REMEMBERING THE NORWEGIAN DREAM

Before Norwegian Cruise Line went on a mega ship building binge, there was a time in the early nineties when the company slowly began the transition from running smaller, sold out cruise ships such as the Starward, to a series of medium sized new builds that formed the mainstay of the company for the better part of a decade and a half.

The first of these new ships was the Seaward, which entered service in 1988. She was strictly a one off vessel, but she did pave the way for a new pair, to be built in the same French shipyard as the beloved company flagship, the ageing SS. Norway.

These twin sister ships would be called the Dreamward and the Windward. At around 42,000 tons each, they introduced some radical new concepts for NCL when they first debuted. Of the two, it was the Dreamward that arrived first, in November of 1992. She was showcased to the UK travel trade at Greenwich on a rainy winter Sunday but, even then, the new ship shone through.

The Dreamward featured a centrally located main pool, with the sun decks in front of it stacked up in a series of tiered steps. A modified version of this arrangement would later become a feature of the new Carnival Destiny class, the first cruise ships in the world to exceed the 100,000 ton mark.

Aft, a series of curved, window walled terraced restaurants formed a graceful cascade at the stern, offering stunning views out over the ship’s wake. A second, smaller plunge pool was located just behind them.

Inside, every cabin- both inside and outside- featured a small, dedicated sitting area that was separate to the bedroom. And, bowing to a rising tide of demand, the new ship also featured a handful of balcony cabins.

The Dreamward was formally christened by her godmother, Diana Ross, in December 1992. Almost immediately, she entered service on the popular, seven night eastern and western Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami. For the 1993 summer season, she moved north to New York, from where she operated a series of seven night cruises to Bermuda.

The centre piece of these cruises was a full, three night stay alongside in Hamilton, and these proved to be immensely popular. By this time, sister ship Windward was also in service, sailing to Alaska in the summer, and then joining the Dreamward out of Miami in the winter months. With little real variation, it was a routine that the two sister ships would follow over several seasons.

In 1997, Norwegian Cruise Line decided to lengthen both ships. In January of 1998, the Dreamward was dispatched first to a German shipyard, and there cut in half to facilitate the insertion of a pre built new mid section, some forty metres long.

In addition to this, both the mast and the top of the funnel were fitted with special hinges that would allow them to be ‘flipped’ to one side, to facilitate passage under the lower bridges of the Kiel Canal. Once refurbished, NCL planned to use the ship on a series of first time, pioneering cruises out of the United Kingdom to the Baltic capitals. And, with her new look came a new name; the ship was restyled as the Norwegian Dream.

In this guise, her tonnage increased to around 50,000, and her passenger capacity was increased. from around 1,250 up to 1,750.

The first season of these twelve night Baltic sailings were well received. Each one featured an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, as the highlight of a circuit that typically included such ports of call as Warnemunde, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, and sometimes Oslo as well. In this role, the Norwegian Dream became something of a trend setter; a role she would play out during the remainder of her service with NCL.

Then, in August of 1999, the Norwegian Dream collided with a container ship, the Ever Decent, in the middle of a thick English Channel fog. The bow of the cruise ship crumpled like rice paper, but she was never in any danger of sinking. Mercifully, there were no injuries on either ship.  Her mangled prow had to be rebuilt, at great expense, back in Germany. Following this, she re-entered service just in time for the winter time Caribbean peak season.

As newer, more amenity laden tonnage entered the NCL fleet, the Norwegian Dream was sent further afield during the winter season. She sailed a series of superb, round trip cruises in South America and to the Chilean fjords for several seasons, usually voyages of seventeen days’ duration. It was while she was on one of these that the Norwegian Dream was involved in a second collision, when she hit a barge while leaving the port of Montevideo in December of 2007. Fortunately, the damage to neither ship was serious.

The Norwegian Dream also started the tradition of winter cruising from New Orleans for NCL, running on seven night circuits to the western Caribbean. But, by 2008, it was clear that the ship no longer matched the new company profile. Her sale was expected imminently by many.

That year, the Norwegian Dream ran one final season of cruises to Bermuda from Boston, in a kind of valedictory farewell to her original role. Her sale to Louis Cruises had by then been announced and, at the end of that season, the ship sailed over to Greece, ready to begin a new life.

It never happened.

Though Louis did indeed take up the purchase of her fleet mate and fellow ‘Bermuda boat’, Norwegian Majesty, the Greek company declined to go ahead with also taking the Norwegian Dream. Louis Cruises cited ‘mechanical issues’ as a major hurdle. For a full three and a half years, the Norwegian Dream sat on life support in the Aegean, making occasional short runs between the islands to try and resolve the issues.

Finally, at the end of 2011, the ship got under way once more and headed for a dockyard in Singapore. Here, she would be transformed into the Superstar Gemini for NCL’s parent company, Star Cruises, to operate short, port intensive cruises in the Far East.

Heavily refurbished and in many ways re-invented, the Superstar Gemini enjoyed a happy reunion with her sister ship. The Norwegian Wind was by now sailing as the Superstar Aquarius for Star Cruises, and the two sister ships are now once more sailing in harmonious tandem service.

This $50 million renovation also brought her passenger capacity back down to around 1,532- a sensible decision. On a Bermuda cruise in June 2008 that I made aboard her, the Norwegian Dream– fully booked for the sailing- had seemed really crowded.

I was also lucky enough to sail on her in June of 2000, up to Scandinavia, after the repairs to her bow. In the opinion of many, the lengthening of the ship spoiled the formerly good passenger traffic flow through the ship but, having never sailed her as the Dreamward, I am not really in a position to comment.

This pioneering ship deserves more respect and appreciation than she often got back in her NCL days. The Norwegian Dream was a stylish, well thought out design that combined a wonderful external harmony with more than a dash of elegance. Like her sister ship, she served the company well during it’s ‘lost’ years of the late 1990’s. In fact, in many ways, she and her sister helped lay the foundations for the miraculous recovery that the current company enjoys to this day.

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008

THE CONTINUED RISE OF COLD WEATHER CRUISING….

One of the things that continues to fascinate me in terms of cruising’s future is the continual, on going rise in popularity of winter time voyages to cold weather destinations, such as northern Norway, and even some of the banner ports in Scandinavia. In the last decade, it’s a type of cruising that has assumed a momentum all of it’s very own.

For a permanent resident of the north east of England, the very idea of winter time cruising inevitably leads me- and, I suspect, most other people- to look at balmy, warm weather options such as the Caribbean, the Canaries, and even the Far East. After all, if God had meant me to spend winter embraced by cold, chilly days and nights, then why put two international airports within forty miles of my front door? The logic seemed inescapable.

Plus, add in the fun in the sun vibe of the Caribbean, and the fact that our winter season is actually the best time to see the fabled treasures and sights of the Far East, and it seemed even more of a no brainer. I have no problem with winter as such. It’s just that I prefer to enjoy it in a hammock. In thirty degree sunshine.

On a beach. With a Daiquiri. ‘Make winter history’ became my mantra.

But over the past few years, some intriguing new options have crept in onto my radar. And, shock horror, some of them involve cruising to colder- far colder- climes, in the depths of winter.

I think it was P&O Cruises that first tried what seemed to me to be a hugely ambitious, winter cruise to some of the Baltic capitals, as a round trip from Southampton. In an industry where repetition and continuity are so often the buzz words, just the idea of a winter Baltic cruise seemed incredibly audacious, and at least worthy of further investigation.

As a long time fan of such cities as Copenhagen and Oslo, I have to admit that I would be curious to see them in winter. And this new cruise promised overnight stays in both- alluring in its own right. A great chance to really get into and around all the fairy tale Christmas markets, and also to sample some of the local nightlife ashore. Would I be prepared to eschew my normal, sunnier winter sojourns for such a wildly eclectic itinerary?

Not straight away. But I was beginning to wonder…

And then came the advent of winter cruising to northern Norway. Offered as a round trip from various UK ports by both Cruise and Maritime Voyages and Fred. Olsen, these fourteen night winter odysseys to view the shimmering, ethereal skyscapes served up by the magical Northern Lights, really did make a very deep impression on me.

So I began to look at what I perceived might actually work against each option. Of course, the bone chilling cold would preclude using the outdoor pools and hot tubs. And a buffet lunch in the sun was looking highly unlikely. If I went for either of these cruises, I would have to consider my expectations of the actual shipboard experience in a very different light.

But, a few years down the line, and I actually think I could really do one of these trips, and probably enjoy it immensely. And the winter time Baltic cruises have grown in popularity to the extent that even Cunard is now occasionally offering them.

What really won me over is the wonderful brochures, usually produced by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, for their year round, Huritgruten adventures that sail the entire length of Norway, year round.

These articulate the sheer beauty and diversity that each season brings to Norway with such depth, eloquence and inclusivity that I would certainly now put at least one such, short cruise on my prospective calendar. And I think that this new, very real stream of actual information in helping to drive cold weather cruising as a whole.

Like many people, I was something of an ignoramus as to what was actually ‘out there’ on such winter voyages. I knew that cold days and nights were definitely out there at a time when I could be chilling- pun wholly intentional- on some surf kissed Caribbean beach.

But now I know how wonderful, magnetic and alluring the Northern Lights can be. I can sense the sheer, epic adventure of going dog sledding across a sea of fresh, glistening snow under a blanket of gossamer pale Arctic twilight.

I can appreciate how warm pools of light on snow kissed cobble stones might give me a different, delightful take on ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen, or how a glass of warm, spicy wine in a Hamburg bier keller might be the perfect end to a day of spectacular, very different Christmas shopping along the festive expanse of the Alster.

I get how wonderful the tall, slender spires of Stockholm would appear, even through a veil of icy mist. And I can envisage the sheer, splendid peace of sailing between jagged, snow shrouded ravines deep within a Norwegian fjord, while reindeer gaze idly at our ship as she passes by on what looks like a sheet of slowly cracking ice.

I can appreciate how fresh and vital the air would feel, cold or not. And I now get that those winter time skies can provide me with panoramas every bit as mesmerising as anything that I have seen in Asia, or out in the South Pacific.

In short, good travel copy and advertising really does work. Though pretty well travelled, I was obviously in need of education. And now that I have had the education, I have thrown off at least some of my reserve.

And there is also something of the desire to get a bit ‘off the beaten track’ that is fuelling this nascent curiosity of mine. I suspect that the same also holds true for many other people, too.

So, winter cruising in colder climes really is something that I would consider now. I have been lured out of my indolent, sunny torpor with the notion of doing something that looks fresh, vital, and inherently rewarding in a totally different kind of way.

Mind you, that’s not a complete, one hundred per cent capitulation. Oh, no.

I still expect to find my personal, carefully hidden hammock waiting for me when I rock up on Cane Garden Beach in Tortola this year. And when I get there, the only ice I expect to see is in my first Margarita.

I’m sure you get the picture. But it takes more than one picture to make an art gallery. And travel, if it is anything at all, is surely a kind of art form.

You pick the colours. And you decide on the canvas you paint your impressions on. For sure, there are many different options out there.

Cherish them all.

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time....

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time….

VENICE IN WINTER- A PRACTICAL ALTERNATIVE

There’s no question that Venice is one of the most stunning, wonderful and unique cities anywhere on the planet. The fantastic brew of imposing Palladian palaces lining canals sprinkled with gondolas that flirt with the crowds of tourists that throng the streets, winding alleys and vast, imposing squares of La Serenissima, is only part of the charm of this amazing sea city.

Venice is irresistible gelato, café concerto orchestras swinging lushly through Strauss waltzes in the sweltering heat of summertime Piazza San Marco, and swarms of fattened pigeons looming against a flaring purple twilight, as dusk steals across the waters of ancient Guidecca. A million sights, sounds and sensations, all wrapped up in impossibly beautiful- and often painfully overcrowded- surroundings.

And, of course, most people are inevitably drawn to this magnificent melting pot in the long, warm summer months. Add into the mix the regular arrival of several cruise ships, disgorging literally thousands of day visitors into the scheme of things, and you begin to understand why exploring Venice in the summer can sometimes be as much of a trial as a treat.

There is one, potential way to circumvent all this; have you ever thought of visiting Venice in the winter?

For sure, the city will be a lot colder, and at times perhaps even freezing. But consider the vast, serene stance of this amazing sea city, dusted with a fresh blanket of powder white snow, and you begin to comprehend the possibility of something truly magical.

Imagine the vast, magnificent expanse of Piazza San Marco, bathed in the glow of lights shimmering on early evening snow, as bells toll over the great square. Perhaps see a stately, mysterious fog swirling like so many agitated wraiths around the Campanile, the famous bell tower, or the ice encrusted prows of rows of petrified gondolas as they sit stiffly at attention, crying out for the warm sun to thaw them out.

February is also the month of Carnevale (literal translation; goodbye to meat) when the entire city takes on a kind of quasi ethereal feel, and the shades of Casanova and Machiavelli lurk among the winding alleys and cafes thronged by hordes of masked revellers. For those who associate the carnival season with warmer, sunnier climes, the chic, chilly Venetian equivalent would prove to be a truly intriguing contrast, indeed.

So yes, Venice will be cold during winter, and often foggy, too. But the great city out of season is not one bit less magnificent. And, in many ways, she can be even more alluring.

Crowds will be much thinner, so getting ‘up close and personal’ to your must see list of Venetian masterpieces will be a whole lot easier, and infinitely more rewarding. Shorn of her heaving, summer time hugger mugger, Venice is an amazing, medieval theme park, shrouded in bridal white, that still fills your sights and senses with wonders on an epic, ageless scale.

Needless to say, you can always do some of the famous, touristy things right through the winter. You can still enjoy a Bellini in Harry’s Bar, where the legendary cocktail was invented, or take a motor boat across the lagoon to the famous glass making island of Murano. Again, odds are that you can do it in considerably more peace and quiet- a side of Venice that many people simply never get to see, feel, or breathe. And yet, for at least four months each year, this is the reality of life in the city.

Winter reveals the city’s treasures in a different, colder, and yet kinder frame of light. When watery sunshine spills out across the misty surface of the lagoon, the play of light on water can be nothing short of bewitching.

Gradually, yet inevitably, the sun begins to climb higher in the sky. Cafes begin to open out cautiously on the waterfront; the sagging, sodden covers come off gondolas long shrouded against the long winter months. Slowly but surely, La Serenissima blinks herself awake from her mellow winter slumber, and steels herself for the returning throngs that the lighter days and nights will soon bring.

Venice is, and always has been, a city for all seasons. And, like any city, there are pros and cons for visiting at any time of year. The purpose of this blog is to hopefully make you aware that winter, too, offers some wonderful possibilities in this most beguiling of cities. Enjoy!

Venice is most definitely worth considering as a year round destination

Venice is most definitely worth considering as a year round destination

INDOLENT ITALY- DREAMING WIDE AWAKE

Italy. Just say it. It sounds good. It feels exotic. A land as full of temptations as any Venetian coffee house, and one no less surprising in terms of sheer, splendid variety.

Consider wandering the streets of ancient Rome, one of the greatest cities on earth. You can drink Chianti and feast on prosciutto within sight of the hulking, ruined grandeur of the Coliseum, where men once literally fought for their lives, while swarms of scooters buzz past like swarms of maddened wasps.

You could savour the wonderful, indolent dolce vita lifestyle on the Olympian, lemon scented heights of stunning Sorrento, where people watching is an art form in itself. Or you could head down to the waterfront lidos, jutting out like spindly fingers into the azure blue hue of the balmy Mediterranean.

History and hedonism combine perfectly in vast, atmospheric Venice, where a glut of slowly crumbling, cake rich renaissance palaces, churches and theatres line vast, meandering canals where gondolas pout at the masses of summer tourists. Sample a real Bellini at Harry’s Bar, where the famous drink was originally invented, or take in the sounds of a full orchestra as you sip café in the unparalleled elegance of Piazza San Marco.

Something more tranquil, perhaps? Head for the vast, sparkling expanse of Lake Como, where million dollar villas peep out from amid vast tracts of deep, rolling greenery. Savour cocktails on the terrace of some wonderful old Grand Hotel, as the slowly setting sun turns the waters of the lake into  a sea of blazing straw.

For a real taste of Italian flair and style, check out tiny, picture perfect Portofino, a serene sweep of old Italianate architecture in shades of ochre and terracotta, wrapped around a sublime, yacht studded harbour like an elegant charm bracelet. People wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of small third world country pick at freshly caught fish and mouth watering paella.

For quirky history, meander up to small, patrician Pisa and gaze in awe at the infamous Bell Tower, the Campanile, shearing a full dozen feet from the vertical. Nearby is Florence, with its fabled Statue of David, world class museums, and the amazing medieval shopping arcade on the old bridge, spanning the mighty Arno.

You could check out the countryside of rustic, rolling Tuscany, with its smart, secluded villas and small, timeless towns, where houses still cluster around the bell tower of the local church as if for safety. Here, life seems to take on a timeless, otherworldly kind of quality.

This is just a small sample in the box of delights that is summertime Italy. Get out there and enjoy them. Live la dolce vita for yourself, and experience the difference between merely existing and truly living. Wonderful stuff.

Pisa

Pisa

DISASTERS AT SEA, AND HOW WE SEE THEM……..

When you think of disasters at sea, what are the first names that trip off your tongue?

I’m betting that, almost without exception, it is the same two ships; Titanic and Lusitania.

I would also guess that the names Dona Paz, Wilhelm Gustloff and even perhaps the Empress Of Ireland mean little to most.

And that is quite incredible; because the Dona Paz remains, quite simply, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever. The total loss of life was some 4,386 people. There were just 24 survivors.

So, why have so few people heard of this tragedy, with it’s death toll almost three times as great as that of the Titanic? A lot of it has to do with perceptions of how we view shipwrecks, and the stature of the ship itself.

The Dona Paz was a simple, working ferry that sailed around the islands of the Philippines. She was criminally overloaded by an appalling two thousand passengers when she was rammed by an oil tanker, the Vector, on December 20th, 1987.

Her passenger list consisted entirely of local working people, commuting to and from their daily jobs, or perhaps just intent on visiting family and friends.

It had none of the platinum chip drama of the floodlit Titanic, sagging helplessly into the starlit Atlantic as Wallace Hartley and his bandsmen sawed desperately away at dance music.

There were no millionaires, film stars or railroad owners lining the decks of the Dona Paz. In fact, the story- ghastly, horrifying and absolutely beyond belief- created hardly even a ripple in the international press. It was something that happened a long way away, in a strange land.

By contrast, when the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise had capsized and sank off Zeebrugge that same March, with the loss of 188 lives, the story made headlines right around the world. In media speak, some lives obviously have much more value than others.

As for the other ship mentioned, the Wilhelm Gustloff took perhaps as many as 9,000 people down with her in January, 1945. She was a commandeered German liner carrying civilians, wounded troops and Red Cross personnel away from the advancing Russian army, when a Soviet submarine slammed a trio of torpedoes into her on the night of January 30th.

Again, the ship was massively overloaded with terrified people. And yet, her destruction and horrific death toll has raised none of the righteous horror and indignation that the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a U boat did in May, 1915. 1,201 men. women and children went to the bottom with the famous Cunarder. That story garnered a tidal wave of horror and infamy so vast that it eventually played a huge part in bringing America into the Great War on the Allied side.

So why one, and not the other?

Perhaps part of it is down to the fact that the Wilhlem Gustloff was packed to the gills with wartime Germans, fleeing potential revenge for the string of unspeakable atrocities initiated in their name by Hitler and his SS. Even the most innocent of nurses and children were irredeemably tainted by association with such an evil regime. Besides which, the Gustloff was carrying wounded personnel from the German armed forces. In the Russian view, that made her a perfectly legitimate target. In that war, there were few real civilians- a view shared by both sides.

And what about the Empress Of Ireland? She capsized in the freezing Saint Lawrence on a foggy May evening in 1914 and sank in just fourteen minutes, leaving over 1,000 of her passengers and crew to expire within screaming distance of land. It caused horror and outrage that was as brief lived as the ship itself.

Again, the Empress Of Ireland was full of mostly ordinary, blue collar workers and their families, heading over to Europe and beyond. The ship, while comfortable, was a modest and unassuming liner, rather than a floating palace like the Titanic.

When the Titanic ship sank, she dragged half of the New York stock exchange down with her. Most of her famous first class passengers were names known the world over, and most of them went down with her. It triggered a media tsunami without equal perhaps to this day.

As for the Empress Of Ireland, she sank just three months before a global conflict of unimaginable horror erupted right across Europe and beyond. Soon, the daily death tolls coming in from the Western Front made the loss of a thousand souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in an icy Canadian waterway, seem almost quaint.

In received wisdom, the deliberate targeting of the Lusitania seems somehow more ghastly and unacceptable than that of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though each sinking was undeniably as carefully targeted and ruthlessly carried through as the other.

Awful beyond words, the Dona Paz disaster will never be immortalised in film. The story, like so many others, has been allowed to founder with indecent haste, and very scant recognition and remembrance.

Are some lives really perceived to be more or less valuable than others? Viewed through the skewed lens of our current historical prism, it certainly seems so. Nothing else explains the lurid acres of grisly coverage accorded to the Herald of Free Enterprise, while news of a ship that killed more than twenty times as many just nine moths later, created nary a ripple.

The ocean remains an equal opportunities killer; she will take her victims regardless of colour, age, wealth or any self assumed notions of social status. And, at the end of the day, every single soul lost across that infamous glut of maritime tragedies- passengers and crew alike- was a simple, terrified person. Most had families; all were loved, mourned and missed to a lesser or greater degree. No doubt they all prayed to the same idea of what we call ‘God’ for a salvation that, ultimately, never came.

I think that the least we can do is to acknowledge that sad fact.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.

WILL FRED. OLSEN BUY ANOTHER SHIP SOON?

Riding high on the obvious success of its big fleet ‘get together’ in Bergen yesterday, the good people at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will enjoy basking in the glow of public acclaim that they have enjoyed from right across the cruising fraternity.

And quite right, too. Because Fred. Olsen- like it’s rival, Cruise and Maritime Voyages- does offer something totally unique; a hugely welcome alternative to the serried ranks of megaships that now form the bulk of fleets such as Cunard and P&O. And, with excellent levels of food and service allied to a warm, intimate scale, I suspect that the allure of both the smaller British operators will grow markedly over the next decade or so.

And, in the case of Fred. Olsen, we are talking about what is, in essence, still very much a family owned firm. Sea minded since day one, the Olsen family takes a keen interest in the handling, development, and even the day to day operation of the fleet. It’s a symbiosis that is rare indeed in an age where balance sheets rule the waves.

Many people were saddened when the pioneering Black Prince, the original, inimitable Fred. Olsen cruise ship, was retired from service in 2009. At the same time, some expressed unease at the acquisition of the 43,000 ton Balmoral- a ship then quite a lot larger than anything that the company had ever owned before. Would the age old Olsen attributes of intimacy and ease of access be lost with this larger vessel, the first in the fleet’s history to boast a passenger capacity in excess of a thousand?

The naysayers were proved wrong. Balmoral has become a very popular and successful ship since entering service, and an ideal foil to the already established, classic trio of Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch. Her bigger capacity allows for enhanced dining options and a bigger entertainment handle that have made her ideal for longer, round the world voyages, while giving away nothing in terms of warmth and spaciousness. I have sailed on her twice- both before and after her purchase by FOCL- and still consider her to be one of the finest and most stylish cruise ships afloat anywhere today.

So, with things looking quite good at the moment, is it the right time for Fred. Olsen to consider a modest fleet expansion and, if so, what kind of ship might they be looking at?

It’s pretty much a given that the line does not ‘do’ new builds. It has made the purchase and prudent conversion of second hand ships into gracefully enhanced, eminently serviceable vessels, into something of an art form over the years.

The great advantage of such a strategy is that the line is not kept waiting three or four years for a purpose built new ship. A vessel bought ‘off the market’ can be upgraded and improved in less than a quarter of that time, and at infinitely less cost. And, having been so successful on the second hand market, I’m guessing that this is the road that FOCL will take again. The only real question is; what ship would they buy, given the chance?

It is no secret that the line has long been interested in the Prinsendam of Holland America Line for quite a few years. Originally built as the Royal Viking Sun for the legendary Royal Viking Line back in 1989, she was- and still is- one of the most exclusive and opulent de luxe ships at sea; one so totally individual in style and character that Holland America advertises her as their ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In the past, Holland America have always declined to part with her. But, in the last few years, the company has been slowly divesting itself of smaller ships in favour of larger, more diverse vessels such as Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, and the forthcoming new flagship, the Koningsdam, which is due to debut next year. What seemed unlikely three or four years ago may well be more of a possibility now.

Certainly, the Prinsendam would be a perfect fit for Fred. Olsen. At just under 39,000 tons and with a current capacity for some 740 passengers, the ship is roughly in line, size wise, with Balmoral, though I expect FOCL would probably increase her passenger capacity by around 100-150. Probably, the line would like to add more balcony cabins- a popular facility that the line no longer swims against the tide on.

And it would also make for a happy reunion with two of her former Royal Viking Line fleetmates- Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) and Black Watch (once the Royal Viking Star). And, no doubt, the Olsen family would enjoy the chance to preserve and enhance this classic piece of traditional Norwegian cruising excellence.

This would certainly be a transition that would make sense for both lines, if the price was right. Obviously, the Prinsendam would need a certain amount of cosmetic surgery to bring her in line with her quartet of prospective sisters, but nothing too radical. The Prinsendam is a very finely styled lady as she is.

A fascinating prospect, and a possible future Fred. Olsen project? Stay tuned…..

is it time for Fred to become five?

is it time for Fred to become five?

NEW DUO ANNOUNCED FOR COSTA CRUISES

Costa Cruises has just announced that it will be receiving two new ships, each of 180,000 tons, from the Meyer Werft satellite shipyard in Turku, Finland..

The two new vessels are part of the much touted, nine ship order placed by Carnival Corporation for new tonnage across several of its brands. At the time, it was bruited that at least one of these vessels would be a new build for the Italian giant. Four of these contracted new builds were awarded to Meyer Werft- the other two vessels will be for the German Aida subsidiary.

The two new Costa ships will come in with a blockbusting passenger capacity of some 5,200 lower berths, and a total aimed at an incredible 6,600 in all. If these figures are realised, it will give the company the biggest passenger carrying capacity of any vessels afloat.

Current plans anticipates completion dates of 2019 and 2020 respectively for the two as yet nameless ships.

It is only recently that the Italian line took delivery of a new, largest ever flagship- the 132,500 ton Costa Diadema- styled by the line as the ‘Queen of The Mediterranean’.

This order represents a huge act of faith by the parent company in the future of Costa Cruises, coming as it does a scant few years after the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia off the island of Giglio in January, 2012.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned.

It's full steam ahead for the colossus that is Costa....

It’s full steam ahead for the colossus that is Costa….

FRED’S FAB FOUR- A BIG DAY OUT FOR FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES

Today’s first, historic rendezvous of all four Fred. Olsen cruise ships in Bergen is ample cause to celebrate the more intimate style of voyaging that the company is famous for. But, way beyond even that, it is the celebration of a Norwegian company, long imbued with deep and historic links to Great Britain, that enjoys a unique travelling relationship with the British public.

As such, I thought it might be worth a quick look back at each of the ‘Fab Four’ as they line up for their big day out in what remains one of the most beautiful and popular ports of call on the company’s cruising roster.

BLACK WATCH was originally built in 1972 as the Royal Viking Star, the first of three nearly identical new sister ships commissioned by the then fledgling Royal Viking Line. She sailed with that legendary company through until 1991, when she was transferred to Norwegian Cruise Line, sailing first as the Westward and then as the Star Odyssey.

She was bought by Fred Olsen, entering service for them in November, 1996 as the heavily refurbished Black Watch. Ever since, the ship has enjoyed consistent, popular success as an elegant, highly styled cruise ship, offering itineraries ranging from two night mini cruises, to full, three month round the world voyages. At a svelte 28,000 tons, the Black Watch carries some 820 passengers in total.

BRAEMAR was originally ordered as the Crown Dynasty for the now defunct Crown Cruise Lines, and entered service in 1993. After a long spell as the Norwegian Dynasty of NCL, the ship was laid up at Aruba, where she was purchased by Fred. Olsen, and then extensively updated in Germany.

She entered service for Fred. Olsen in August, 2001 as the Braemar, and she soon became very popular indeed with her yearly season of winter Caribbean fly cruises, based out of Barbados, for which her intimate size was perfect. In the autumn, she also cruises from the Canary Islands, sometimes as far south as West Africa, and the recent winter resumption of her Caribbean itineraries after an absence of a few years, has been very well received.

Coming in at around 24,000 tons, Braemar currently has a capacity of around 929 passengers.

BALMORAL is currently the company’s flagship, and the largest passenger vessel ever to fly the Fred. Olsen flag. The 43,000 ton Balmoral was originally built in Germany as the Crown Odyssey in 1988, for the now sadly vanished Royal Cruise Line. In the late nineties, one of her fleet mates was the Star Odyssey, now also sailing for Fred. Olsen as the Black Watch.

She was an elegant and luxurious ship from the start, famed for her beautiful art deco interiors. After stints with both Orient Lines and NCL, for whom she sailed as the Norwegian Crown, she came over to Fred. Olsen in 2008.

After a thorough and very comprehensive refit, the ship entered service as Balmoral in 2008. Ever since, she has operated on longer, globe spanning voyages each January, and offered a full season of cruises to Norway, the Baltic, the Adriatic and Iberia during the rest of the season.

Updated for British tastes, this wonderful ship still has much of her original striking features and styling intact. She continues to be very popular with passengers wanting to cruise on an elegant, eminently seaworthy vessel that still offers an intimate, more personalised style of cruise experience. She has a passenger capacity of around 1,778 in total.

BOUDICCA is the near identical twin sister ship of the Black Watch. She, too, began life for Royal Viking Line as the Royal Viking Sky back in 1973, as one of the most exclusive and luxurious vessels anywhere at sea. She sailed with that company for eighteen full years, until 1991.

There was then a period where she was briefly used by Birka Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Iberocruises, and even Star Cruises out in Asia. But this period of rapid change came to an end with her purchase by Fred. Olsen.

She entered service in February, 2006, after a massive refurbishment and with new engines, as the Boudicca, named for the legendary queen of the former Iceni tribe. In this new role, the ship has been very popular, offering itineraries as diverse as two night party cruises, right through to full, thirty two day round trips, out to the Caribbean and back.

Boudicca has also been something of a trail blazer for the fleet, sailing on cruises form ports as diverse as Belfast, Tilbury, Greenock, and Port of Tyne. With a tonnage of 28,000, the Boudicca can accommodate some 900 passengers in all.

DID YOU KNOW??

* All four of the ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet have been cut in half and lengthened in the course of their careers.

* All four of them have sailed for Norwegian Cruise Line at some stage in their history.

* The entire number of berths offered across the entire fleet is still less than those aboard the monolithic Oasis of The Seas.

*  Next year, Balmoral will replace Boudicca on her summer season of cruises from Port of Tyne, the cruise port for Newcastle.

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

SILVERSEA TO BUILD THREE NEW SHIPS-OFFICIAL

The first keel section of the new Silver Muse was laid today, at an official ceremonat Fincantieri’s Sestri Ponente yard near Genoa, Italy.

The 40,700 ton, 590 guest ship is due to enter service in April of 2017.

Present at the ceremony, Silversea chairman. Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, stunned his audience by announcing that the Silver Muse will, in fact, be the first of three nearly identical new builds, all built on the same platform.

The second and third ships have been given no official names as of yet.

Between them, these three new ships will give the luxury, six star operator an additional 1,770 berths to fill- roughly the same figure again as the total currently offered across the current, five ships in the mainstream fleet.

After a few years in which the line has concentrated mainly on developing its expedition ships branch, this massive expansion of the Silversea fleet- the biggest in its history- cones just days after the rival Crystal Cruises announced plans for its own, new trio of vessels.

Truly a huge development in the luxury cruise ship sector. As ever, stay tuned for further details.

Silver Spirit off Lipari, Italy

Silver Spirit off Lipari, Italy

HAVE CRUISE SHIPS SIMPLY GOTTEN TOO LOUD?

It is time for me to confess.

There was a time, about a decade ago, when I said to anyone dumb enough to listen that the cruise lines simply did not make enough use of their outdoor decks as entertainment venues. I argued that the odd bit of live jazz outside- either by day or night- would be a real alternative from a night spent meandering around the bars and clubs down below.

And I was also all for the odd, open air disco out on deck, around the swimming pools. For a couple of hours on a balmy Caribbean or Mediterranean night, an outdoor disco could be a delightfully indulgent alternative.

Now, just a decade or so later, we have come to a time when our eardrums seem to be constantly under assault from a tidal wave of  brutal, massively over amplified inanity, even on sea days. ‘Games’ around the pool, hosted by cruise staff at a level of decibels that can shatter glass ten miles away, vary wildly in quality, from the mildly amusing to the massively moronic.

Let’s be clear here. I am not having a go at the cruise staff, DJ’s and musicians who, as I know damned well, work their socks off round the clock to entertain and amuse the passengers. What I’m railing against is a mind set whose ideas of ‘fun’ seem to be set in stone.

Has it, in fact, gone too far in the wrong direction? I am convinced that, in certain quarters, the powers that be have simply collated increased volume with amplified levels of ‘fun’.

Er, no. It’s not. Well, at least not for all of us.

Being force fed a glut of pseudo exuberant claptrap that masquerades as ‘participation entertainment’ is most definitely not my idea of fun. And yes, being 55 years of age, there is a possibility that you could argue that I am ‘too old’ for this kind of thing.

To which I would reply; No- I’m simply mature enough to feel annoyed and unsettled by this constant, over amplified dumbing down of what should normally be my blissful, relaxing quality time spent at sea.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Gone are the days of old, when all the entertainment provided would be a live reggae band on deck during the afternoon, laying down a montage of totally apt mood music at an agreeable volume that didn’t have the sharks diving for cover. This was the best of both worlds, because it was ambient and pleasant, as opposed to crude, banal and intrusive.

However, I would agree that there is a place for just this kind of loud, over the top stuff that seems to be spreading across the pool decks of far too many cruise ships like some kind of unstoppable oil slick.

It’s called a frat party. Either that, or Senor Frog’s. Rant over.

This is what a cruise ship's pool deck should sound like.....

This is what a cruise ship’s pool deck should sound like…..