CARNIVAL PLANS 2016 DEEP CARIBBEAN CRUISES FOR FASCINATION

In a welcome and surprising move, Carnival Cruise Lines is putting one of its original Fantasy class megaships back on a seven night Caribbean itinerary for the first time in a decade.

Beginning in May of 2016, the 70,000 ton Carnival Fascination will be home ported in Bridgetown, Barbados, to offer a series of very port intensive, seven night sailings to St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, San Juan and St. Thomas, with a final day spent at sea before returning to Barbados.

Built by Kvaerner Masa shipyard in Finland as the Fascination in 1994, the ship was the fourth of the eight ship Fantasy class- the first generation of mega ships to be built for the company.

As new tonnage came on line over the following years, all eight of the ships were relegated to short, three to five night cruise voyages out of ports from Miami out to the west coast. Lacking the balconies and amenities of the new ships, it seemed to be good business to put these less amenity laden ships on shorter cruises.

So it is both surprising and quite nice to see this relatively more intimate, 2,000 passenger Carnival stalwart getting back out and doing some more intensive sailings. Recently, sister ship and first of class Carnival Fantasy has been used again on some seven night Bahamas itineraries out of Charleston, which seem to have been very popular.

For the UK market, these new Carnival Fascination cruises are being bundled in with flights, transfers, and a three night pre cruise hotel stay to provide a very attractive, eleven night cruise and stay option, mainly based on London departures.

I have fond memories of making a pair of four night runs out of Miami on the Fascination a decade or so ago, and found her to be a very snappy, well run ship that served up a great value short trip.

These new runs out of Barbados should prove to be a good option out of Barbados. As ever, stay tuned.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.

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DUBROVNIK SET FOR PLATINUM CHIP CRUISE DATE IN SEPTEMBER

With it’s amazingly intact medieval old town and imposing city walls, Dubrovnik is one of the absolute must see ports on the eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit throughout the summer months.

And, while the port is always busy from May through to October, this coming September 8th will witness a platinum chip convocation of cruise ships at the stellar Croatian port- not so much in terms of numbers, but more in standards of sheer, jaw dropping top end luxury vessels that will arrive over the course of the day.

In no particular order, Crystal Cruises’ sublime Crystal Serenity (with yours truly aboard), the sumptuous Silver Spirit of Silversea, Hapag Lloyd Cruises’ peerless Europa 2, Azamara Club Cruises’ immaculate Azamara Journey and the amazing, five mast Royal Clipper of Star Clippers, will all arrive at the port. Between them, these five superb ships are expected to deposit a total of around 2700 guests into the venerable old sea city on the Adriatic.

Of the five, Crystal Serenity will dock in the harbour at Gruz, just a short, two kilometre ride from the old town. The other four ships will lay offshore and tender passengers in to the dock at the bottom of the old town, literally at the foot of the main street of Stradun.

This is a quick and easy process- I arrived in Dubrovnik this way aboard Silver Spirit a few years ago- and, bearing in mind the relatively small numbers involved, it should be pretty much of a hassle free process.

Ease of access to the city itself is generally good, a fortunate fact when you consider that Dubrovnik is now attracting close to a million cruise visitors each year.

While five ships in Dubrovnik is nothing new, the arrival of this particular quintet will be quite something. Of the five, only the Azamara Journey remains on my ‘to do’ list, so this will be like a unique reunion of old friends.

Not to mention, of course, fantastic photo opportunities for all the ship spotters out there.

Stay tuned for a full report, with photos, after the event.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

NORWEGIAN SKY IN RETROSPECT

When she entered service in the late summer of 1999, the Norwegian Sky was the first purpose built mega ship for Norwegian Cruise Line, and she created quite a stir. At 77,000 tons, the stunningly beautiful ship soon became a popular staple on the week long Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami.

But she had actually been ordered by Costa Cruises as the Costa Olympia, a sister ship for the Italian line’s hugely successful Costa Victoria. Financial problems at the German shipyard caused Costa to abandon the project and, to the surprise of many, the incomplete hull was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Line instead.

After some radical redesign that included the addition of two decks of balcony cabins, the newly renamed Norwegian Sky entered service in August 1999, offering a few sailings in northern Europe, before crossing the Atlantic to take up Caribbean station in Miami.

From here, she operated a series of alternating, seven night cruises to the western and eastern Caribbean. The Norwegian Sky proved so popular that the company ordered a pair of near identical sister ships, though only one- the current Norwegian Sun – was actually built.

The two sister ships remain among the most beautiful cruise ships at sea, with proud, gracefully raked bows and a single funnel. The upper decks remain some of the most expansive and best laid out of any ships sailing anywhere today. Both have proved to be solidly, consistently successful ships.

In 2004, the Norwegian Sky was hurriedly transferred to the new NCL Hawaii brand after the newly wrought Pride Of America suffered a major flooding at her fitting out dock in Germany. Rushed around to San Francisco, the ship was given a heavy, Polynesian style make over and renamed as the Pride Of Aloha.

From Honolulu, she spent four years sailing around the waters of Hawaii, before a long overdue scaling back of the overly ambitious Hawaiian cruise project saw the ship return to Miami in 2008.

An intended sale to the Spanish cruise operator, Pullmantur, never materialised. Instead, she resumed her former name of Norwegian Sky and re-entered service for Norwegian out of Miami.

She remains in service to this day, sailing on three and four night cruises to the Bahamas each week. Three night voyages leave on a Friday and call at Nassau, as well as the company’s ‘private island’ of Great Stirrup Cay.

Her four night Monday sailings add Freeport in the Bahamas to the same mix. And, with her Polynesian décor left largely intact, the Norwegian Sky is an intriguing, wonderfully quirky contrast to any of the other mega ships sailing from the Florida port.

With a full range of Freestyle Dining options on board, the Norwegian Sky is perfect for a quick, invigorating getaway. In some ways, it really is a shame that Norwegian does not send the ship on more varied routes occasionally. She would be absolutely perfect on a five night itinerary to Cozumel and Grand Cayman, for example; very similar to the voyages once offered from Miami on board the Norwegian Jewel.

For now, the stalwart Norwegian Sky remains on station in Miami, carrying over four thousand passengers each week on a series of sunny, fun fuelled jaunts to the Bahamas. I hope she continues sailing for Norwegian for a great many years.

Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

CRYSTAL’S AIR CRUISE PLANS TAKE FLIGHT

Crystal Cruises has now placed definite orders for not one, but two, specially customised Boeing 787 Dreamliners to inaugurate its recently announced programme of ultra luxury air cruises.

The move is one facet of what must be seen as the biggest single expansion of any luxury travel operator since the end of the Second World War. As well as the planes, the line willalso be adding a trio of new, 100,000 ton ships, each one featuring a block of private, for purchase condominiums, as well as a two ship river cruise operation, and a deluxe adventure cruiser, the 62 guest Crystal Esprit, to it’s already hugely lauded cruise operation.

The Dreamliner is already famed for its new standards of comfort and advanced design, with enhanced sightlines for all passengers and in plane systems that radically reduce the debilitating effects of jet lag.

Crystal’s two aircraft will each have the normal capacity of three hundred pared down to a svelte sixty passengers, cradled in fully lie flat beds and served with food, drinks and entertainment designed to take the inimitable Crystal style to new heights. Quite literally, as it turns out.

Beginning in mid 2017, the two planes will offer fourteen to twenty eight night ’round the world’ air cruises to a series of sought after retreats and usually inaccessible locations, each showcasing stays in high end, luxury hotels featuring cuisine prepared by top name chefs, and immersive cultural experiences designed to evoke an authentic local feel, without sacrificing anything by way of contemporary luxury.

Exciting, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

Crystal is taking its legendary standards of luxury to a whole new height

Crystal is taking its legendary standards of luxury to a whole new height

CRYSTAL GOES FURTHER TO KEEP YOU CONNECTED

In a move that is sure to prove popular with many, Crystal Cruises is going the extra mile by gifting all of its passengers a minimum of one hours’ free Wi-Fi time on board their two current ships every day, commencing on August 30th this year.

Those booked in deluxe cabins and penthouses will benefit from the free hour, available across a range of personal devices or, alternatively, at one of the ship’s internet stations or portable lap tops. Those booked in penthouse suites will receive ninety minutes free access each day.

The perk- previously available only to repeat Crystal Society guests- comes as a welcome addition to the current on board packages still available for purchase. A Plan A ‘Pay As You Go’ package costs from $0.74 per minute, while a Plan B package has two hours’ available at $55, and a Plan C option serves up five hours at $127.

If you really intend to spend more time hunched over your laptop than savouring those gorgeous Lemon Drop Martinis, the block busting Plan D offers ten hours for $220.

Internet capabilities aboard both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity were considerably enhanced last year, with both ships being Wi-Fi enabled everywhere on board, as well as increasing the bandwidth on board both ships.

Whether you’re enamoured of this increasing focus on the on board communication technology or not, the fact remains that more and more people plainly are. It is gradually becoming more and more of a deciding point for people looking at booking a specific cruise line anywhere in the world and, as such, Crystal is simply responding to customer demand.

More inclusivity inevitably makes for happier guests. Slowly but surely, internet connectivity is gradually improving across much of the cruise industry, and certainly not before time.

I expect other lines to follow suit in short order. For want of a better phrase, stay tuned for further developments.

Crystal is going further to keep you more connected....

Crystal is going further to keep you more connected….

TURKEY GETTING STUFFED FOR CRUISE CALLS

In a move that will surprise few after recent events, Costa Cruises has cancelled all of it’s remaining scheduled calls to Turkey this year. And it seems only a matter of time before other cruise lines follow suit.

The cancellation will cover the major ports of Izmir, Kusadasi, Bodrum and Instanbul, and represents a huge loss of tourist revenue for the Turkish economy.

Many Aegean bound passengers actually book their cruises with these Turkish destinations as a must see centre point, with sites such as Ephesus, and the great mosque at Haghia Sofia as definite highlights. The knock on effect from actually taking such sites out of the equation remains to be seen, but Costa is quite rightly putting the emphasis on the safety of their booked passengers.

Turkey’s loss is a definite gain for nearby ports in the Greek Islands, which are being added as late season substitutes for the cancelled Turkish calls. The port of Heraklion alone has added at least an extra eighteen new calls from different ships since the news of the Costa cancellations became public.

Tense times continue to plague the usually popular eastern Mediterranean circuit as a whole; it can only be hoped that the political situation settles down in short order before continued uncertainty begins to bite into potential 2016 cruises in the region.

As always, stay tuned for updates.

Sites such as Gallipoli are off the menu for Costa in 2015

Sites such as Gallipoli are off the menu for Costa in 2015

HOLA SENOR MOSQUITO!! A FRIENDLY LETTER TO YOU AND YOUR KIND….

Dear Senor Mosquito (and friends)….

It has to be said that we have not enjoyed the greatest of relationships in the past, have we?

Now, I’m not assigning blame or picking fault here but, over the course of several visits to areas inhabited by you and your kin, a number of things have become gradually apparent to me.

It seems that you and your airborne kind regard my exposed white bits as the equivalent of an all you can eat buffet. Little else would explain the way that you seem to hurl yourselves at me like swarms of demented kamikaze bombers on any given day.

You buzz and strafe me ad infinitum as I try and kick back in my hammock on some far away, palm splayed paradise. But you- you put the ‘parasite’ firmly into paradise. And, I am afraid, it is no longer funny or acceptable.

My attempts to swat you away have usually proven to be about as much use as a pair of knickers to a hooker at the start of Fleet Week. I end up exhausted, enraged and, often as not, still get stung.

On occasions, I have even been known to spill my Margarita. And, while even the recording career of Lionel Richie is forgivable in certain quarters, depriving me of my liquid sustenance most certainly is not.

And, just like the credibility of Bill Cosby, my patience is at an end. I am going all Emperor Palpatine on your buzzy little backsides, pal.

This means war and, just to be clear, I am laying down the nuts and bolts of just how I propose to defeat your evil little schemes, once and for all time.

In future, I shall be wearing special headphones in combat zones where your lot are present. These will emit a constant array of One Direction tunes.

A special programme built into these headphones means that I will be spared their inane witterings- a sound only slightly less annoying than yours.

But you will not be so lucky. These songs will play on a frequency guaranteed to send your bony little hides into a tail spin. You will hit the sea like an entire squadron of downed Mitsubishi Zeros, and in very short order.

And-if you think that is all I have in my armoury, think again. Because boys, I am also calling in the Death Star of all mosquito repellents….

Recent trials have revealed that a picture of Mrs. Camilla Parker Bowles can drop a swarm of mosquitos at thirty paces. Apparently, it’s all in the stare.

Ever since she married the Prince of Wales and became his awful wedded wife, thousands of pictures have been taken of the woman. No, I don’t know why, either. It’s nowhere near Halloween yet.

But the fact is that one of these photos has fallen into my possession.

I have now had it framed and, believe me, I will put it on a table beside me, facing outwards, everywhere I go. This is your last warning.

I assure you; the woman can make bread go mouldy just by staring at it. What she could do to you lot…..

So, if you still fancy your chances, bring it on.

Love,

Anthony

CNV00036

NORWEGIAN ESCAPE TO BE FLOATED OUT TODAY

Around 1100 this morning, the brand new, 164, 600 ton Norwegian Escape is due to be cautiously floated out from the covered dock in  Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany.

The enormous ship is the first vessel of the so called Breakaway plus class, due to be rounded out with one more vessel in the same vein- the upcoming Norwegian Bliss.

Today’s carefully co-ordinated float out is a huge milestone in the life of a ship which is already close to completion, in actual fact. Next month, the enormous vessel will be moved a few miles down the River Ems for her final outfitting.

The first crew members will actually board the ship in the next few days, to begin familiarising themselves with the ship and her various operating systems and policies.

Following on from her sea trials, the ship will make a series of short, introductory overnight cruises, as well as holding ‘open house’ for various media events, before she leaves Southampton on her positioning voyage; a ten night cruise over to Miami, pencilled to sail on October 29th.

After initial celebrations and further media hosting on board, the Norwegian Escape will then begin a series of seven night, round trip sailings to the eastern Caribbean, calling at St. Thomas, St. Maartern, Tortola, and Nassau.

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately....

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately….

CUBA CRUISE GOES ALL INCLUSIVE FOR WINTER 2015-16

Cuba Cruise has announced that it will be going all inclusive for the season of winter cruises offered on the Celestyal Crystal this year.

On board prices will now include all shore excursions, plus on board drinks, for the duration of each week long cruise.

Not long ago, Celestyal bought out Cuba Cruises. The Celestyal Crystal will thus begin her third season of Cuba voyages with a 21 night, transatlantic crossing that embarks in Piraeus at the end of November, and terminates in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Each seven night circuit allows for two full days spent on board in Havana, and embarkation is also possible at Montego Bay.

The 24,000 ton Celestyal Crystal typically carries around 600 passengers for the Cuba cruises, with a passenger mix that has been predominantly Canadian and Scandinavian in the past.

This winter also sees the introduction of a rival service, with the first arrival of the MSC Opera in Havana marking the first sailings around Cuba by any of the mainstream mega ships.

In spite of this, the relatively small size of the Celestyal Crystal, combined with the now almost fully inclusive nature of the product, offers a great value way to get ‘up close and personal’ views of the highlights of Cuba, before more mainstream cruise ships start to arrive from the USA; an inevitable fact in view of the formalising of relationships between Cuba and the USA after some five decades of isolation.

Interesting times. As ever. stay tuned.

Celestyal  Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

Celestyal Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

FROM STOCKHOLM TO ASTORIA- A BRIEF HISTORY OF A CLASSIC LADY

At a stately sixty seven years old at the time of writing, Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ veteran Azores- soon to be renamed Astoria- can now claim the rightful title as the oldest post war passenger ship still to be in service anywhere. Her story- and her history- is one of the most amazing in the annals of ocean liner travel.

Originally built as the Stockholm in 1948 for the Swedish American line, the 12,000 ton ship was a diminutive minnow when compared to, say, the colossal Cunard Queens. The United States was barely more than a gleam in the eyes of the brilliant William Francis Gibbs. And some, more prescient folk were already eyeing the new generation of propeller driven long haul flights with a certain amount of uneasiness.

It seemed sensible to the ever practical Swedes to introduce this first, modest post war build to the Atlantic trade. The Stockholm carried around 548 passengers in smart surroundings, on modestly luxurious crossings between Gothenburg and New York.

She was not really overly successful in this role, and soon gained a reputation for being a less than stellar sea boat on the Atlantic. And, with a second generation of giant Atlantic superliners now appearing in the forms of the United States and the Liberte, it soon became obvious that she was, indeed, too small to be really competitive.

But she was a pretty little ship, with a graceful, ice strengthened bow and a staunch, single funnel. The Stockholm was not a ship that sought to break records or seek the headlines.

But soon the headlines would seek her.

On the night of July 25th, 1956, the ice strengthened bow of the Stockholm slammed into the port flank of the Italian liner, Andrea Doria, off the coast of Nantucket.

Both ships had been groping their way through a thick fog when the accident happened. The bow of the Stockholm crumpled like so much wet cardboard, killing five of her crew. But, crucially, the bulkhead behind it remained intact. Though her bow was a shambolic, mangled mess of torn steel, the little Swedish liner was never in any danger of sinking.

The Andrea Doria was not so fortunate. With her port side sliced open over the length of several decks, the graceful Italian liner was doomed. She lingered for something like twelve hours before finally plunging under the Atlantic ocean.

The story made headlines around the world. It took a full three months to repair the bow of the Stockholm, but her reputation was tainted forever in many eyes. And, with the successful advent of commercial jet air travel from 1958 onwards, it came as no real surprise when the Swedes decided to sell her on the quiet to East German interests.

Renamed as Volkerfreundschaft, she would sail on as a cruise ship, essentially unchanged, for the next twenty five years. I once saw her in Southampton back in 1986, from the decks of the inbound QE2, and was amazed that she still existed even then.

There then followed a period of use as an accommodation ship for refugees in Norway, under the name of Fridtjof Nansen that last through until 1989. And then, to the amazement of many, the ship- already forty one years old- found a new buyer that was intent on returning her to passenger service.

She was towed round to Genoa- ironically, the former home port of the Andrea Doria- and rebuilt from the waterline upwards as a contemporary style of cruise ship, albeit one with a far more boxy configuration. A vast stern sponson was added to improve her still problematic seakeeping qualities. Her indoor public rooms were redone in a kind of late art deco styling, and she was put back into service, cruising around Cuba and the Caribbean. It was a role that was to continue until 2005.

During this time, she would sail under various names such as Italia Prima, Valtur Prima and, most, memorably, as the Caribe.

Then, in 2005, she was purchased by the Lisbon based Classic International Cruises. Renamed the Athena, she set out on a series of sailings that would take her as far out as Australia and the Antipodes. In the summer, she was often chartered out to German and French groups, for voyages down to the Norwegian Fjords, and down to Croatia.

It was in that latter guise that I got to spend an incredible, truly memorable week aboard her in September, 2010, cruising down to Croatia and Montenegro out of Venice. The ship (see earlier blogs) was a delightful, beautifully styled little time capsule, smartly sailed and immaculately maintained.

When Classic International Cruises imploded after the death of founding father and guiding light, George Potamianos, the ship got yet another life extension when she was bought by a successor company, Portuscale cruises. One of the first things that Portuscale did- and every fortunately, as it turns out- was to charter out the ship to the British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

The charter ensured that the ship- by now called the Azores- survived the dissolution of Portuscale. she received an extensive renovation and, her with her hull painted black, the Azores now caters to the British market as a small, highly styled cruise ship, a uniquely appealing vessel in an age where ever larger ships seem to be the norm.

At the age of sixty seven, her stout old hull is as sound as ever, and many of her cabins are incredibly roomy. After all, she was built as a transatlantic liner, and cabin space was a hugely important consideration.

If you are lucky enough to sail on her, check out the original, double height rows of portholes in the original main dining room. And, if you look carefully, you might even find one of the original, Swedish American line champagne buckets on board as well.

Quite recently, the original bell of the Stockholm was retrieved from its watery grave, where it had got lost amid the mangled remains of the luckless Andrea Doria. After more than five decades beneath the icy Atlantic, it was briefly returned to the ship that it had left so abruptly on a foggy summer’s night back in 1956.

Happily, no final bell has tolled for the Azores, due for yet another renaming next year as the Astoria. She will be sailing on charter to a French company next year, but there is a handful of sailings available in the UK market on her next spring. And, of course, she still has a very full calendar of cruises to operate for Cruise and Maritime Voyages themselves throughout the remainder of this year.

It is often said that cats have nine lives, but this surely is an instance of at least one ship that can claim the same. At sixty seven not out, this amazing vessel is a ship well worth sailing while she is still around.

MV Azores, seen in her Athena livery in 2010, is going French in 2016

MV Azores, seen in her Athena livery in 2010, is going French in 2016