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

PORTUSCALE- IS THIS THE ENDGAME?

Yesterday’s sad departure for the scrapyard of the ailing Lisboa, ex Princess Danae, throws a pretty stark light on the state of parent company, Portuscale Cruises.

With no news of any employment for the company’s flagship, the beautifully restored, 1961 built Funchal, or the smaller, 6,000 ton, 1965 built Porto, things are looking anything but good.

Mercifully, the one success story in this bleak litany seems to be the 1948 built Azores, soon to be renamed as Astoria. The former Stockholm has been chartered by British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, for a few years. In turn, she will go out on an extensive, French based charter for most of 2016. So, for the future at least, her future seems assured.

The potential loss of Funchal and Porto would be devastating for those who love smaller, classically styled ships. Fewer and fewer of these charismatic dowagers remain in service with each passing year. And, while it does not actually bear thinking about, the possibility that these two fine ladies might follow Lisboa on her last, lonely voyage can no longer be discounted.

I hope and pray that this can be avoided. More than ever, the maritime community needs to be able to experience ships that come with no other gimmicks than that of being at sea on a solid, dependable, classically styled ship.

Fingers crossed on this one. As ever, stay tuned.

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

ET VOILA! CMV ENTERS THE FRENCH CRUISE MARKET IN 2016

With just a month to go before it’s 2016 summer season goes on sale, Cruise and Maritime Voyages has announced that it will be entering the French cruise market for the summer months next year.

The French company, Rivages du Monde, will be chartering the 16,000 ton Azores from CMV for a series of sailings as far afield as Greenland and the Adriatic. The famous ship- well known to many as the former Stockholm of 1948- will sail from a variety of ports on the French mainland, including Bordeaux, Dunkirk, Le Havre and Marseilles, as well as the Belgian port of Ostend.

Prior to the lucrative French charter, the 550 passenger ship will be renamed as Astoria, after which she will embark on a two month series of cruises from the United Kingdom.

The renamed Astoria will make her initial sailing for Rivages du Monde on May 11th. The company is a Paris-based operator specialising in cruising and in depth touring adventures.

This announcement is certainly good news to anyone that appreciates the concept of classic cruising on an intimate, laid back style of ship where personalised service is complemented by the ability to sail into smaller, more exclusive harbours that are too logistically challenging for the newer, larger vessels now in service.

As ever, stay tuned.

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

SHIPS GOING NOWHERE? DEUTSCHLAND AND A SUPPORTING CAST

Are some lines moving ahead faster than others this year?

Are some lines moving ahead faster than others this year?

The last couple of weeks have seen a blizzard of new, very positive announcements in the mega ship market from the likes of MSC Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian and, of course, most recently Carnival.

In addition, the mid size, upscale market has had cause to celebrate with the keel laying of a superb new vessel for Regent Seven Seas, plus the acquisition of a fourth of the original ‘R’ class vessels by Oceania. The exciting new Viking Star is imminent. And, in just a few months, Windstar is set to showcase the pair of lavishly refurbished ex-Seabourn yachts that are being added to the fleet.

In so many ways, it seems like ‘full speed ahead’ for the industry. But, while all of the developments listed above are welcome and to be lauded, somewhere in between, other ships seem to be slipping, forgotten and neglected, between the cracks in the sweeping media spotlights.

What, for instance, of Deutschland? Last linked with a bizarre takeover by Crystal Cruises, the former Peter Deilmann stalwart- one of the most beautiful, stunningly decorated ships ever built- is still swinging idly at anchor off Gibraltar. There were stated to be between two to four buyers interested in purchasing her only two months ago. Now, the sound of silence is deafening,

And what of Gemini?

Last known to be laid up in Tilbury following her stint as a hotel ship during the 2012 London Olympics, the trim little cruise liner seems to have donned some kind of cosmic invisibility cloak. No one seems to know who-if anyone- might be interested in this lovely little ship, built as relatively recently as 1992.

And no word, either, from Portuscale Cruises after stories began to circulate that the partially refurbished, 1955 built Lisboa had been put up for sale, appearing on at least one shipbroker’s sales list. The ship is said to be mechanically sound, with some work needed on the bridge instruments. Many are thinking that her future is not looking good and, par for the course, Portuscale has been typically recitent to say anything, A state of affairs that serves only to confuse the issue further.

On the plus side, the similar sized (20,000 ton) Astor has found a happy home with Cruise and Maritime Voyages, who will also continue to operate the veteran, 1948 built Azores and, of course, the superb, 1965 built Marco Polo. That ship celebrates a well deserved 50th anniversary this summer.

The latter news is a welcome glimmer of light in what seems like an otherwise constant parade of smaller, more intimate cruise ships to the scrapyard. And their demise, while perhaps understandable from an economic point of view, deprives the industry as a whole of some of the charming, quirky diversity that used to be integral to its make up.

In the midst of all the welcome news about the big ships, some more positive developments in the smaller ship sector would be very welcome as well.

And should any such news transpire, it will be recounted right here as it comes in.

My advice? As always, stay tuned.

TAKING A CRUISE FROM TILBURY? WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

In terms of actual cruise business, Tilbury certainly comes well down the listings from both Southampton and Dover, the unchallenged ‘big boys’ of the UK cruising market. Yet, slowly but steadily, the Essex port is gaining it’s own, distinctive niche as a place of embarkation.

And it is not as if the place lacks maritime history. It was at Tilbury that Elizabeth I made her magnificent, inspiring speech- one of the greatest orations in history- even as the Spanish Armada loomed in the English Channel.

The port has immediate, convenient access to central London, which we’ll look at shortly. That access made Tilbury a natural port of embarkation for the post war, P&O liners heading out to the Far East and Australia, with their huddled masses of ‘Ten Pound Poms’ looking for a new life down under.

And it was also Tilbury that saw the first, post war shipload of Caribbean emigrants arrive in the UK, disembarking from the Empire Windrush. It was a seminal step in making the capital the vast, amazingly multi- cultural environment that it is today.

The advent of cruising largely left the port behind, but in recent years that trend has been reversed. Part of the reason is, as stated above, the relative proximity to the capital. Leaving Fenchurch Street Station near Tower Hill, one of the many regular trains will deposit you smartly into Tilbury Town in around forty minutes.

From here, a taxi- they are lined up outside the station- will take you to the cruise terminal in just five minutes. It really is that easy.

Alternately, there is a dedicated National Express coach service that leaves London Victoria to connect directly with each sailing. If you are likely to be struggling with luggage, this is more likely to be an easier, more convenient option, though slightly longer a journey at around an hour each way.

So, who sails from Tilbury these days?

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes.....

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes…..

The only year round sailings are made by Cruise and Maritime Voyages. The intimate, classically styled Marco Polo operates from the Essex port on a year round basis, offering everything from overnight cruises to a marathon, forty- two day Amazon odyssey.

Next year, she will be joined for a series of first ever sailings by the veteran Azores, which will also be sailing from the port over the summer.

Some summer and autumn sailings are also being offered by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, with the ever popular Black Watch.

With its smaller, more intimate set up and ease of access from London, Tilbury has a lot going for it as an embarkation port. The larger ships are unable to come this far upstream, and that helps to keep the scale more human, less hassled. On embarkation day, that can count for quite a lot.

I’ll be keeping an eye on any future developments in Tilbury, passenger wise.

As always, stay tuned.

CMV RELEASE AZORES CRUISE SCHEDULE FOR 2015

The Azores, in her previous guise as Athena, on the Croatian Riviera

The Azores, in her previous guise as Athena, on the Croatian Riviera

UK based Cruise & Maritime Voyages has been very quick to release the hugely anticipated 2015 for their recently chartered Azores. The 16,000 ton, 550 passenger ship, owned by Portuscale Cruises, has been lined up as the 2015 replacement for the veteran, 1972 built Discovery. While the latter is facing a far from certain fate, it seems that the Azores- built in 1948 as the Stockholm- is almost indestructible.

Some twenty-one sailings in all are on offer between January 26th and August 28th, varying in length from a one night repositioning cruise between Hull and Tilbury, to an epic, thirty night round trip from Avonmouth, Bristol, to the Caribbean. This itinerary visits no less than ten of the most stellar ports of call in the West Indies, as well as featuring no less than eighteen sea days on the outward and return legs of the voyage. Fares begin at £3,659 per person in a standard inside cabin. A single inside cabin is on offer at £3,779.

Other highlights of the programme include a pair of cruises to see the highlights of the Northern Lights, as well as cruises to the Baltic, the Norwegian Fjords, and  a pair of round Britain cruises.

Especially attractive is an eight night, August 8th sailing that includes three full days at the port of Leith, allowing passengers to see and experience the very best of the Edinburgh Festival. This cruise also serves up a trio of calls at famous northern isles such as Torshavn, Lerwick in the Shetlands, and Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands.

In line with CMV sailings in the past, the Azores will be sailing from a series of regional ports. So far announced are departures to and from Bristol, Hull and Tilbury. 

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces on the Azores

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces on the Azores

All told, the 2015 Azores cruise schedule introduces some real diversity into a programme of no fly, dedicated ex-UK cruises, as well as showcasing a new, classically styled contender into the market.  Overnight calls at ports such as Rouen, Amsterdam and pretty little Honfleur acknowledge the increasing desire from passengers for more time in certain cities.

There is also a tendency towards longer sailings for this first season; no less than eleven of the cruises are in excess of ten days duration. Apart from the solitary overnight mini cruise on offer on July 17th, the shortest itinerary in the Azores programme for 2015 is a six night, Norwegian Fjords sailing, round trip from Tilbury, on August 28th.

As always, stay tuned.

 

ATHENA PHOTO GALLERY PART TWO

This is another selection of photos taken on board the Athena in 2010. Enjoy!

Main lounge on the Athena

Main lounge on the Athena

Another interior lounge shot from 2010

Another interior lounge shot from 2010

Wall fresco on the main passenger deck

Wall fresco on the main passenger deck

Inside the lido buffet at the stern

Inside the lido buffet at the stern

The Athena off Kotor, Montenegro

The Athena off Kotor, Montenegro

A beautiful ship in her natural element

A beautiful ship in her natural element

The view through my cabin porthole

The view through my cabin porthole

Terraced lido deck of the Athena

Terraced lido deck of the Athena

The stern sponson, added for stability

The stern sponson, added for stability

Lobby staircase aboard the Athena

Lobby staircase aboard the Athena

Spilt, seen through the round window

Spilt, seen through the round window

ATHENA PHOTO GALLERY

Since the news came that Cruise And Maritime Voyages is to charter the 1948 built Azores from Portsucale Cruises for a full season of ex-UK cruises in 2015, I thought I’d put together some photos, taken aboard her in September, 2010. At that time, she was sailing as the Athena for the now sadly defunct Classic International Cruises. I enjoyed a fabulous, early autumn swing aboard her, through the highlights of Croatia and Montenegro, on a week long round trip out of Venice. This really is one of the last, old school cruise ships still out there. I hope you enjoy these pictures of this charismatic, pretty little ship as much as I enjoyed sailing on her.

Captain's Lounge on board the Athena

Captain’s Lounge on board the Athena

Forward facing show lounge from the stage

Forward facing show lounge from the stage

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces

Beautiful, Art Deco stern terraces

Upper deck walkways

Upper deck walkways

Lido and stern walkway

Lido and stern walkway

Athena three quarter shot

Athena three quarter shot

Bow shot of Athena at anchor

Bow shot of Athena at anchor

Art Deco light fixture in the lobby

Art Deco light fixture in the lobby

Stern walkway at sunset

Stern walkway at sunset

The Athena on the Croatian Riviera

The Athena on the Croatian Riviera

The silhouette is still quite stunning

The silhouette is still quite stunning

Playing peek a boo between the palms

Playing peek a boo between the palms

Close up of the funnel with CIC logo

Close up of the funnel with CIC logo

Bow shot. Note the riveted hull

Bow shot. Note the riveted hull

Close up of the name and hull plating

Close up of the name and hull plating

Upper deck against a Croatia backdrop

Upper deck against a Croatia backdrop

Upper level main lounge of Athena

Upper level main lounge of Athena

Main staircase and light fixture

Main staircase and light fixture

CMV CHARTERS PORTUSCALE VETERAN FOR 2015 SEASON

Upper deck terraces of the Azores

Upper deck terraces of the Azores

It has been announced today that Cruise and Maritime Voyages will charter the 550 passenger MV Azores from Portuscale Cruises as a replacement for the 1972-built Discovery, one of the original ‘Love Boats’ from the popular seventies television series.

Effective from January of 2015, the Azores will sail year round from Bristol on a series of as yet unspecified itineraries.

In any event, this deal looks good for both lines. Portuscale, still a relatively fledgling operation beginning to find its way, gets a substantial cash infusion, as well as gainful employment for its biggest ship guaranteed for a full year at least.

For CMV, the Azores is an excellent choice to replace Discovery. The latter ship is being put up for sale by her actual owners, All Leisure Group. 

With a capacity of 550 passengers, the Azores is, ironically, far older than the ship she will replace. Built in 1948 as the Swedish American Lines’ Stockholm, she became infamous for the July, 1956 collision off Nantucket that resulted in the sinking of the Andrea Doria. 

The ship was stripped mostly down to her riveted hull in the early nineties, and extensively rebuilt as a small, but very comfortable cruise ship. Though her passenger capacity of 550 is a few hundred less than that of Discovery, the extent of her rebuild ironically makes her a far more contemporary ship. The main dining room, located low in the hull in the old transatlantic tradition, has rows of double height portholes down both sides, and even some of the original Swedish American ice buckets still on board.

Cabins aboard the Azores include a set of spacious, upper deck midship, two room suites with balconies, and some exceptionally spacious rooms across most grades.

There is no alternative restaurant on board the Azores; but the ship has extensive deck space, including some very well designed terraces,and even an old style walkway that totally circles the stern itself.

The stern walkway on the Azores

The stern walkway on the Azores

As for the Discovery herself, there has been no word as of yet what her fate might be. All Leisure did have her listed for sale at around five million dollars. Her twin sister ship, the former Pacific Princess, went to the breakers last year after several years’ lay up in Genoa.

This does not mean that Discovery will necessarily suffer a similar fate; she is in far better condition than her late sister ship was at that stage. All the same, many in the maritime community will once more be mentally bracing themselves for the potential loss of yet another classic ship to the insatiable breakers yards of Turkey and India.

As always, stay tuned.

IS PORTUSCALE CRUISES IN TROUBLE? (UPDATED 13/3/2014)

Heading for a new life next year?

Heading for a new life next year?

Reports are currently rife at the influential Seatrade Miami conference that Portuscale Cruises is in trouble.

Stories are circulating that the Lisboa has been arrested at Lisbon, while the recently renovated Azores- due to leave over the next few days to start an almost year long charter for German cruise company, Ambiente- has been delayed from leaving the same port.

Renovation work on Lisboa was suspended a few weeks ago, when an official Portuscale announcement stated that structural problems with the ship were far more extensive than had been originally ascertained. A lucrative charter to a French cruise operator had to be cancelled at very short notice. Provisionally, Lisboa is intended to resume sailing in 2015.

Meanwhile, the veteran Funchal is due back at sea shortly, off to begin a season of cruises from the UK and Sweden through the spring, summer and autumn. There has as yet been no word about the future of these.

Fourth of the Portuscale trio, the smaller, also renovated Porto, was still in Lisbon at last report.

It is little more than two years since Rui Allegre first masterminded the astonishing resurgence of the veteran Portuscale quartet from the ashes of the imploded Classic International Cruises. The owner saw an obvious market for the elegant, traditionally styled quartet in an era largely dominated by amenity laden mega ships.

Funchal actually went back to sea for three months last year, beautifully restored and looking better than ever, Rave reviews came from on board, and guest satisfaction rates were high. The future did, indeed, seem bright.

However, the abrupt cancellation of work on Lisboa- which had been progressing nicely- rang alarm bells.  Portuscale had gone so far as to announce a programme of cruises for the renovated ship on her French charter, as well as going to the extent of making public some artist renderings of her restored interiors and outer decking.

The loss of revenue from the French charter must have been quite a hit. And the ships, with their vintage styling, are very labour intensive, and expensive to maintain.

At this time, no formal statement is forthcoming from Portuscale. It is to be hoped that the Azores can leave on schedule for her charter to Ambiente Cruises as planned.

I suspect that the potential loss of that German charter might well prove catastrophic to the nascent cruise line. And it would be a true tragedy if these four ships were to be lost after so much hard work has been done to bring them back up to speed.

As always, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

With regard to the Azores charter to Ambiente, German sources have reported that the ship has, indeed, left Lisbon, en route to begin her programme of cruises from Bremerhaven on March 16th.

She was apparently delayed by the non issuance of a necessary sailing certificate, which has now been supplied.

While this news is indeed a relief, there has been no official word from Portuscale Cruises over the alleged arrest in Lisbon of the partially refurbished Lisboa, as outlined below.

ADDENDUM:

Well worth checking out in the responses to this piece is a note from Luis Miguel Correia, one of the most renowned, knowledgeable and well informed writers and photographers in the entire maritime industry, and someone whom I have had the pleasure of sailing with in the past.

Luis is well connected to the current owners and operators of the Portuscale fleet and, as such, his response to my original blog post above, is definitely worthy of your consideration.