WHAT’S NEXT? MUSINGS ON THE LUXURY CRUISE SHIP MARKET

Silver Spirit off Lipari, Italy

Silver Spirit off Lipari, Italy

With the arrival in Europe of Oasis Of The Seas for the first time and the imminent launch of her much anticipated sibling, Quantum Of The Seas, plus the looming debut of the new Costa flagship, Costa Diadema, the emphasis of media attention has been firmly focused on the mega ship sector of the market over the last several months.

Hence now might be a good time to recap some of the ongoing developments in the small, luxury sector of the cruise market. For, while it has not been making waves on the same scale as the big ships cited above, there is an interesting series of developments. across several lines, that are worthy of recounting.

Seabourn has a fourth, slightly larger vessel in its Odyssey class coming into service in the second half of 2016. Said to be coming in at around 40,000 tons, this new vessel is currently under construction at the Fincanitieri shipyard in Italy. Every room on this as yet nameless vessel will feature a private balcony.

For the recently re- monickered Ponant, a fourth in their highly successful Boreal class vessels will debut in 2015. Le Lyrial will give the French company a handsome, highly styled quartet of luxury vessels, each around the 10,000 ton mark.

Meanwhile, also at Fincantieri, the new Seven Seas Explorer continues to take shape for Regent Seven Seas Cruises. The spectacular new ship, scheduled to debut in 2016, will also be all suite, all balcony, and is currently expected to come in at around 54,000 tons.

And, of course, the first of the Viking Ocean cruise ships- Viking Star- promises to deliver a kind of sublime, ‘back to the future’ traditional luxury cruising when she debuts next April. Two sisters are already firm orders, and a fourth seems likely. With the emphasis placed firmly on a far more traditional, gimmick light type of cruise experience, these ships will certainly add momentum and choice to the upper echelon.

Regent has a new ship coming in 2016

Regent has a new ship coming in 2016

Those are the vessels actually under construction as I write this. Of course, the rumour book also has a healthy amount of tonnage on its pages, too. Among the most prominent of these:

Silversea are reportedly close to ordering another new build, similar is scale to the 2009 built Silver Spirit (look out for a voyage report from that ship in the next few weeks). The new ship is expected in two or three years’ time, so placement of an order can be considered to be imminent.

Even before its acquisition by Norwegian, Oceania Cruises was said to be on the verge of ordering another pair of sister ships in the same class as their hugely successful, 66,000 tons sisters, Marina and Riviera. With the financial clout afforded it by the new ownership, it seems likely that at least one of these ships- and more likely both- will translate into firm orders in the not too distant future.

Lastly, but by now means least, those seriously luxurious scions at Crystal Cruises are hoping to announce an order for a new build before the end of the year. New CEO, Edie Rodriguez, has stated publicly that she will be lobbying the parent company, NYK, for funds for a new build. A third Crystal ship would take the line back up to a three ship fleet-something it definitely needs to be in order to offer year round deployments across the world.

In terms of revamps, Windstar will be massively bolstered by the addition of the two remaining smaller Seabourn yachts to the fleet. This means that the line has effectively doubled in size in just three short years; a quite remarkable achievement.

As ever, stay tuned,

MASSIVE MEDITERRANEAN; SOME BIG, BIG ARRIVALS FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Barcelona bound in 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Barcelona bound in 2015

If a seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ cruise is on your cruising horizon in 2015, then you are going to be in line for a string of exciting mega ship options, and how. With the ‘big guns’ of Norwegian, MSC Cruises, Costa and Royal Caribbean all bringing in prime tonnage to augment their respective offerings, the choices have never been more extensive.

For the sake of argument, this blog is assuming that you are drawn to a certain kind of ship; the vast, family friendly floating resort vessels that come absolutely chock full with every leisure amenity that you could imagine, and then some. With a huge range of inclusive, across the board accommodations on offer, these vessels have proved enormously popular- and profitable- in recent years.

And they have grown bigger, too. From next spring, Norwegian will home port its ground breaking, 150,000 plus ton Norwegian Epic in Barcelona on a year round basis. The 2010 built Epic is the permanent replacement for the 78,000 ton Norwegian Spirit, which is returning to the Caribbean next October.

Costa will also have its new flagship, the 130,000 ton, state of the art Costa Diadema on the Mediterranean circuit. This fabulous new ship- built on the same platform as the hugely successful Carnival Dream class trio- will actually debut in November 2014, and is slated to be a year round presence in the region.

MSC Cruises meanwhile always retains at least one of it’s mega ships on the seven day circuit on the ‘Meddy-Go-Round'; for next year, this will be the very family friendly MSC Splendida.

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

But the real splash will, inevitably, be the arrival of the mighty, 220,000 Allure Of The Seas for a maiden, full season of seven night cruises out of Barcelona. With 6,200 berths to fill on a weekly basis and the most complete range of facilities of any resort ship in the region, the deployment of this monster ship to the region is a huge act of faith in the future from owners, Royal Caribbean.

Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see just how this massive ship fares next year. A current short, first season by twin sister ship, Oasis Of The Seas, will help as a marker to iron out any potential kinks in operating ships of such vast, unparalleled scale and capacity.

With Barcelona as their main embarkation port, these massive ships typically make landfall on the ‘greatest hits’ ports of Rome, Florence, Naples, Palma De Mallorca and Monte Carlo over the course of a week. Of course, their huge size precludes them entering the smaller ports, but that is not their raison d’etre.

These ships are all about resort life at sea; each one contains a mind boggling array of alternative restaurants, bars, and increasingly exotic entertainment. Sailing relatively short distances through the night, their revenue stream becomes more akin to a torrent when sales of shore excursions are factored in.

While the Mediterranean cruise market is said to be slowly recovering from the effects of the recession triggered in 2008/9, that recovery is still sluggish. And the unprecedented number of new berths arriving with these huge ships means that there will always be a line of potentially great bargains, especially if you can be a little flexible, time wise. That said, it is also possible- likely, even- that uncertainty in other regions might boost bookings as well.

Naples is a staple of the 'Meddy Go Round'

Naples is a staple of the ‘Meddy Go Round’

Whenever you go, or for whatever reason, the seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ has never offered so much potential diversity as you’re going to find in 2015. The only minor down side remains the seething, human train wreck that is Barcelona’s aptly named El Prat airport.  I would definitely advise anyone to spend at least one extra day in the city- no great hardship, that- both pre and post cruise, in order to avoid the worst of the airport crowds.

Why not- you’re worth it. Happy travelling!

 

HAL’S NEW BUILD- INTRODUCING KONINGSDAM

Holland America's current Westerdam

Holland America’s current Westerdam

Holland America Line has just announced that it’s new, 99,500 ton ‘Pinnacle’ class new build will bear the name of Koningsdam.

The name has kingly connotations, and is being touted as honouring the nation’s current king, Willem Alexander.

Due to emerge from the Italian Fincantieri shipyard in February of 2016, the 2,650 passenger Koningsdam will be the largest passenger vessel ever built for Holland America Line since its transatlantic debut back in 1873.

As yet, this beautiful ship- the first in class and also the first to bear this name- is a stand alone order and design. And, despite being unprecedented in size as an HAL ship, the total tonnage is still considerably less than the most recent addition to parent company, Carnival. Their most recent trio of vessels topped in at 130,000 tons each. The newest build, Carnival Vista, is also due out of Fincantieri in 2016. She will come in at something like 135,000 tons.

The first publicity release depicts a ship with obvious similarities to the previous Eurodam, with the same graceful, raked bow. However, the Koningsdam is depicted with just a single, stand alone funnel, one more in line with the smaller Statendam class vessels than with their larger, Vista class siblings.

With a staff of 1,025, the new Koningsdam brings a fresh, state of the art design to one of the most venerable names in liner and cruise history, while still maintaining the sense of space, grace, and elegant, attentive service that has made HAL an obvious choice for seasoned travellers over many decades.

Combining an exciting new design and a series of old, familiar favourites, the Koningsdam has already taken front running as ‘the’ most eagerly awaited new build of 2016.

As yet, no itineraries have been announced. Stay tuned.

THE MARCO POLO THROUGH SIGHTLESS EYES

Norway always makes 'Rudy' dance for joy...

Norway always makes ‘Rudy’ dance for joy…

Few people anywhere would dispute that the Marco Polo is one of the most singular and distinctive cruise ships afloat anywhere today. Tiny by comparison with the increasingly huge flotilla of hulking theme parks that have sailed in her wake ever since, she is gigantic in terms of stature, reputation and sheer stage presence. When she sails into a port, heads turn and jaws drop. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn walking into a room full of anodyne, contemporary supermodels.

Since her amazing transformation came into full effect at the end of 1993, the Marco Polo has literally gone where few ships can follow. From the steaming jungles of the Amazon to the the icy, rose tinted splendour of Antarctica, the Marco Polo had showcased them all. From the imperial splendour of Saint Petersburg to the pretty, indolent dolce vita lifestyle of fabled Portofino, the Marco Polo has been there, back, and done it all again.

She has sailed literally millions of miles and carried almost as many passengers. And each individual one is a person on their own, very personal voyage. All with different expectations- and, indeed, perceptions- of what lies ahead and, in time, memories of what now lies astern. Like human fingerprints, no two impressions are ever the same. This is a ship that has generated a million stories across a myriad of oceans.

Naturally, to see, document and understand even a fraction of those stories would be impossible. But there is one whimsical, permanent presence that has, indeed, actually seen the lot. Since 1993, he has done it all and, like any good and patient observer, he has maintained his silence all these years.

Of course, I’m talking about the statue of Rudolf Nureyev that graces the small plinth just behind the aft facing, lido deck pool. Human sized, lithe and reaching for the heavens, ‘Rudy’ has always been a focal talking point on the ship. A presence as distinctive as the funnel, or that gracefully raked bow, and the subject of a million photographs, from the reverent to the downright ribald.

What tales he could tell, if he were not mute. What views his sightless eyes could replay. Monumental, pine shrouded Norwegian fjords in the endless mid summer nights. Pristine, sun splashed Caribbean beaches studded with languid, swaying palm trees. Pretty, yacht studded little harbours like Honfleur in Normandy, and the surreal, lush. mangroves of the wondrous, winding Amazon river.

And if Rudy is a little recitent these days on the subject of his amazing past, then perhaps that is not so truly surprising. After all, a true gentleman never tells. And, as any crew member of any ship will tell you; what happens on the ship, stays on the ship.

Keep up the good work, Mister Nureyev; you’re doing a damned fine job.

APPROACHING MANHATTAN; THE CAVALCADE AT DAWN

Hey Manhattan....

Hey Manhattan….

Today being September 11th, there seems no better day to recall one of the most perennially magical and awe inspiring experiences that any traveller by sea can ever experience.

The approach to Manhattan.

Long before the completion of the World Trade Centre in 1973, New York was a city as uniquely wedded to the sea as, say, Venice. Manhattan was, and still is, a cluster of stupendous, dreaming spires, rising from the Hudson River. A shimmering, symmetrical confection of glass, steel and concrete that clawed at the sky, but one whose feet were, inevitably, always wet.

It was this unique communion with the sea that gives Manhattan its dramatic, almost mystical stance. And the only way to approach it- to truly get it- was by ocean liner.

Let’s first put this into context; we all know that air travel is mass transportation in this day and age. The jets won on speed, as they were always going to do.

Every few seconds of the day, a commercial jet airliner comes in to land at one of the city’s three principal airports- JFK, Newark and La Guardia- from all over the globe. Except for the pilot and the flight controller on the ground, nobody bats an eyelid at the sight.

Inside, the passengers see nothing but the back of the seat in front of them. The only thing they feel is that uniquely unsettling sensation in their ears as the plane descends, and then that sudden, abrupt thump as screaming rubber connects with cold concrete.

Close enough almost to touch...

Close enough almost to touch…

But arriving by ship? Oh lord, how very, very different…..

How often I stood on the little bit of waist below the bridge of the QE2, shivering in the pale light of dawn as the great ship edged into the sudden stillness of the Hudson at the end of a five day, often storm tossed crossing from Europe. Stood there, with the adrenaline running like tap water. For this was the moment of theatre that nobody wanted to miss; the ceremonial procession into Manhattan.

First came the tips of the World Trade Centre; splintering the horizon like twin, skeletal fingers as the first rays of dawn ghosted across the blackened canvas of the sky. A few lights twinkled, shimmering on the ink black river; a river so still and silent that it could have been made of glass.

That first contact was like a sucker punch; hugely emotional, a deep intake of breath. Here was the culmination of an epic adventure; the arrival in the New World, as generations of our forebears experienced it.

And now, as if pushed from below the sea by some gigantic, unseen hand, the whole of Manhattan rose from the river to starboard, a ragged forest of gleaming spires, squat, hulking office buildings and, looming above it all, the unmistakable twin spires of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. A twin pair of global icons, their facades dusted a shade of blush red as the rising sun sluggishly heaved its way towards a sky so still and silent that it might have been some painted canvas.

To port, the Statue Of Liberty was now in view; a deceptive, diminutive waif clad in copper, torch held aloft. Patient, pale and perennial.

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

History is etched into every fold of her gown. On a warm , spring morning in April of 1912, the same great lady waited patiently for the Titanic to sweep proudly past her, making the same, age old procession as we now undertook. She is still waiting to this day.

Meanwhile, the magnificent vision of Manhattan is now so close as to be almost overwhelming. And we are no longer alone, either.

A trio of Moran tug boats are now riding shotgun on the QE2, like three respectful ladies in waiting. They are there to swing us into Pier 90 when the moment is right.

Now we can see cars, looking like madly animated beetles as they scurry along Twelfth Avenue, their headlights making them resemble tiny glow worms. And we can see lines of them, coming down the canyons that have opened up between the ranks of serried skyscrapers that now loom almost above us.

What strikes you most is the silence; though the deck is crowded, there is almost a sense of reverential awe, one not dissimilar to the feeling of entering some huge, impassive cathedral. And, in a sense, that is exactly what we have just done.

The sudden, exultant boom of the QE2 siren shatters that mood as completely as a brick thrown though a window. It’s a thrilling, spine tingling sound that touches something deep and intangible in the soul. It echoes like fading fog down those same, long canyons. They seem almost close enough to touch now.

Then comes that sudden, abrupt stop. A sharp intake of breath, and then the slow, ponderously elegant swing into Pier 90. After what seems like a lifetime, the matchless, elegant beauty of QE2 kisses the pier in Manhattan. Gangways are down, and we are once again physically tethered to what someone once aptly called ‘the hard, clear vigour of New York’. It was never better put.

Journey done. But we have not merely entered a city. We have arrived. And how.

Almost there...

Almost there…

With thanks to both QE2 and the great city of New York for such a series of priceless, immortal memories. And also with deep respect and remembering the victims in New York and elsewhere of the appalling events of September 11th, 2001.

THINGS I MISS FROM CRUISE TRAVEL

Ah, nostalgia. It's not what it used to be, is it?

Ah, nostalgia. It’s not what it used to be, is it?

Being an alleged gentleman of a certainly undeniable age, I have been looking back lately at my thirty-odd years of cruising and sailing history through a pair of (Mateus) rose tinted glasses. We can all be wistful with wine and, with hindsight, we become uncommonly wise at times, too.

I am also mindful that I am slowly slipping into a kind of mental quicksand that I define as ‘Victor Meldrew syndrome'; a kind of crusty, sporadically grumpy stupor that has less and less tolerance for the so called ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ of the new. For me, the beneficial onward march of technology peaked with the corkscrew.

In that frame of mind, I came to contemplate some of the things I miss from the good old days of cruising. Feel free to sing along if you know the words…..

PAPER STREAMERS

Scarlet ribbons, scarlet ribbons.. not just scarlet, but every damned colour under the rainbow. How wonderful it was to behold that technicolor torrent of streamers that rained down the soaring flank of some departing cruise ship or liner on sailing day! What fun to aim our fragile paper arrows at friends, family, or indeed anybody that took our fancy. Gone now.

I get it, too; sweeping up that tidal wave of multi hued detritus must have been an arduous, truly soul destroying job for the poor, broom wielding chaps clutching their brooms on the pier. Each one a little King Canute, desperately attempting to keep down a rising tide of coloured tat.

Of course, it is so called ‘environmental concerns’ that did away with this spiffy, life affirming little sailing ritual. But, in the immortal words of the prophets called Madness, ‘Oh, what fun we had’….

ACTUAL TICKET WALLETS

Oh, the moment that your travel agent would write or call to tell you that your travel documents had arrived.

Opening them was like being a kid on Christmas Day all over again. Ridiculous excitement; the herald of good times ahead, writ large in brightly coloured baggage tags and wrapped in faux leather. I pored over every bit of witless, written inanity as if it were the text of the Bible itself. Shore excursion options! Order your on board champagne! Flowers in your room!

Now it’s all e-docs; uniform, alien and utterly lifeless. It’s as if Simon Cowell had been put in charge of streamlining the whole process.  And printing out, cutting and sellotaping your luggage labels? Dear God, give me strength.

Mind you, the spiffy lines still do the whole, magnificent show with proper, apt aplomb. On those days, Victor tends to vanish, and my olden, oft missed sunny disposition surfaces and smiles. Worth having just for that.

POST CARDS

Yes, yes, I know you can buy them now. And also that some ships do still offer them in the folder in your cabin. But at one time they were gratis, easy to grab, and available for all. Small, pretty, and giving you that perfect, airbrushed view that you could never usually get pier side, or from a tender doing its own, unique version of rock and roll at any given anchor port.

OK, that’s it for now. Anything that you miss? Let me know, and let’s be one in our global grumpiness.

NORWEGIAN OFFERS ALL INCLUSIVE; JOINS CARNIVAL AND ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Silversea; the very definition of 'all incluisve'

Silversea; the very definition of ‘all incluisve’

With the news today that Norwegian Cruise Line is to introduce an all inclusive drinks and dining package next year right across their full range of thirteen ships, the line becomes the latest in an increasing list of mainstream cruise operators that have gone down that route in the last few years. This headlong charge toward being fully inclusive has gained startling momentum over recent years, and yet has been little remarked on.

For two decades, all inclusive was the sole preserve of upscale operators such as Silversea, Seadream and Seabourn. Eventually, their direct competitors- Regent and Crystal- were dragged kicking and screaming down the fully inclusive footpath. Recently, deluxe operator, Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines started offering ‘beverage credits’ on board Europa 2 for UK passengers. Fully inclusive here, too, is almost certainly just a matter of time.

But the ‘big boys’ have taken a lot longer to respond. Actually, ‘all inclusive’ packages have been available as add-ons on some European cruise lines, and mainly on European itineraries, for a lot of years now. Louis Cruises in particular has been offering optional add-on packages for a long time, although with the caveat that the packages are only valid from 1000-0200 each day. Anything served before or after charged extra. Mind you, that would surely be far and away long enough for most, especially on such destination intensive short cruises.

MSC Cruises bit the bullet very early on in it’s giddy ascent towards becoming a player, offering a series of soft and alcoholic drinks packages that also folded in such treats as ice cream, and these proved tremendously popular. So much so that principal rival, Costa Cruises, did something similar. Out in the Far East, Star Cruises has offered an add on, all inclusive policy since its inception in the 90’s.

Carnival now offers a form of all inclusive package

Carnival now offers a form of all inclusive package

But, as so often before, the big game changer came when Carnival first trialed, and then rolled out, the first all inclusive, optional add ons across its vast fleet of Caribbean Fun Ships. This has been such a success that first, Royal Caribbean and now, Norwegian, has followed suit.

There has been some reluctance in certain quarters to go down this route. I suggested it as an option to one mainstream line a couple of years ago, and was told immediately that it would not happen.

Well, now it has.

What of the British based lines, I hear you say? Well, Thomson Cruises operates as an all inclusive package for many cruises but, baffling to report, they continue to charge an extra tariff on some itineraries to upgrade to all inclusive. As a product, it needs to be more uniform than it currently is.

Most surprising to my mind was when Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines put together an inclusive package, charged at a very reasonable £10 a day premium. For this most traditional of lines, this is a savvy bit of forward thinking. Cunard and P&O have not yet shown any interest in pursuing a similar policy, but that will probably change as well.

These inclusive, add on packages often come with certain caveats. Typically, all occupants of a cabin must buy the package and, as a rule of thumb, only one drink will be served at a time.  And most of these packages are not truly ‘all inclusive'; premium brands, champagnes and fine wines will certainly attract a surcharge, though often considerably less than the actual per drink cost.

And now Norwegian has joined in the fun....

And now Norwegian has joined in the fun….

Personally, I consider the bulk of these mainstream enhancements as just that- enhancements, rather than truly all inclusive. The actual ‘all inclusive’ product as we know it remains pretty much the preserve of the handful of boutique lines named at the top of this piece.

POST SALE OF THE CENTURY; CDF TO RETAIN ZENITH

Changing horizons for Crosieres De Frances?

Changing horizons for Crosieres De France?

Following the sudden and unexpected sale of the Celebrity Century to Chinese interests, there has been some pretty hasty scrambling about at the offices of the French company, Criosieres De France.

The French satellite of Royal Caribbean had been slated to receive the veteran, 1995 built mega ship to join its smaller fleet mate,  Horizon. This would leave the way clear for Zenith to be returned to Pullmantur, its Spanish counterpart.

The sale of Celebrity Century to China has effectively torpedoed all that. Plan B is now in effect.

Hence, Zenith will now remain with CDF to sail alongside her twin sister and one time former Celebrity fleet mate, Horizon. Passengers that were booked on Celebrity Century will be offered ‘alternative or better’ accommodation on the Zenith instead.

The big question here is; ‘how’?

At 47,000 tons and with a capacity for around 1,830 passengers each, neither Horizon or the 1992 built Zenith has anything like the passenger space of the 72,000 ton, 1995 built Celebrity Century, never mind the facilities or the entertainment handle. The whole idea of sending Century to CDF was to give that line a significant upgrade in terms of passenger offerings.

That has now gone. And, although the Chinese deal no doubt makes more financial sense from the point of Royal Caribbean, I have to wonder how potential passengers of CDF view their treatment by the parent company. I’d guess that some, if not many, will be less than happy.

And, of course, there is a knock on effect for the Spanish brand, Pullmantur, which was claiming to be able to field a ‘six ship fleet’ by 2016. Presumably, they were banking on the promised return of  Zenith as part of that plan.

At present, Pullmantur consists of a trio of illustrious, ex Royal Caribbean stalwarts; Empress, Sovereign and Monarch. While I can well envisage Majesty Of The Seas being made available to the Spanish line in the next year or so, that still leaves them two ships short for their planned expansion. It is difficult to see where another pair of ships would come from in the current market.

This is all a bit of a merry-go-round, and it seems to be very much a case of making mend with whatever is available. It is also potentially counter-productive for the still shaky European subsidiary market in the long run; after a long, and still far from over recession, a period of stability and retrenchment is what both CDF and Pullmatur need.

What chance of that, now?

As ever, stay tuned.

MSC ARMONIA PLUS; SHIP BEGINS DRY DOCK EXTENSION

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the 'Italy afloat' lifestyle

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the ‘Italy afloat’ lifestyle

MSC Armonia has entered a Fincantieri dry dock in Palermo, Sicily, for a major ‘chop and stretch’ operation that will create more balcony cabins, as well as a vastly enhanced set of new facilities for children and teens. The ship arrived in Palermo on August 31st, and work was put in hand immediately.

A pre built mid section, some twenty four metres long and containing one hundred and ninety-four new cabins, will be inserted after the operation to cut the 58,000 ton ship in half. MSC Armonia is one of four similarly sized vessels in the MSC fleet. Over the next year or so, the other three ships- MSC Lirica, MSC Sinfonia and MSC Opera- will also undergo similar drastic surgery.

In all, the work is expected to take some seventeen weeks. MSC Armonia is scheduled to leave dry dock on November 17th to make a repositioning voyage for her second season of seven night, winter Canary Islands cruises. Her new passenger capacity will be in the region of 1,960, based on double occupancy.

As well as the vast structural expansion, MSC Armonia will be enhanced by the addition of new children’s and teen clubs, and a lavish new water park. A new lounge will be added, and the lido buffet opening hours extended in order to provide a twenty hour a day food service. The main restaurant will also be expanded to cope with the projected passenger increase of three hundred and ninety two extra people per week. The ship’s MSC Aurea Spa will also be the recipient of significant upgrades.

Originally built in France in 2001 as the European Vision for the now defunct Festival Cruises, the MSC Armonia came over to her current owners in 2004. She was one of the key elements in the initial, dramatic expansion of MSC Cruises, but has in the past few years been overshadowed by huge new builds such as the MSC Magnifica and MSC Divina.

The extension of the ship makes perfect sense, in view of the ongoing pursuit of the multi-cultural family market by MSC Cruises as a whole. The four sisters as a whole have far fewer balcony cabins than their larger siblings, and less in the way of restaurant choices. The Palermo project should provide all four ships with useful, cost effective life extensions, making them more competitive in the future, but at the same time not quite so big as, and more personal than their larger siblings.

The project as whole is fascinating and multi-faceted on many levels, and the refurbished, renewed MSC Armonia should be a formidable competitor on the winter Canaries run.

As ever, stay tuned.

ON THIS DAY IN 1985; TITANIC WRECK FOUND….

On September 1st, 1985, a joint US/French search team led by Dr. Robert Ballard found the wreck of RMS Titanic.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

That simple phrase- just twenty one words in all- conveys none of the profound emotional impact of that moment. Every word, nuance and phrase was hammered home with the same force as those three million rivets that once formed the DNA of Titanic’s hull.

It was the stillness that got to me more than anything. The awesome silence that surrounded the shattered corpse that crouched in all its broken, twisted splendor on the bottom of the ocean. A ruined cathedral, humbled, brought down and blasted apart in places.  She wore that silence, and the darkness that begot it, like a funeral shroud.

The beauty, grace and magnificent bombast of the ‘Floating Ritz’ had vanished as completely as the ship herself did on that cold, April night. The four huge funnels, each one big enough for twin locomotives to pass through at the same time, were gone, riven from their bases like the felled pillars of some ruined, mighty temple. In her silent, shattered immolation, the Titanic resembled nothing so much as one part Pompeii, one part Atlantis. Legendary, overblown, and ruined.

And now, quite suddenly, rediscovered. No longer some elusive, lore draped enigma, Here was the real thing, writ large, with small rivers of rust bleeding away from the hull in both directions.

Of course, the bow retained something of its proud, haughty nobility. Port and starboard, the giant, eight ton anchors hung in their hawsers like a pair of giant tombstones. The mast, complete with the crow’s nest from which Fred Fleet had first spotted the killer berg, sagged back against the bridge, as if admitting final defeat.

On the forecastle, the cargo cranes stood frozen in death, folded like the arms of a deceased pharaoh. Dust and whirling clouds of sand danced in the deathly glow of the harsh lights on the remote observation vehicle, Argo, as it flew cautiously around the petrified, still proud remains of the once pristine liner.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Here and there, the odd lifeboat davit remained, swung outwards in their last positions, as if somehow pleading for a return of their long since vanished contents. Ventilators gaped upwards, seemingly recoiling away instinctively from the deck railings. And in that heavy, reverent silence, the sounds of the past were enhanced to almost pin point clarity.

You could almost hear the squeal of brand new ropes passing through block and tackle as the pitiful handful of boats were swung slowly outboard. The crack, hiss and roar of distress rockets, exploding in showers of futile white sparks as they clawed at the starlit night. The glib reassurances of husbands trying to usher vaguely uneasy wives and daughters into those same boats. And the ragtime; loud, sharp and sassy in the clear night air. Ghosts at the feast; their funeral obsequities suddenly on show again after seventy three years of solitary immolation.

And the debris field resembled nothing so much as the contents of a looted, ransacked resort hotel, flung across the cold, sandy sea bed by some malign, vengeful giant. Mounds of coal. Unopened champagne bottles, intact, with their corks still in place. Mountains of crockery, glassware and china, much of it unbroken. A bench from the deck and the remains of a child’s doll. Gladstone bags. And shoes. Pair after pair of shoes…..

Seeing all this unfold over the course of those strange, spellbinding days was sad, macabre, and yet appallingly addictive. The story of April 14-15th 1912 slowly awoke and replayed itself to a fascinated, awed audience. Not on some cinema screen or on a television, but on the actual spots where it all happened on that starlit night, so long ago. Pathos, sorrow and pity, served up with the morning paper that came with the corn flakes and the breakfast coffee….

But there was also a moment of sober satisfaction, too. For it was now obvious beyond doubt that this broken, mangled, once beautiful ship could never be brought back to the daylight. For decades, some people had fantasised about salvaging the Titanic; almost as if dragging her up for air and returning the ship to the daylight could somehow even the score with Mother Nature.

It isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. September 1st, 1985 revealed finally, conclusively, the the Titanic had reached her final port of call. There’s something about that which is at once sad and apt, both in the same instance.

A deathless ship on an endless voyage?

A deathless ship on an endless voyage?

Of course, she still sails across the fabrics of our imagination. Fuelled by a mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, the Titanic charges heedlessly ahead towards her fatal rendezvous near midnight. Ablaze with light from stem to stern, she has become the Marilyn Monroe of ocean liners. A twentieth century Flying Dutchman writ large, with interiors by Cesar Ritz, on an endless voyage.

Perhaps it is the broken, bowed and humbled wreck of Titanic that is the ultimate memorial to human vanity, folly and arrogance. But the opulent, floodlit beauty that sails our dreams and memories to this day refuses to lay down and die. A deathless dream; a ship of light, snuffed out and taken from us in her prime. Still young, still ravishing.

Perhaps not so much Pompeii as the picture of Dorian Grey.