THE AGELESS LURE OF THE CRUISE LINER….

Even now, there is something about putting to sea on a ship that just feels so timeless and right compared to being  on any other form of transport.

Yes, that’s a pretty damned profound statement, and it’s one that not everyone is going to agree with. But in defence of such a statement, I’d offer the following as an explanation…..

No one would argue that a jet plane is infinitely quicker and more convenient as a form of mass transport. Which is why liners are largely extinct in the first place. And there are many jet airliners, both past and present, that have been extremely beautiful in terms of appearance.

But nothing for me has the instant drama and majesty of a cruise ship or an ocean liner, or it’s subtle, wondrous progression from a shimmering, implausible mass tethered briefly to a pier, to a fabulous floating wonderland, ablaze with light and music, progressing in state beneath a sky ablze with stars, or lunging gamely towards a flaring sunset, chasing a horizon that it can never, ever reach. No other form of transport presents itself with such dramatic flair, symmetry or sheer poise.

And, while take off on many flights is indeed an adrenaline surge, it is not one that compares with the subtle, beguiling thrill of putting to sea from Barcelona, Genoa or New York on a warm summer night. A beautiful evening, a cold drink to hand, music in the air and the gentle vibration of deck under foot as the gap between ship and shore widens almost imperceptibly- these things are powerful magic, a series of sensations passed down through the ages. They still have the power even today to move people on more than one level.

And it’s the sounds, too. Give me the subtle, seductive sound of deep ocean swishing alongside some sound, sturdy hull standing out on its course to who knows where, rather than the antiseptic interior of yet another transatlantic jet, with its forced smiles and food regulo five.

And yes, many of my friends are just as passionate about planes and, indeed, trains and cars as I am about ships. Which is fine because, if we were all the same, life and how we engage with it would be dull indeed.

And, while there are many charges that even the most ill informed of people can level against sea travel, the idea that it is ‘dull’ is certainly not one of them. The only way not to enjoy a sea voyage is to embark in a sealed, wooden box.

An endless voyage, across a succession of seas ranging from the sublime to the outright stormy, on a series of stunning, elegant vessels, each one as distinctive as a human fingerprint, each as elegant as a charm bracelet.

That’s why I love sea travel.

Timeless and never tiresome. The ocean rolls on in it's endless, fascinating panorama

Timeless and never tiresome. The ocean rolls on in it’s endless, fascinating panorama

VIKING STAR HANDED OVER AT FINCANTIERI

In a low key but none the less auspicious ceremony, the brand new 47,800 ton. 930 passenger Viking Star was handed over to her owners, Viking Ocean Cruises, by the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy on Saturday, March 28th.

The yard- itself said to be on the verge of taking over the rival STX yard at Saint Nazaire- delivered the first of three confirmed orders for the premium grade company that has come to dominate European river cruising. Two sister ships of the same size and class- Viking Sky and Viking Sea- are due to debut in 2016, and the company also has an option for a fourth ship in the same class.

The ship- very much aimed at a classic style of cruising that emphasises in depth destination visits and on board hospitality rather than gimmicks and glitz- will make a series of shakedown cruises before being finally named in Oslo, Norway, on May 17th- Norwegian Constitution Day.

The advent of Viking Star is hugely symbolic, and redolent with memories of the old Royal Viking Line of the 1970’s and 80’s. Firmly ensconced in the intimate, small ship category, Viking Star will offer free beer and wine with dinner, making the product wholly compatible in terms of value with the river cruise fleet.

I’ll be looking in depth at this new, very special ship as more details become available. As always, stay tuned.

SHINING ON THE TYNE- CRYSTAL AND REGENT TO VISIT NEWCASTLE IN AUGUST

In what amounts ot a double shot of elegant, exclusive luxury, the port of Newcastle will for the first time play host to two ultra luxury cruise ships in August within the space of a week. This is a huge coup for the port that could set a possible trend for future, upscale arrivals in the region.

First, we have Regent Seven Seas’ classy Seven Seas Voyager. The 50,000 ton, 700 guest all suite ship will dock at North Shields for the day on Wednesday, August 19th.

One week later, it will be the turn of the sublime Crystal Symphony, slated for an 1100 arrival at North Shields on Wednesday 26th, and departing at 1900 that same evening.

The Tyne is no stranger to great luxury ships; as well as being a seasonal home base for the ships of Cruise And Maritime and Fred. Olsen, the port has been graced by such star attractions as the QE2, Silver Cloud, Westerdam and MSC Magnifica among others in recent times.

While this should hardly be surprising when considering the sheer glut of scenic overkill that the region is famed for, not to mention it’s world renowned hospitality, the arrival of these two highly styled, very exclusive vessels one after another cannot help but raise the region’s profile on the international cruise circuit.

For the locals, it will be a matter of great pride to welcome these two superb vessels and their guests to the Tyne. Stay tuned for further details.

Magnificnet Durham Cathedral; one of many regional masterpieces on offer to cruise passengers visiting the Tyne

Magnificnet Durham Cathedral; one of many regional masterpieces on offer to cruise passengers visiting the Tyne

NINE NEWBUILDS FOR CARNIVAL CORPORATION

As intimated on this blog yesterday, Carnival Corporation has just placed the largest cruise ship multi order in maritime history.

An unparallelled in scale project will realise no less than nine new cruise ships- all well over the 100,000 ton mark- to be distributed across the various mega ship brands of the Carnival empire.

Five of the ships will be built at the company’s favourite shipyard, Fincantieri. But in a groundbreaking move, the other four wil all be built by Meyer Werft at Papenburg- an operation intimately associated with building tonnage for key Carnival rivals such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.

The total building project is set to unfold over the course of four years- 2019 through 2022- and at least some of the new tonnage will be destined for the China market from th outset.

Details on stats and distribution for the new tonnage is scant, apart from a new, 175,000 ton new design for Costa Crociere, but I would expect at least one sister ship each for the currently building Carnival Vista, and perhaps a second Koningsdam class ship for Holland America Line.

What will be intersting is to see whether any new tonnage will be forthcoming for Cunard. Both the Princess and P&O brands of Carnival corp have received significant new builds in the last few years, but Cunard have had nothing new since the well received Queen Elizabeth in 2011.

Interesting times lay ahead. As ever, stay tuned.

CRUISE FLASHBACK- SS CANBERRA, JULY 1985

I boarded the Canberra on July 28th, 1985 for a week long cruise down to Vigo and Madeira, the only major Portuguese island in the Canaries. It was a cruise that was rare for the P&O stalwart; her usual itineraries ranged from twelve to seventeen days at that time, and the seven night run was a real rarity.

Still, it gave me the chance to sample life on a ship that I had always wanted to sail on, and the chance was too good to pass. The piece that follows is not a warts and all description of that voyage some thirty years ago, but rather a pastiche, composed of moments and memories that have stayed with me over three decades.

Externally, the Canberra was in a deplorable state. Great torrents of rust streaked her hull both on port and starboard sides. The heroine of the 1982 Falklands conflict looked as if she had actually just returned from active duty. I do not know who was responsible for making sure her overall appearance was kept up, but they had definitely fallen down on the job. No self respecting cruise ship would put to sea looking like that these days.

Internally, she was a different matter. Lots of small, clubby wood panelled rooms seemed to feed into each other. There was none of the dramatic, double decked grandeur that I had previously savoured aboard the Norway or the QE2, but there was an immediate sense of calm, welcoming warmth; I guess it was comfort rather than luxury.

In those days, you could buy a shared berth in a four berth cabin, with private facilities just down the hall. I did just this and, for the princely sum of £406.50p all in, I was also gifted first class return rail tickets to and from Southampton, courtesy of P&O. And, though the cabin was in the bowels of the ship, it actually worked out OK for the time. I was seldom in the room.

One of the things I loved about the Canberra was the graceful, upward curve of her promenade deck as it sheared skyward toward the bow. This was a green, steel painted deck that encircled the entire ship, if I remember correctly.

And I never tired of the view looking aft from near the bridge superstructure; the two great, buff funnels sat alongside each other, and resembled nothing as much to me as a pair of castle ramparts, looming against the sky. Over the week, that backdrop would vary from grey and stormy to a sublime, improbable, beautifully burnished sunset as we sailed home over the Bay of Biscay.

The Canberra was almost relentlessly British in terms of tone, ambiance and on board product. Tea in the Meridian Room was served promptly at four, and the on board currency was sterling. There were square and rectangular dining tables in the restaurant- a slightly awkward arrangment when trying to converse at dinner. The food was tailored to British palates, with more than a passing nod to the line’s imperial past in the form of some excellent Indian curries. It was good, wholesome fare all round and, to a still quite impressionable 25 year old on only his fourth cruise, definitely a taste of the high life for sure.

Despite being a big ship for those days- 45,000 tons- my overwhelming memory of the Canberra is just how warm and intimate she felt inside. The one exception seemed to be the famous Crow’s Nest lounge at the front of the ship, on the upper deck; with a wall of floor to ceiling windows opening out over the bow, the views from this semi circular room were really expansive. I remember sitting at the front, in a green chair on a swivel base, watching as the waves lashed the bow of Canberra as she head butted her way through a ferocious and unyielding Biscay howler. On such occasions, climbing and descending the famous, circular marble stairway that led to this room was an adventure in itself.

And even her fondest afficionados could hardly claim that the Canberra got brownie points for stability. During that epic, southbound passage over Biscay, the old girl rocked and rolled to port and starboard like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. She pitched and lurched on the roll, and then heaved herself back vertical again, like some sodden dowager emerging from an overly long soak in the bath. She could wrong foot the unwary with almost effortless ease.

But if ever a ship had heart, a soul, and sheer, unmatched charisma, it was surely Canberra. She did not have had the more subtle, elegant luxe of the QE2, or the stunning Art Deco splendour of the Norway, and that at first came as something of a gentle shock to me.

But, truth be told, the Canberra did not need these things. She held her head up, and did not pretend to be something she was not. People loved her because she was dignified, like some elderly hospital ward matron that always insisted on everything being done ‘by the book’. She had soul and, over the course of a week, I came to fall in love with this quirky, delightful lady.

And, of course, the Canberra inspired a fierce level of devotion among her regular passengers, many of whom would not even consider sailing on any other ship- not even her doughty fleet mate, Oriana. Like many such ‘ladies of a certain age’, style and breeding, the Canberra was a ship that had to adapt to survive in the cruise industry.

Yet she remained a remarkable throw back even then. The Canberra was not quite Downton Abbey with propellers, but she certainly had a lot of quintessential, old world tradition and tone about her. Even in 1985, she offered some the the broadest range of accommodations afloat, and she was staffed and served by a crew that was efficient and polite rather than flamboyant and demonstrative. To call her ‘restrained’ is perhaps going a bit too far, but she was certainly no boundary pushing ship by the mid 80’s anymore.

I was lucky to get to sail on her at all, of course, and I’m very well aware of that fact. The Canberra was a fascinating adventure afloat for me back then, and she has evolved into a cherished memory since. And, while I mourn the passing of the many great liners that I was not lucky enough to sail on, I will always count myself as extremely fortunate- both in terms of the experience and, indeed, the timing- that I got to sail on one of the greatest and most legendary of the last generation of cruise ships- the magnificent, majestic Canberra.

 

 

LINERS IN LIMBO; QE2 AND THE SS UNITED STATES

The last few months have been quite big news in the cruising industry. What, with a healthy roster of new builds coming on line, plus the usual round of extensive refurbishments and enhancements and, of course, a few sad losses, there is more than enough in the way of new stories to keep the attention of industry watchers featured firmly on the here and now. And, in so many ways, that is exactly as it should be.

But two stories continue to fill me with a mixture of wonder, unease and, if I’m honest, downright dread. And both have slipped well under the radar in recent months.

Now entering her seventh full year of lay up in Dubai, the Queen Elizabeth 2 is seemingly no nearer finding a new home, or anything that even begins to approach a solution to her slow, suffocating demise in that neon hell hole known in some quarters as Dubai. No more information is forthcoming on the state of the shackled liner, or has been for some time. Does this presumed silence predicate something ominous for one of the most fabled ships ever to cut salt water- a ship almost forgotten in the country of her birth these days?

Several thousand miles away, the SS United States continues to slowly wither like some ancient, gnarled oak at her berth in Philadelphia. Here too, a silence as thick, deep and unsettling as an Atlantic fog blanket has descended. For a few years, the SS United States Conservancy has fought with a desperate, never say die courage and spirit of optimism to save ‘their’ ship. But, of late, the silence is deafening and, if very negative counter rumours are not to eventually surface, some public update on the situation really is needed.

Not so long ago, a seemingly plausible rumour began to circulate that a ‘big laid up liner’ would be brought to Manhattan as part of an admirable scheme to revive the Pier 57 area on the West Side. As far as I can see, the only two possible candidates are the two ships I have highlighted up above. But now, again, silence.

Is there any cause for hope in all this? Well, yes. You only have to look at the example of the Rotterdam over at her home port in Holland, returned, restored and resplendent; a ship saved for history to savour despite all the odds, and one saved in the face of a cruise community that had essentially consigned her to the scrap heap in their own minds.

There is, indeed, still hope for both Queen Elizabeth 2 but she needs first to be freed from the mental shackles of the capricious owners who wanted her as an expensive bauble, and never really understood what she was or, indeed, really knew what to do with her. The problem here is not lack of money, but rather a poverty of positive thinking.

For the United States, the reverse applies. She is in the hands of people who love and cherish her, but money and workable options are needed and, as always, the clock is ticking.

Any kind of crack of light, any news at all in fact, can only be welcomed.

QE2, the quintessential Cunarder for many

QE2, the quintessential Cunarder for many

CARNIVAL TEN SHIP MEGA ORDER IMMINENT?

Reports are beginning to circulate via Italian media sources that Carnival Corp. is about to place the biggest shipping order in it’s history, with a formal announcement coming possibly as early as Friday, March 27th.

This would be for no less than ten very large new ships, to be delivered right across the Carnival portfolio of lines. If true, it will constitute the largest single order ever placed for passenger vessels of any kind by any one company. It is, in fact, without any parallel in maritime history.

Vessels in the plan include a new, 175,000 ton class of vessel for Italian flag bearers, Costa Cruises, as well as tonnage dedicated initially to the Chinese market. The entire building programme is scheduled to roll through until 2028.

What is really interesting about this order- apart from the sheer size of it- is that Carnival is dividing up the orders between it’s usual, favoured builders at Fincantieri of Italy, and the German yard of Meyer Werft in Papenburg- an operation more historically associated with being the builders of choice for rival lines such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

This astonishing, ten point counter strike comes after a few years in which the rival Royal Caribbean has nudged ahead in the headline building stakes, with the stunning new Quantum class vessels and, in the offing, another pair of the ground breaking Oasis class megaships- the largest class of passenger ships ever built.

This is a truly amazing development by any standards, if it is indeed true. As ever, stay tuned.

Carnival seems about to go ahead with a gigantic new building programme

Carnival seems about to go ahead with a gigantic new building programme

SHINING STAR- NORWEGIAN STAR GETS SOME SWEET UPGRADING

Back in 2001, Norwegian Star was the first of the Dawn class vessels to enter service with Norwegian Cruise Line. Built specifically for Freestyle Dining, the ship was the first in the fleet to exceed 90,000 tons.

After initial sailings in Hawaii, the ship now runs Western Caribbean cruise in the winter, and a summer season of Baltic and Fjords cruises based on Copenhagen through to October, a role she has carried out now for the past four years.

The Norwegian Star has now emerged from a dry docking that has added a branch of O’Sheehans, the popular, 24/7 fast food grill and eatery that first pioneered on Norwegian Epic back in 2010. In addition, the popular, extra charge Ginza restaurant has had its cover charge axed, and now becomes another free dining option on board the ship.

Also new to Norwegian Star is the Jimmy Buffet inspired Five O’Clock Somewhere bar, a Margarita fulled watering hole that will offer up special themed cocktails, LandShark beer, and live music.

A brand new Sugar Cane Mojito Bar- first featured on the 2014 built Norwegian Getaway- has also been added to deck thirteen, adjacent to a relocated Moderno Churrascaria, the popular Brazilian venue now being rolled out across the entire Norwegian fleet.

The ship has also been extensively refreshed with new carpets throughout many of the public areas on board, the pool deck has been updated, and new windows fitted in some areas. Both the Casino and the on board Photo Gallery have been updated.

The digital signage systems that first debuted on the 2013 built Norwegian Breakaway have also been added to the ship, allowing guests on board to get directions and order speciality items during their cruise, as well as the ability to book shore excursions.

On the technical side, Norwegian Star has been fitted with environmentally friendly green scrubbers, her Azipod propulsion system has been upgraded and- again on the green front- a new blend of silicone paint has been applied to the hull. Both of these enhancements should also help to save fuel as well as the environment in which the ship will operate.

Some lifeboat release systems were also upgraded on board, while bilge and ballast piping has been replaced, and routine maintenance work was carried out on both the ship’s auxiliary thrusters and stablizers.

Most of these enhancements- already up and running on sister ship, Norwegian Jewel- will also be carried through on the rest of the ships in this class; part of a rolling programme of evolution intended to keep these ships fully competitive with new tonnage entering the market.

The newly refurbished Norwegian Star has plenty to smile about....

The newly refurbished Norwegian Star has plenty to smile about….

DEUTSCHLAND HAS A BUYER!

In news that will no doubt be welcomed across the cruise community, it appears that Peter Deilmann’s lovely MS Deutschland has found a new buyer.

The ship, laid up since the end of November off Gibraltar, was linked back in January with what seemed like a highly unlikely purchase by Crystal Cruises.

According to Reinhold Schmid Sperber, the administrator in charge of disposing of the ship, Deutschland has been purchased by Texan interests who are intent on chartering out the 1998- built, 20,000 ton cruise ship.

While no price has been specified, I understand that an initial deposit has been paid for the ship, and that the balance will be paid at the end of May, when Deutschland will be handed over to her new owners.

It seems that most of the current crew will be retained, and that no real changes will be made to the ship. Readers of this blog may remember that Deutschland was scheduled for a refit prior to the collapse of Deilmann. This would have added a number of Juliet balconies to the ship and, more controversially, a new funnel.

While details are yet to be fleshed out more fully, it is a matter of great satisfaction that this beautiful, finely crafted little jewel box of a ship will once again find gainful employment.

Further details will appear here as they become available. Stay tuned.

NORMANDIE; TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

At about this time some eighty years ago, the brand new French liner, Normandie, was running speed and handling trials in the area around the Bay of Biscay, prior to sailing round to Le Havre to enter commerical service at the end of May. Once there, she would embark passengers for what remains the most spectacular and barnstorming maiden voyage in maritime history to this day.

Watching the ship, the local Breton fishermen were astonished. They reported that the Normandie, rather than ploughing through the waves, instead glided over them ‘like a gull’. It was proof, as if proof were needed, of the extraordinary seakeeping qualities of the stunning hull wrought by Vladimir Yourkevitch.

Not that the French Line wanted to give the former Tsarist Russian naval designer any credit. The Normandie was seen by her owners to extol all the great virtues, both real and imagined, of the mother country. She was ‘France afloat’ on so many levels. In their minds, it would have taken more than a little off the gloss to re-iterate that her fabulous, flowing lines- the decisive feature that made her so distinctive and swift- were actually the brainchild of a foreigner, albeit an amazingly gifted one. In fact, only at the last moment was the French Line shamed into providing free, first class tickets on her maiden crossing for Mr. and Mrs. Yourkevitch.

‘The French Line’ said the company brochure, ‘naturally welcomes any suggestions from passengers for making the ship as agreeable as possible.’  And, while history would garland the Normandie with the accoloade of the most triumphant of all the great ocean speed queens, there were aspects of sailing aboard her in the early days that were somewhat less than agreeable.

While she was not subjected to the nightmarish rock and roll tendencies of her great rival, the Queen Mary, the Normandie did have the tendency to sometimes heel sharply to one side a short notice- ‘like a destroyer coming smartly about’- as someone once put it. She was always quick to correct herself, shearing smartly back to the vertical. In such situations, the Normandie was said to shatter pieces of lalique with careless abandon.

Yet she was still by far the better sea boat of the two great liners. The French Line used to boast that she was so stable that she never had to empty her swimming pools in even the most severe of Atlantic storms. It was a standing joke for many years that the Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea. The British liner also suffered from some quite severe vibration problems. But she was far from alone on that front.

For the Normandie, too, was prone to vibration. In her case, it was noted on her trials, and extra stanchions were put into some parts of her stern to provide stiffening. This was not an outright success; once she was in service, it was noted by many that glasses in the aft facing, upper deck Cafe Grill could only be half filled with water, lest the vibration empty them all over the passengers.

This problem was largely cured later by replacing the original quartet of four bladed propellers with a set of newly designed, three bladed models. And it should always be remembered that, when Normandie and Queen Mary first came into service, they were vessels of a size and scale never seen before. Some forms of mechanical problems could only be truly revealed and, hopefully parried, once the ships were in service, and operational experience had been gained with them.

All of this was in the future as the coundtdown begun to the maiden voyage of Normandie in that momentous spring of 1935. The wine cellar had been loaded on board a full six months earlier so that, even if the ship rolled, the motion would least upset the wine. The first class dinner menus that would list no less than 325 separate items had been prepared with agonised, exquisite care. The dog kennels were almost ready, and the famous, scarlet jacketed bellboys- the mousses- were being trained and inspected daily by veteran French Line hands, especially picked for the maiden voyage.

What those Breton fishermen saw in those memorable days was a ship totally without an equal; young, fresh, vibrant, and brimming with unparalelled potential. Blooming in the first full flush of the spring of her life, Normandie was a ship afloat on a sea that was one part pride, another part promise, a butterfly emerging from a coccoon.

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie's glittering career

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie’s glittering career