Here’s the thing with the Ausonia; she was already long in the tooth- I’m talking 1957 built long- when the short lived First Choice cruise operation took her on a long term charter, to compete with the rival, low budget ships of Airtours and Thomson. Yet, for purpose, she was perfectly fine.
The ‘purpose’ was to operate week long, Mediterranean cruises out of Palma, Majorca. Passengers would be flown in from all over the UK and Northern Ireland on First Choice’s own, in-house airline. They had the option of doing a fly/cruise, or adding an additional week’s stay before or after their voyage. Both options became extremely popular.
As with many ships, the dainty little Ausonia was chartered from the Greek owned Louis Cruises; a trend that continues to this day with Thomson. At 12,000 tons, she was a handsome little thing, quite beautifully styled.
She was built in Italy, as a kind of mini Cristoforo Colombo. The rakish, streamlined Italian styling was evident from the start, and it remained so until her last days. Despite the passing of the decades, the Ausonia was one of the most completely unchanged vessels still carrying passengers at the turn of the 21st century.
Inside, she was quite lovely, with a pair of gorgeous, glass walled promenades done out as enclosed winter gardens, complete with teak decking underfoot, and wicker furniture everywhere. For the intimate scale of the ship, it worked quite magically.
The other public rooms mainly ran the length of the same deck. There was lots of use of mirrored surfaces and walls, to make the spaces appear bigger than was actually the case. Many of the lounge chairs were upholstered in a shade I can only describe as ‘dusky biscuit’. Most of those rooms ran the full width of the ship, and had floor to ceiling windows running along both sides.
There was a single main dining room, and a breakfast and lunch buffet option that opened out onto a surprisingly large open lido. The food was decent fare; nothing memorable, but more than good for the price paid to be on board. I would say the same thing was true for the cabins; there were no balconies on the Ausonia, but she was not in any sense a modern, luxury ship Nor did she pretend to be.
She spent one day in each seven day cruise at sea. The rest of the time, she would be in port, Naples, Rome, Florence and Malta were her staple calls. Like many destination oriented cruises of that kind, it was all about getting out there to see the sights and, hopefully, coming back home with a tan. The ship was just a means to an end; transporting passengers around five destinations in a week, in a way- and at a price point- that no other form of transport could match.
That outdoor lido was a good size, but it quickly filled up at sea. Space was pretty tight, but it was generally a pretty good natured and accommodating crowd on board. For many, the Ausonia would be their first experience of any kind of cruise ship. Looking back now, I think they got it absolutely right in terms of size and ambiance.
In the maritime beauty pageant stakes, the Ausonia punched way above her weight. The sharp, proud, curve of her prow, and the snow white sheer of the hull were graceful, glorious anachronisms. Her single, perfectly proportioned funnel was as right and elegant as a charm bracelet. It sat atop her no-nonsense superstructure like a sumptuous crown.
She was a spiky, pugnacious little show stopper. Passengers pouring in hordes off the latest floating theme park used to stop dead, staring in disbelief as the doughty little Ausonia nudged up to dock beside them. Though she was often in their shadow- quite literally- she gave no ground, and held her head high.
And she was a damned good little sea boat, too. Long and lean, she cut sweetly through sometimes choppy waves, at a time when those big ship passengers would be rolling about with considerably less dignity. Like envy, sea sickness comes in many different shades of green.
Of course, the Ausonia could never hold a candle to those newer ships in terms of facilities, choice of restaurants and modern, luxurious cabins. Like all older ships, she grew more quirky, temperamental and prone to plumbing breakdowns as time and tide passed. Charm alone was not enough to keep her- or First Choice cruises- buoyant in the end.
Still, I am glad that I did get to spend a few days in her company, even so late in the day. The Ausonia had history, heart and soul. Those are things that you cannot manufacture, or hang a price tag on. Like a good wine, she got better with age. Suffused with a fine, unapologetic Italian flair from first to last, the Ausonia was an honest, unpretentious lady. God knows, there are not enough of them left in this day and age.