall when we’d already had a 9-hour, non-stop day? "We'll stop here for around 45 minutes", he said. "You can exchange money and do a little shopping." Comically and idiotically we all trooped out of the coach. Once inside the shopping mall though a small mutiny ensued with one journalist from Switzerland telling Ponytail that we were a media group, not a bunch of tourists. We did not want to go shopping. The countries we came from had shopping malls. *Fred and *Freda meanwhile, remained silent.
Another day, during a museum visit, the woman in charge rattled on in such unnecessary detail about every single knick knack on view that most of the group were in a light coma long before the visit ended. It wasn't surprising that she overran by over an hour and one journalist told her that we were not in Country X purely to publicise her museum, which would, if she was lucky, warrant a couple of sentences in subsequent features. A couple of journalists had already left the room in disgust telling her we were not art critics. She obviously had not been briefed on the nature of our visit. Looking miffed, she insisted on another group photo (there had already been one) where she sat regally in the middle. *Fred and *Freda did not intervene so some group members pointed out to Woman in Charge that this was only one of many places we would visit over the week. This was one determined lady though. "No! You cannot go until we have visited the 5th floor." She almost stamped her foot in frustration. Still no attempt by *Fred and *Freda to smooth things over but having had more than enough, all journalists headed for the exit.
Make sure everyone is reading from the same page
One night on the coach returning to the hotel, Ponytail outlined the following day’s trip. He warned that it would be scorching hot (around 40c) so everyone must take sun cream and hats. He also warned that there would be 100 steps to climb down, then a walk lasting 40 minutes to an hour through a desert area with no shade to reach our lunch spot. The return journey would be by vehicle, then a walk up the 100 steps which should be taken at a leisurely pace. *Fred was not there, so I asked Ponytail if there was any way the hour long walk could be avoided. He said no. That's a shame I said, I can't do that unfortunately so won't come but will do something else instead. Ponytail immediately came up with another solution. "There is the option of crossing the desert region in a covered vehicle which will take you from the car park to the restaurant to avoid long exposure to the intense heat, avoid the sun and the 100 steps." Okay I said, in that case I'll come.
Sadly, Ponytail's promises were not delivered. After a three and a half hour bumpy coach ride, I still had to use the 100 steps and the vehicle was not covered. In addition, Ponytail offered the vehicle to others, one of whom kept stopping to take photos, so the idea of keeping out of the sun was totally destroyed. I had a huge nosebleed when we reached the restaurant and when *Fred arrived he was angry because he could see that I wasn't well - yes, really! He shouted that I shouldn't have come on the excursion and what did I expect when I didn't wear a sunhat? (Of course I had worn a hat outside but had to pull it from my bag then to show him to prove I wasn't that daft.) I told him that the previous night I had decided not to go on the trip but was persuaded to do so because of what Ponytail said. *Fred's anger grew worse and he demanded to know why I had not spoken to him. I reminded him that he was not there the night before, so it was not possible to speak to him. He told me that he didn't want me to come on any further excursions. He was so rude that I was in tears by then, it was awful.
The others were served lunch at a communal table. When someone asked what the meat was, they were told it was chicken. If it was, it had extremely large bones. They did not serve me any food at all although since I wasn't feeling well it didn't really matter.
I hardly need say that I came home before the end of the trip. No point in staying when *Fred told me not to come on any more excursions. The circumstances together with *Fred's rudeness made it impossible to stay any longer.
And sometimes you get the feeling from the start that things won't go to plan....
Something told me from the start of the trip that it wouldn't run smoothly. Maybe it was because me and my luggage didn't arrive at the same time, or because the driver collecting me from the ministry had waited so long he had no coins left to feed the parking meter. In Country X airport meters don't take card payments so he went to buy a coffee to get coins, then unexpectedly thrust the paper cup at me. In doing so I managed to get drenched with hot coffee. Not his fault, I'm not sure how it happened. Even though the coffee was hot and my top and skirt got wet, I suppose it was a kind gesture on his part. Unfortunate incidents didn't stop there and one night I got trapped in the hotel lift. When I entered the lift there was only one other person inside, but then eight members of the media group charged in when the door was closing. The lift made a heroic effort to rise from the ground floor before jerking to a halt. Someone tried to phone reception but there was no signal while others tried to prise the doors apart. Twenty minutes later, after using the emergency button to no avail and trying to attract attention with a lot of banging and shouting, people came to open the door. What a relief that was.
And Country X, if you run future trips, perhaps do so at a different time of year instead of opting for the hottest month? More comfortable for participants. Also, please don't ask *Fred and *Freda to host them, it's obvious they don't know what they are doing. Just saying.
I'm Gilly, award winning journalist, travel writer and 12 x author. I'm published in national and regional papers / magazines.