(5:01 p.m. EDT)--With clouds of volcanic ash and a threat of further British Airways strikes causing chaos for air travellers this spring, one cruise line has come up with a smart travel alternative: rail. Tall ship specialist Star Clippers is letting passengers choose to avoid air travel altogether with a series of "rail and sail" cruises for summer 2010.
The line is packaging its voyages out of Monaco and Cannes with rail travel from London's St Pancras station, using Eurostar and French Railways.
And why not? The journey is easy; it's less than 11 hours from St Pancras to Nice, city centre to city centre, with a chance to enjoy a picnic and a glass or two of red wine on the train (there are no restrictions on luggage or bottles when you travel by rail) as the French countryside whizzes by.
Star Clippers is offering these rail departures for its short break cruises in May, June and September, with fares starting at £899 including the train, one night in a hotel on the Cote d'Azur and three nights' full board on the ship. Four night mini-cruises start at £999.
Could this be the start of a new trend? Many river cruise lines, including Viking, Avalon and Elegant River Cruises (for Uniworld) already offer rail as a travel option. But when it comes to ocean cruising, rail travel has always been left to the experts.
Case in point: Great Rail Journeys is currently packaging rail travel with a series of cruises on Celebrity Equinox. A spokeswoman told Cruise Critic that the company has noticed more demand in the wake of this year's travel problems. "Ocean cruising bookings have doubled for 2010 and we will be expanding our offering for 2011 based on this demand," she said.
Admittedly, we're only talking a drop in the ocean in terms of numbers, but Great Rail's "Ancient Empires" package is living proof that you can travel by rail from the U.K. to cruise embarkation ports farther away than those in France. The offer includes train travel from London to Lausanne; a night in Lausanne; a train across the Alps, ending in Rome; two nights in Rome; 13 nights onboard Celebrity Equinox; and a train home from Rome with a night in Turin, for £2,825 per person.
Some cruise line executives, though, are skeptical about passengers abandoning the traditional travel model in significant numbers. After Celebrity Eclipse made its much-publicised rescue dash to Bilbao a couple of weeks ago, general manager, U.K. & Ireland Jo Rzymowska, was asked at a press conference if passengers might be put off flying by the ash threat. "We have seen a spike in ex-U.K. bookings but my belief is that people move on," she replied. "We live on an island, we like to get to the sun, and we like to get there quickly."
If you do want to look into train travel, regardless of which continent you live on, check out www.seat61.com; we reckon it's the best rail resource around. And if you decide to take the train to your next cruise homeport, let us know how you get on!
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor
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Cruise Line Defies Ash Cloud, Strikes with "Rail And Sail" Packages
May 10, 2010