EMPRESS OF THE SEAS IS MIAMI BOUND

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Empress of the Seas is returning to the warm, welcoming waters of the Caribbean and Bahamas for 2016

Royal Caribbean International has announced that it’s soon to be re-integrated Empress of the Seas is to be based in Miami.

The 48,000 ton ship is returning to RCI after an eight year spell sailing as the Empress for Pullmantur, the troubled Spanish offshoot of RCI, in Europe.

Beginning in March 2016, the Empress of the Seas will embark on a series of short three, four and five night cruises to destinations such as Nassau, Key West, Cozumel, Costa Maya, Grand Cayman and the company’s private island of Coco Cay, in the Bahamas.

Key selling points of the ship’s programme will be an earlier, expedited embarkation time from 110 onward, and a number of overnight stays in Cozumel on the longer, five night run. At present, she is the only ship out of Miami to offer such an option.

The vessel is being sold as very much a party experience rather than an in depth, cultural expedition ship of any kind. She will also undergo a refurbishment before returning to service, though exact specifics are few at this time.

At present, these short cruises are being sold as year round options. But speculation remains rife that Empress of the Seas may, in time, return to her old summer programme of seven night Bermuda cruises from New York- a role in which she was hugely popular in the late nineties.

Stay tuned for any updates.

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE LOOKS TO THE FUTURE

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Norwegian Cruise Line is Australia bound, and in a big way, too.

The recent delivery of Norwegian Escape from Germany’s Meyer Werft shipyard marked something of a watershed for Norwegian Cruise Line; she was nothing less than the fourth, 150,000 ton plus mega ship delivered to the company since 2010- an event that few would have foreseen even ten years earlier.

First off came the one of a kind Norwegian Epic, delivered from STX France in 2010, and only recently just refurbished in Southampton. Then came a trio of vessels from Germany; the Breakaway class sisters, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. And, finally, as noted above, the line took delivery of the ‘improved’ Breakaway class vessel, Norwegian Escape, as recently as October.

A second ship in that series has now been allocated to the burgeoning Chinese market. Another projected ship will be given the name of Norwegian Bliss, but she will not see the light of day for a few years.

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Singapore beckons for the Norwegian Star

Thus, 2016 will mark a hiatus in the delivery of new ships to Norwegian Cruise Line. But that should not imply any loss of momentum for the line- now under the guiding hand of industry veteran, Frank Del Rio. Quite the contrary, in fact.

2016 will see the line expand its global offerings on a scale never seen before. Following on from her usual season in Northern Europe, the Norwegian Star will make her away down to Australia, offering some first ever Mediterranean cruises en route. Sailing via Singapore, the 2001 built ship will operate a full season of voyages in and around the Antipodes.

Next winter, Norwegian Sun will showcase a series of cruises down and along the east coast of South America. Always a trailblazer within the Norwegian fleet, the popular ship- another 2001 veteran- will offer a series of voyages between Rio De Janeiro and Buenos Aires, ranging from seven to ten days’ duration. There will also be some longer trips in the same region.

Like Kevin Sheehan before him, Frank Del Rio has thus far made no commitment to supply the home based UK market with a year round, dedicated ship. But he has reversed one of his predecessor’s prime deployments in the year round Mediterranean market.

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Norwegian is going global for 2016

Last year, many people were surprised by the news that the company’s two dedicated, year round Europe ships- Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Spirit- would be replaced by the giant Norwegian Epic, which was to be based year round in Barcelona. The two smaller ships would be sent back to the more benign, year round waters of the Caribbean.

Now we learn that, after just this one current season sailing year round, the Norwegian Epic will return to the Caribbean- to be replaced by Norwegian Spirit once again. And, in another twist, Norwegian Jade will also return to Europe for seasonal summer sailings, mainly around Italy and the Greek Islands.

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Atrium lobby on the Norwegian Spirit

Personally, I’m delighted to welcome the beautiful, hugely under promoted Norwegian Spirit back to our shores. Her raffish oriental decor and beautiful stepped terrace decks make her one of the most distinctive and appealing ships sailing these waters year round.

As for Bermuda and Alaska, Norwegian retains a strong, seasonal, multi ship deployment. There are also year round sailings to the Caribbean. And, for 2016, the Norwegian Sky is going to all inclusive pricing on her short, three and four day round trip sailings from Miami to the Bahamas.

I just wish that Norwegian would create some more upbeat, short haul routes for the Norwegian Sky. While her short cruises make for great little breakaways, they have become pretty much pedestrian, and far too predictable for a lot of people.

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Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Frankly, many people are sick and tired of Nassau, a place that has a very brittle charm at best. Ditto Freeport. Sure, Great Stirrup Cay has been massively enhanced recently, but is that one call alluring enough to book for alone?

A few years back, Norwegian were offering some great, five night cruises from Miami that took in both Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Now might be a good time to consider reviving this route, using the Norwegian Sky. 

At the very least, why not vary the current, four night itinerary to include Key West every second week, and maybe even Cozumel as well? My feeling is that Norwegian really are missing the boat on this one- pun wholly intentional.

Perhaps such ideas are already under consideration, who knows?

But one thing that is for sure; it really is nice to see Norwegian making real, palpable headway again after playing second fiddle to the likes of Carnival and Royal Caribbean for such a long time. The future of the innovators of Caribbean fly cruising is one that I will follow with interest.

As ever, stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

EURODAM PART TWO; A HALF MOON RISING

Sometimes, it really is better in the Bahamas......

Sometimes, it really is better in the Bahamas……

What a day for a daydream; what a day for a daydreaming boy..”

Daydream; The Loving Spoonful, 1966. Lyrics by John Sebastian.

There were many things I was looking forward to about my cruise on the Eurodam. And returning to Holland America Line’s ‘private island’ of Half Moon Cay was right at the top of the list.

The Bahamian outpost is actually a part of Little San Salvador, one of a series of some seven hundred islands sprinkled like stepping stones amid the sparkling azure hue of the ocean. Carnival Corporation- the parent company of Holland America-bought the island for something like six million dollars in December, 1996, and promptly proceeded to develop an area of roughly fifty acres into a kind of ‘catch all’ day break destination for passengers cruising the Caribbean.

Geographically, Half Moon Cay lies some one hundred miles to the south east of Nassau, the capital of the Bahama Islands. But, in terms of crowds, temperament and tempo, it is practically on another planet entirely.

So successful has Half Moon Cay become that it is now also a prime destination of choice for vessels of the parent Carnival Corporation. And, when you see this sizzling, sultry little gemstone, the reasons for that success are instantly apparent.

Half Moon Cay is strictly low rise in appearance, but sky high in terms of stunning visual impact. The entree is a perfectly hewn, semi circular arc of tissue soft, powder white sand lapped by almost supine, electric blue waters- a literal Half Moon, as it happens. Beyond this, clearly marked winding trails lined with hibiscus, frangipani and rows of deep, vibrant shrubbery, form a backdrop inhabited by local wildfowl, making the whole area ideal for nature lovers and ramblers.

We came bumbling ashore from the Eurodam on tenders, in itself a thrilling enough entree to what lay ahead. While many passengers do not enjoy the tendering experience, I am one of those people that have always savoured it as a kind of spray tinged appetizer to the fun and frolics awaiting ashore. It certainly hones the anticipation to knife point sharpness for me.

Meanwhile, para gliders flit across the sky like so many skittish butterflies. Jet skis roar and splutter across the sparkling briny like scampering water beetles. From the nearby barbecue- literally unloaded from the ship and cooked ashore- the smell of jerk chicken, burgers, and a whole other conga line of goodies floods the fresh, mid morning air.

Half Moon Cay is essentially a surreal, sweetly scented netherworld; a kind of idealised dream destination. Shorn of the need to do anything more demanding than grab another Margarita from any of the numerous bars that sprinkle the landscape, you sag with pathetic gratitude into a kind of submissive, smiley stupor once ashore. In an ideal world, every day would truly be like this.

After a while, wading through the tame, milk warm surf while holding a drink and talking to friends just became so- normal. Further along the expanse of that flawless beach, other passengers lolled in seafront cabanas, while others rode horses through the same surf that we strolled with such indolent indifference.

And yes, we could have gone deep sea fishing, or possibly have taken a glass boat ride to take in the stunning smorgasbord of underwater coral. We could have gone kayaking, sail boating, or we could even have hauled ourselves aboard a Hobie catamaran. And, for those so inclined, there was certainly no shortage of water toys to frolic with on that sparkling, sun kissed ocean.

But that would have involved making a conscious effort. One involving actual motivation on a day when, well, the sun was in the sky, the beer was cold, and the sand was just so damned warm between my toes. And yes, I folded. First world problems, eh?

Even the palm trees seemed to be saying ‘chill out’ as they danced an idle, soporific skit against a backdrop of clouds that drifted by like so many giant, ghostly galleons of old. And, through a filter of reggae and old sixties tunes, the words of that old John Sebastian classic, quoted at the start of this article, came flooding back to remind me of the day’s really urgent, to do business.

So, another Margarita it is. Reality? A damned interesting concept.

But not today, thank you. No sir, not today.

NORWEGIAN EPIC EMERGES FROM THREE WEEK DRY DOCKING

Pool deck on the Norwegian Epic

Pool deck on the Norwegian Epic

Fresh from a three week dry docking, the Norwegian Epic left Southampton for Barcelona on Monday to begin a one of a kind season of year round sailings to the Mediterranean and Canary Islands.

The one off ship- unique in the Norwegian fleet- will return to Port Canaveral in the fall of 2016 to operate Bahamas and Caribbean cruises.

On the entertainment front, Norwegian Epic now showcases a new Cavern Club, a homage to the legendary Liverpool venue of the same name, and a new, headlining show in the form of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

In addition, the ship’s Bliss ultra night club was refurbished, together with the Mandara Spa, the library, and the outdoor marketplace. The Epic Theatre, casino and exclusive, upper deck Haven complex also benefited from such additions as new lighting, freshening up of all furniture fabrics, and new artwork.

Dining venues on board such as the Manhattan Room, Moderno Churrascaria, Tastes, Cagney’s, Le Bistro and the Lido, have also been enhanced with new, soft furnishings, decor, and fresh carpeting in places.

On the technical side, Norwegian Epic has taken on board several significant upgrades, including a new pair of propellers and new rudder caps, a fresh coat of hull paint, and enhancements to the lifeboats release mechanisms, as well as some enhancements to the on board refrigeration and storage spaces.

Over the coming winter, Norwegian Epic will cruise from Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean, as well as offering a string of nine night fly cruises to the Canary islands, also sailing from the Catalan port.

Her abrupt return to the Caribbean next fall after just one season in year round Europe cruising came as something of a surprise in certain quarters. From fall of 2016, she will be replaced permanently in that role by Norwegian Spirit- the ship that she was originally brought over to supplant.

None the less, these are interesting times at Norwegian, especially with the looming debut of the Norwegian Escape coming up rapidly on the horizon.

As ever, stay tuned.

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

NORWEGIAN EPIC REDEPLOYS TO FLORIDA IN 2016-17

As part of a hugely comprehensive redeployment that will include a welcome return to Asia after a hiatus of more than a decade, Norwegian Cruise Line has decided to return its pioneering mega ship, Norwegian Epic, to cruising from Florida for the winter 2016-17 season.

Prior to this, it had been determined that the 154,000 ton Epic would be based in Europe year round, cruising to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands, mainly from Barcelona, on a series of itineraries ranging from six to twelve nights’ duration.

Instead, the ship will now return to Florida, to be replaced once again by former year round Europe favourite, Norwegian Spirit.

Built in 2010, the Norwegian Epic will be home ported at Port Canaveral for the first time when she returns to Florida in the autumn of 2016. From there, she will operate a series of mainly seven night sailings to the highlights of the eastern and western Caribbean.

The seven night eastern Caribbean voyages will offer calls at Tortola, St. Thomas, and the company’s ‘private island’ of Great Stirrup Cay. Western Caribbean itineraries will feature calls at Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Great Stirrup Cay.

In addition, the Norwegian Epic will offer a short season of three and four night cruises to the Bahamas during January and March of 2017, with calls at Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay.

This redeployment of the Epic brings down the curtain on her European role after only one full season- the one she is currently sailing- in that role.

On the other hand, she will be a far more formidable competitor to the upgraded Royal Caribbean hardware sailing out of Port Canaveral. And many will also welcome the return to year round European sailings of the raffish, exotic Norwegian Spirit. In many respects, that latter ship is the most under rated in the entire Norwegian fleet. During her time in Europe, she attracted a loyal fan base that tended to sail on her year in, year out.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

ENCHANTMENT OF THE SEAS IS MIAMI BOUND IN 2016

In a move that slipped under the radar of this particular blogger last November, Royal Caribbean International has announced that the 82,000 ton Enchantment Of The Seas will shift from its current base at Port Canaveral, to sail from Miami during 2016.

The very popular vessel will operate the programme of cruises currently offered on smaller fleet mate, Majesty Of The Seas (see previous blog).

These involve three day, Friday departures from Miami to Nassau and Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamas island, Coco Cay. Four night, Monday departures will also add the popular, bohemian playground of Key West into the mix.

The 82,910 ton, 2,446 passenger ship was originally built in 1997 as one of the six sister ships of the so-called Vision class. In 2005, the ship was cut in half and lengthened with the addition of a new, 22 metre long mid section that added some 151 extra cabins, suspension bridges, a new water park, and an expanded pool area. At the time, it was felt that the rest of the Vision ships might get similar upgrades, but in fact only the Enchantment Of The Seas underwent this substantial structural upgrade. This work was carried out in a Rotterdam shipyard.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Enchantment Of The Seas is Bahamas-bound from Miami for the 2016 season

Enchantment Of The Seas is Bahamas-bound from Miami for the 2016 season

MAJESTY NOT ABDICATING; ROYAL CARIBBEAN HAS A CHANGE OF HEART AFTER ALL (Updated)

In something of a change of heart, Royal Caribbean International has reversed its decision to transfer the Miami based Majesty Of The Seas to Spanish offshoot, Pullmantur, in 2016.

Instead of being reunited with her two sister ships and former fleet mates, Sovereign and Monarch, the 74,000 ton, 1992 built Majesty Of The Seas will, instead, receive a substantial refit next year, prior to a move north to a new home port in Port Canaveral.

Substantial details on the proposed refit are thin on the ground, but it has been announced that the refurbished ship will have new, bow to stern rapid wi-fi availability.

At present, the Majesty Of The Seas sails on three night cruises to Nassau and Coco Cay each Friday. A four night, weekly Monday sailing adds Key West to the three day roster. It seems almost certain that the Majesty Of The Seas will simply continue to run the same itineraries from her new home port.

It is possible that the decision to retain the still popular ship after all is likely related to current difficult trading conditions for Pullmantur. Adding a third mega ship to the Spanish market might look like simply bad business at the moment.

Still, it beggars the question of which ship will replace the Majesty Of The Seas out of Miami on the popular, short Bahamas runs. As one of the acknowledged cruise industry leaders, it would be strange if Royal Caribbean were to give up on one of it’s most lucrative, high profile routes.

Stay tuned for updates as they become available.

Update:

Many thanks are due to blog reader, cruiseaholictim, for pointing out that RCCL have, in fact, announced that Enchantment Of The Seas will be taking over the short cruise run from Miami, effective 2016.

It seems that Majesty Of The Seas may not be going to Pullmantur after all

It seems that Majesty Of The Seas may not be going to Pullmantur after all

CHEERS! NORWEGIAN OFFERS FIRST ‘ALL INCLUSIVE’ SHIP FOR 2016

As of January 2016, Norwegian Cruise Line will be dipping a little toe in the all inclusive pool.

Year round, dedicated Bahamas mainstay, Norwegian Sky, will be going all inclusive on the drinks front at least. The 78,000 ton, 1999 built ship will now include unlimited premium spirits, cocktails, bottled or draft beer up to the value of $11, plus wine by the glass for guests aged 21 and upwards. Guests aged from 3 to 20 will be offered unlimited free sodas and soft drinks.

Interestingly, the offer also applies to all drinks consumed on Great Stirrup Cay as well. The port of call is offered on both weekly itineraries offered by the ship.

Norwegian Sky was the first, purpose built mega ship for the company back in 1999. Originally ordered for Costa Cruises, she was purchased on the slipways and completed for Norwegian. A near sister, the 2001 built Norwegian Sun, spends summers in Alaska, and winters in Mexico and around South America.

At present, the ship sails a well practised routine of three and four night cruises, round trip from Miami, each week. Three night cruises sail each Friday, and call in at both Nassau and the ‘private’ island of Great Stirrup Cay. The four night sailings on Monday add Freeport on Grand Bahama Island to the three night roster.

Norwegian Sky offers the most comprehensive range of dining options of any ship sailing on the short Bahamas circuit out of Miami- she was, in fact, the first to introduce the popular Freestyle Dining  concept- and she also offers the largest number of standard balcony cabins of any ship sailing from Miami.

This looks very much like a test pad for the potential launch of ‘all inclusive’ drinks across the Norwegian fleet. No doubt, the company will be carefully monitoring the reactions to this new venture, perhaps the biggest thus far of the post-Sheehan era at the company.

Interesting times, indeed. As ever, stay tuned.

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

CARNIVAL INCREASE SHORT CRUISE CAPACITY IN MIAMI FOR 2016

With the arrival of Carnival Vista looming large for 2016, Carnival is shuffling the fleet pack for a number of its short, three and four night cruise itineraries over the course of 2016.

Carnival Sensation, long a Port Canaveral stalwart, will shift to Miami in February 2016. Her place on the three and four night Bahamas circuit out of that port will be taken by Carnival Victory, the second ship of the original, 100,000 ton Destiny class.

Once home ported in Miami, the Carnival Sensation will embark on a series of four and five night cruises from the Florida port. The four day cruises will all be Thursday departures, and will offer up ports such as the popular ‘private’ resort of Half Moon Cay, plus Nassau and the perennial favourites, Key West and Cozumel.

Five day cruises will depart each Monday, and will showcase such ports as the new development at Amber Cove, together with Half Moon Cay, Ocho Rios, Grand Turk, Cozumel, Nassau and Freeport.

Built in 1993 by Kvaerner Masa in Finland as the third of the original Fantasy class of mega ships, the Carnival Sensation carries around 2,000 passengers. Coming in at around 70,000 tons, she is a good size for these four and five day jaunts around the Bahamas and the Caribbean. The ship recently benefited from all the ‘Evolutions of Fun’ upgrades, and now also has some ninety-eight balcony cabins grafted onto the superstructure.

While the Carnival Sensation is not the newest or most amenity laden vessel in the Carnival portfolio, the vessel has all the bells and whistles needed for a short, invigorating jaunt. There is a spectacular, nine story atrium lobby complete with glass elevators and its own lobby bar, as well as an entire interior ‘boulevard’ of bars, shops and cafes. And, this being Carnival, the casino is huge, and constantly buzzing.

The ship also boasts the aft facing ‘Serenity’ adults-only area, featuring padded loungers, ambient music and a pair of whirlpools. A recently added water park, complete with slides and lots of splashy fun, will be more than enough to help keep the little ones occupied.

These short, destination intensive cruises are a worthwhile adventure in their on right. If you happen to be in Florida as part of a land package, grafting on one of these short itineraries to your stay is a cost effective, pretty inclusive way at gaining access to some safe, pretty little islands while also enjoying a slice of the sizzling nightlife and dining options that the Carnival brand is synonymous with.

Hit the highlights of the Bahamas and Caribbean aboard a sizzling Carnival 'Fun Ship'

Hit the highlights of the Bahamas and Caribbean aboard a sizzling Carnival ‘Fun Ship’