2012 a great year for Northern Ireland ... A quick look at Variety Cruise lines
There are few things better than a good breakfast, and an Ulster fry certainly qualifies. Today they were celebrating the launch of the 2012 Northern Ireland tourism campaign in Canada "Your Time, Our Place," it's called) and put on a great show with eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes (natch) and broiled tomatoes, not to mention croissants and fruit and all that. I'm still stuffed.
More important, it was a chance to talk about the wonders of Northern Ireland, which doesn't get as much press at it deserves. I was there two years ago for what remains possibly the best trip of my life; a great time in the south followed by three days in Northern Ireland, which was a surprise and an absolute delight.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Belfast, which has outstanding architecture, great neighbourhoods, fabulous pubs such as The Spaniard and the Crown Liquor Saloon, a terrific museum about The Troubles, cutting-edge restaurants and lots more. Of course, they also have a ton of Irish people, which makes any place on earth a good one.
The First MInister, the delightful Peter Robinson had everyone in stitches yesterday, talking up old legends and newer ones. The deputy, Martin McGuinness, had a few jokes of his own.
Interesting fact: they come from different backgrounds and diferent parties in a part of the world where that hasn't always worked so well. Robinson is from the Democratic Unionist Party, while McGuinness is Sinn Fein. But they form what together might be the best comedy duo I've seen in years.
It's funny in a way, but also quite revealing that these two men work together so well.
"The conflict is well and truly over," said McGuinness. "I'm proud that compromises were made."
On a less political level, this year, as most of the world knows, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The new Titanic Belfast Experience opens March 31 and promises to draw a ton of tourists. It's a six-storey affair that covers everything from the ship's origins to its construction, launch and sinking. www.titanicbelfast.com
There's also a Titanic Belfast Festival in town from March 31 until May, with plays, tours, exhibitions and more, and a giant MTV Titanic concert in April. There's also a Peace One-Day Concert in Derry-Londonderry on June 21. www.peaceoneday.org. Derry-Londonderry is the UK City of Culture for 2013.
Further north, they're adding a new visitors centre at the fabulous Giant's Causeway this summer. The causeway is a remarkable series of basalt columns - about 40,000 - that jut out of the ocean on the wonderfully scenic north coast.
This year also marks the playing of the Irish Open golf tourney at legendary Royal Portrush golf course; as pretty a links course as there is in the world.
ANOTHER MESSY DAY FOR AIR CANADA
Sounds like things got a little hairy for Air Canada passengers at Pearson and in Montreal today. Last I heard, the "work action" by disgruntled employees had slowed and things were operating in a more normal fashion. Still, it seems the airline simply can't buy any labour peace these days, and I fear more of this sort of thing to come in the near future.
VARIETY CRUISES - SOUNDS GOOD
Interesting today to learn more about Variety Cruises, a Greek-based company that offers up cruises that are more like a yacht charter.
"The concept is smaller trips where you can learn more about the history of a place and go to ports without the usual crowds," explained Constantine Venetopoulos, the sales manager and grandson of the company's founder.
"Our average is 50 guests per ship, with en suite baths and mini-fridges and free wi-fi. Plus all rooms are outside, meaning a window or at least a port hole. Because of the size of our ships, we can go into villages and there's no tendering and no lines when you get off the ship. People think it's a private yacht when they see it, and the captain can drop you off in the water at a small beach if you like."
Some of the ships can cruise under sail power, while others look like the fanciest of yachts. They have a new, super-luxury ship called the Voyager, which will be "five-star plus" with cabins up to 300 square feet.
"We aren't a Disney cruise with entertainment," Venetopoulos told me. "We tend to attract an older clientele, plus honeymooners. And we tell people that because of the size of our boats we can be affected by weather. It's possible we won't be able to make a place on our itinerary.
"But it's a great experience and a wonderful way to see the world."
Many cruises take in various Greek islands, but they also include spots the big ships often don't take in; Paros (a personal fave), Folegrandos and others. But also the "usual" spots such as Santorini.
They also have ships for Cuba, as well as Abu Dhabi/Oman, The Seychelles and the Gambia River in North Africa.
Definitely worth checking out, I'd think, if you're a cruise fan.