SWANS AGEING GRACEFULLY; ORIANA AND CRYSTAL SYMPHONY AT 20

I had to double check myself today when I came to the sudden realisation that two of the finest ships afloat turn twenty years of age this year, namely P&O’s stately dowager, Oriana, and the truly sumptuous Crystal Symphony, of Crystal Cruises.

Though designed and executed for two totally different markets, both of these beautiful vessels actually have some strikingly common characteristics.

For a start, the interiors of each were the concept of the Swedish based firm, Tillberg Design. Both ships boast beautiful, flared bows and a series of elegant, stepped terraces at the stern. Each is crowned by a single, graceful funnel amidships, looming above a central, open pool complex on the lido deck area.

However, they are the product of two different yards. Crystal Symphony emerged from what was then the MASA shipyards in Turku, Finland, while the Oriana was delivered from German shipbuilders in Papenburg.

While Oriana is the bigger of the two at some 69,000 tons against 50,000 for Crystal Symphony, the former has a large number of inner and outer cabins without balconies, whereas the Crystal ship features no inside cabins at all, and a vast number of balconied cabins and penthouses. Her passenger capacity is also considerably smaller- around 1000 as against 1900 for Oriana.

That said, Crystal Symphony was designed for the deluxe market from the start, while Oriana- the first P&O cruise ship to be named by the Queen, some twenty years in advance of new fleet mate, Britannia- is very much a mainstream resort ship, albeit a very beautiful one. The requirements of two such diverse markets resulted in two very different kinds of cruise experiences.

That said, both ships have aged quite beautifully, and sympathetic updating in the case of both has made them among the most compelling classic cruise experiences afloat today. Oriana took on board many of the most popular features of her earlier sibling, the beloved Canberra. Crystal Symphony has been sympathetically updated over two decades to enhance her extensive spread of on board facilities, without selling short on her original sense of style and panache.

Each ship has retained a great sense of cool, classy poise, though the jury is still out on whether the ‘new’ P&O colours suit the distinguished Oriana as much as the old ones did. Few people resent change as much as traditionalists, and P&O has sold just that for decades.

New to Oriana, and very welcome too, is a small block of single cabins. And, to complement her stylish, mellow vibe, the ship is now sold as an adults- only vessel.

The take over of Crystal Cruises by Genting has left more than one Crystal veteran gazing uneasily at the future over the rim of their pre dinner martinis. Could more change be in the offing? Time alone will tell.

But meanwhile, it is definitely worth celebrating this beautiful brace of ‘ladies of the sea’ as they celebrate their 20th anniversaries. Each is a landmark vessel in her own way; stylish and chic in execution, comfortable and familiar to legions of passengers that have come to know and love them both over the decades.

Smooth sailing and fair seas to both!

MARITIME SNIPPETS; TIDE, TYNE, AND OUT OF TIME…..

There’s no shortage of news to digest on the maritime front. And, like anything that you are obliged to chew over- whethether actually or mentally- some leave a better taste in the mouth than others. In this industry, that is the inevitable default setting.

I was immensely saddened, but not surprised, to see the sale of the lovely little Lisboa to a scrapyard, some two years after her partially completed refit had to be aborted owing to unexpected extra costs. I had the pleasure of sailing on this staunch, dignified little dream of a ship and, to those who love her, her loss is tragic indeed, if inevitable.

On the plus front, the forthcoming arrival in the UK of Anthem Of The Seas will add a welcome splash of colour and diversity to the big ship market. Sleek, state of the art, and jam packed with a conga line of beguiling new gimmicks and estalished, old fashioned favourites, I expect this ship to be an absolute smash during her first ever European season.

For my own, native North East, this coming August will see the very welcome visits of not one, but two, six star ships within two weeks of each other. First is a very welcome debut for Regent’s sybaritic Seven Seas Voyager, still currently one of only three all suite, all balcony cruise ships in the world. She is followed a fortnight later by the excellent, perenially elegant Crystal Symphony, recently extensively refurbished and definite

Old, new, borrowed and blue. It's all going on right now in the cruise industry...

Old, new, borrowed and blue. It’s all going on right now in the cruise industry…

ly looking as regal as ever.

The arrival of such high end vessels in the region is a wonderful opportunity to show just how much this area has to offer to cruise ship passengers. I hope all concerned do everything possible to provide these incoming visitors with a wonderfully inclusive experience for the day.

For my part, I am also very much looking forward to seeing CMV’s Magellan when she arrives for her inaugural visit to the Tyne on Saturday, 28th March. The 46,052 ton ship- formerly the Holiday of Carnival Cruise Lines- has been extensively refurbished, and looks stunning in her new livery. Expect a full review of this ship shortly.

And, of course, it is not too long now until the poised, beautifully styled Viking Star makes her debut. The first of Viking Ocean’s quartet of cruise ships is very much a throwback to the traditional style of inclusive excellence once typified by the legendary Royal Viking Line, and this new ship is clearly aimed at a market that prefers a more inclusive, tradtional kind of cruise experience. Clearly, the lady is going to be quite something.

Interesting times, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

 

HIIGHWAY ROBBERY; MOTORWAY CAFES AND AIRPORT CURRENCY EXCHANGE

While the anticipation of travel is as exciting as ever for me after more than three decades, there are still things that can turn me from a mild mannered dreamer into a screaming, psychopathic horror with almost effortless ease. Things that rain on your parade before the soldiers have even marched out of the barracks, as it were.

If you have to travel any distance by car or coach to your departure airport, then odds are that, somewhere along the line, you will be helplessly sucked into one of those black holes of fiscal morality known as a motorway cafe.

If Dante’s Hell truly does have an antechamber, I have always suspected that it would be one of these motorway cafes. Their ghastly elevator music, combined with brain numbing lighting and over priced eateries guaranteed to have both your cholesterol and wallet whimpering helplessly in unision, are among the most soul less and unpleasant places you will ever see.

They crouch like so many neon suffused, concrete carbuncles along all the highways of the land, including the famous route from London to York once ridden by Dick Turpin, who would no doubt also have thought that their prices amounted to highway robbery. And, unlike those responsible for these dreadful places, at least Turpin had the decency to wear a mask.

It would not be quite such an abrasive experience if the quality of the food and drink in these places was equal to the torrent of money siphoned like free flowing petrol out of your bank account. But no; instead we have bacon so hard that it could be used to rebuild the Berlin Wall, beans that bubble and hiss, and mushrooms doing their very own Jack and Rose impression, swimming desperately in an ocean of grease. The sausages can often double as submarine torpedoes, and no doubt to devastating effect,

The coffee usually has the consistency of Bunker C crude oil, and all the good taste of a Charles Manson reunion gig. Yes, it is hot, but it is often only marginally less painful on your tongue than carefuly applied, red hot pincers.

These places are simply blatant, unashamed rip offs from first to last. In terms of sheer grubby, grasping obscenity, they are perhaps matched only by the foreign exchange bureaus to be found in most regional and international airports in the United Kingdom. You actually feel dirty and abused after leaving one.

Most people with an IQ approaching double figures swerve past these ghastly little outposts of robber baron-ism like the flourescent pestlience that they are. With an exchange rate often ten per cent lower than high street banks, post offices and travel agents, they are flagrant, unashamed assaults on the wallets- and intellect- of their victims. And, like as not, there will always be one or two poor souls that fall into the trap of needing some last minute currency there and then, come hell or high water. As a result, these awful places make a killing, and it is high time some kind of legislation was introduced in the UK to make them offer the same rates as high street outlets, no more or less.

OK, rant over. Avoid if you can, dear readers. Approach with suitable awareness if you absolutely must.

HARMONY, PERFECT HARMONY; THREE FOR ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Royal Caribbean International has finally announced that it’s third Oasis class behemoth, Harmony Of The Seas, will deploy on year round Caribbean cruises when she enters service in 2016.

Many people assumed that the 227,000 ton ship would head out to Asia as the trump card in RCCL’s voracious empire building pack. But other counsels have decreed that the huge ship will go to the Caribbean instead.

She will replace first of class Oasis Of The Seas on the lucrative, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean sailings out of Fort Lauderdale, joining twin sister ship, Allure Of The Seas, on alternating week long circuits. Oasis Of The Seas herself will move a few miles north to Port Canaveral to inaugurate a series of similar sailings.

Though it seems a foregone conclusion that one of these monster ships will now sail the Mediterranean each summer, winters will still see this formidable trio running the seven day circuits from Florida. And, whatever your feelings on mega ships in general, there is no disputing the monumental scale and sheer, organisatioanl wizardry involved in such a programme.

Consider this; three ships, totalling over three quarters of a million tons collectively, discharging and embarking some thirty-six thousand passengers, week in and out, over a six month season. On any level, this is an operation thought out- and carried through- with almost miltary precision, as the precisely co-ordinated sailings of both Oasis and Allure from Fort Lauderdale can testify.

Having invested a fortune in infrastructure over the last few years, the burghers of Port Canaveral must be clapping their hands with glee at at an eagerly anticipated footfall of some twelve thousand cruise passengers a week from the Oasis Of The Seas, not to mention the knock on effect for local shops, hotels, transportation and entertainment venues.

Of course, may wil simply roll their eyes and say that this is just one more mega ship feeding more fuel to an already overcrowded winter Caribbean season. For sure, there is not much in the way of real variety in thr destination offerings of any of the three ships.

But that misses the point, because these three ships- the largest sister ships ever built- are destinations in their own right; enormous floating theme parks, small islands that combine the best of Vegas with all the comfort, ease and spectacular dining and accommodation that you could possibly want.

Not very ‘adventurous’ for sure; but package all that up and dangle it in front of some denizen of New York, Boston or Toronto in the depths of a freezing winter, and the lure is magnetic. Not to mention the allure- pardon the pun- that those vast, sun drenched hulls, carousing around the Caribbean in winter- hold for a whole armada of sun deprived Europeans.

One thing is for sure; Royal Caribbean know exactly what they are doing by sending this third huge, enormous floating city to the sunshine of the sultry Caribbean.

Harmony Of The Seas is Caribbean bound in 2016

Harmony Of The Seas is Caribbean bound in 2016

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ROYAL CARIBBEAN; ROAMING AND ROLLING…..

As all eyes await the imminent arrival of Anthem Of The Seas in Southampton, and the first full season deployment of an Oasis class ship in the Med is about to be ushered in by Allure Of The Seas, other bits and pieces are going on at Royal Caribbean that seem to have largely slipped under the radar.

With two such genuine, headline grabbing acts, this is hardly surprising. Yet these other comings and goings are, in their own ways, no less news worthy than the shenanigans involving their bigger offspring. So, let’s look at two of them.

Firstly, Splendour Of The Seas will be leaving the fleet in 2016 to join Thomson Cruises (Thomson Splendour, anyone?) The 69,000 ton ship, delivered in March of 1996, was the second of the so-called ‘Vision’ class ships. Like her earlier sibling- Legend Of The Seas- she boasted a vast amount of glass walls all around the ship and, for the first time, larger than average cabins compared the the previous Sovereign class.

Make no mistake; the sale of the first of the Vision class marks a true watershed for RCCL. For Thomson, the ship is a tremendous acquisition. Twice as large as anything else they have ever owned, and with a larger number of good balcony cabins, the ship will replace the Island Escape- ironically, another one time ex-RCCL ship- in the Mediterranean, at least initially. Itineraries are due to be announced next month.

Also next April, Majesty Of The Seas will finally leave the fleet. The last of the original Sovereign class trio will enjoy a happy reunion with her two previously departed sisters over at Pullmantur. The question is, what will replace her on the lucrative, three and four night Bahamas and Key West runs out of Miami.

It is possible that Legend Of The Seas could step into this role. In any event, I fully expect it to be one of the remaining five ships of the Vision class. It seems as yet unlikely that one of the newer, shinier Radiance class vessels would be relegated to such a short, port intensive run.

Finishing the ‘Royal Round Up’, the line has announced that the third of the Oasis class vessels- Harmony Of The Seas- will debut in the Caribbean next year, alongside her two sisters. And- one that is already proving popular news here in the UK- the ever popular Independence Of The Seas will be returning to Southampton to resume year round sailings.

As ever, stay tuned.

CRYSTAL; CRUISING INTO THE FAST LANE?

I have to admit being as surprised as almost everyone else by Genting’s acquisition of Crystal Cruises the other week. It certainly threw the entire industry a curve ball; quite a fait accompli that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions and, in some- mainly traditional quarters- a sense of vague unease as palpable as Atlantic fog.

That said, what we do know is that the line is finally getting a new build- the first since Crystal Serenity back in 2003. To even contemplate competing with the likes of Regent and Seabourn in terms of itinerary reach, Crystal needs to be a minimum three ship fleet. I have always felt- and still do- that the loss of Crystal Harmony hurt the brand in terms of the global deployments it could offer. It was, in my mind, a big mistake.

So, in that framework, three really could be a magic number again. But should we expect something radical and new, full of flash rather than substance?

God, I hope not.

Part of the reason why Crystal has been so uniquely successful is what I would describe as it’s proven policy of gently rolling, smooth evolution. The hardware and construction of the two current stalwarts- Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity- has allowed them to gradually ingest and absorb a series of thorough, yet superbly done updates and enhancements over two decades now. While continuing to offer the deft, attentive levels of service and outstanding cuisine that has made the product a modern day legend almost on a par with the old French Line, the ships continue to be the cool, welcome retreats so beloved of a whole generation of loyal guests. In short; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This is not a rallying cry against innovation; far from it. And, like as not, the new ship will have bigger cabins and suites across all grades. Perhaps the line will go for an all balcony design, which would be nice. But Genting should remember and treasure the core Crystal values and unique selling points, rather than trying to create a kind of maritime floating exclamation mark that would ultimiately fail under the weight of it’s own hype and expectation.

I, for one, am thrilled at the news of the new Crystal sibling (Crystal Symmetry, anyone?) and long to see the end result of the decision making process

Crystal Cove lobby on the Crystal Symphony

Crystal Cove lobby on the Crystal Symphony

.  While she will no doubt sail- like her sisters- to a whole raft of exotic, thrilling destinations world wide, it is to be hoped that this new Crystal swan is not too much of a departure.

As ever, stay tuned.