ROYAL RHAPSODY- BLACK SEA CRUISES FOR 2015

RCI has an eight ship European deployment planned for 2015

RCI has an eight ship European deployment planned for 2015

For the first time since her debut back in the late 1990’s, Royal Caribbean is bringing the Vision class Rhapsody Of The Seas to Europe, to operate a string of cruises around the Greek Islands and the Black Sea. Together with her sister ship, Splendor Of The Seas, the Finnish built Rhapsody Of The Seas will be part of an eight ship Royal Caribbean line up in Europe for the 2015 cruising season.

Ever since her completion in 1997, the 78,000 ton ship has sailed on largely Alaskan and Mexican Riviera itineraries. A few years ago, Rhapsody Of The Seas became the first major Royal Caribbean ship to be regularly deployed in the booming Australian market. Recently modernised and refurbished, Rhapsody Of The Seas remains in Australia at this time.

She will redeploy for her maiden European season from Sydney to Istanbul, making a series of voyages  that takes her from Sydney to Singapore, to the Indian sub continent, through the Suez Canal, with a final scheduled arrival in Istanbul on June 1st.

The Black Sea programme begins in earnest that month, when the Istanbul based Rhapsody will make a trio of ten and eleven night cruises, calling at Burgas in Bulgaria, Odessa, Yalta, Sochi and Sevastopol. Among the highlights of this programme will be a number of overnight stays in three cities; Istanbul, Sochi, and Odessa.

July 2015 sees the Rhapsody Of The Seas move to Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, to begin a series of seven, nine and eleven night cruises to the Greek Islands. These will emphasise stops at some smaller, less visited ports such as Thessaloniki and Bodrum, together with some of the ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Mykonos, Katakolon, and Santorini.

There will then be a cruise through the Mediterranean to Barcelona, from where the Rhapsody Of The Seas will depart on November 19th for a transatlantic crossing to Brazil, and an austral summer season of cruises in South America. All of these cruises are now on sale.

A third ship in the class, the last built, name sake Vision Of The Seas makes a surprise return to Europe in 2015, just two years after leaving to be redeployed on short, year round cruises out of the USA.

The company is also deploying it’s new build, Anthem Of The Seas out of Southampton, as well as the massive Allure Of The Seas from Barcelona (see previous blogs).

Needless to say, these things can also change. Stay tuned for any updates as they become available.

TRAVEL TRENDS TO WATCH OUT FOR IN 2014

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

With the last rites for 2013 about to be intoned, now is as good a time as any to look at some of the potential highlights on offer in what could be quite a shiny 2014. So, for your consideration, here are some of the more tasty prospects on offer across the cruise spectrum.

Expect Nile Cruises to make a slow but steady comeback in 2014. It was barely noticed, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently lifted it’s advisory on not travelling to Egypt, and the numerous river cruise operators on the Nile are gearing up to rebuild that shattered trade. Expect low initial prices, plenty of availability, and some of the most fascinating and ageless sightseeing anywhere on the planet.

The Black Sea is hugely under rated as a cruise destination, quite astonishing when you consider the wealth of attractions it can offer within a relatively short distance. With evocative names such as Sevastopol, Odessa and Yalta, the region is a historical glut. Offering such sights as the famous Swallow’s Nest at Yalta, and the field where the Light Brigade made it’s infamous, doomed charge, it should be on everybody’s ‘to do’ list at least once.

Voyages To Antiquity offer a couple of Black Sea cruises in 2014 on the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. With all excursions included in the price, and top quality lecturers on board to put the region in its proper historical context, this is definitely the way to go ‘back to the future’.

More historical reminiscence is on offer with the 40th Anniversary of D-Day in June. With lines as diverse as Cruise And Maritime, Fred. Olsen and even Holland America offering invasion themed itineraries, there will be no shortage of options to relieve the first few months in the story of Operation Overlord, and the eventual Allied breakout from Northern France.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless expansion of Caribbean cruise options gets another boost with the January debut of the new, Miami themed Norwegian Getaway. With a vibe and an on board lifestyle aimed at echoing the sultry, seductive ambiance of South Beach, the huge, new 154,000 ton ship will be cruising from Miami year round, and definitely ups the ante in terms of on board eateries, entertainment, and watering holes. She should be an absolute smash.

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Heading the other way, the enormous Oasis Of The Seas begins a brief European season in the early autumn, as she brackets a handful of Mediterranean cruises in with essential dry docking in Rotterdam. One of the two largest cruise ships ever constructed, the mold breaking leviathan is using the cruises as a series of obvious trial runs for future deployment of one of these ships in the more crowded ports of Southern Europe.

These are just a handful of the forthcoming highlights for 2014. No doubt many, many more will be unveiled over the course of the next few months or so. My advice, as ever, is to stay tuned.

CRUISE SHIPS TO SOCHI WINTER OLYMPICS 2014

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

One of the last publicised aspects regarding the hugely controversial 22nd Winter Olympics, due to be held in and around the Black Sea  city of Sochi between 7th and 23rd of February next year, is the surprising number of cruise ships and ferries that have been chartered for use as static hotel accommodation.

Of course, there is nothing new in the use of chartered cruise ships as temporary static accommodation. Events such as the Olympic Games of 1992 and 2004 saw the use as accommodation ships of some of the most illustrious names in the cruising firmament- including the then brand new Queen Mary 2. Similarly, the Barcelona Expo ’98 had no less than six cruise ships, including the then world’s longest liner, the SS. Norway, offering accommodation.

Last year’s London 2012 Olympics saw the use of Fred. Olsen’s Braemar and her original sister ship, the now laid up Gemini, as fully functioning, static hotels docked on the River Thames at Tilbury.

What is, of course, different about Sochi 2014 is the hugely controversial nature of these games, with widespread calls for a boycott over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s excessive, increasingly repressive crackdown on gay rights in Russia as a whole.

So, who is going to be there for the duration? Five cruise and ferry operators have thus far confirmed their operation of chartered tonnage.

First off, Russian owned St. Peter Line is sending both of it’s large cruise ferries- Princess Anastasia and Princess Maria- from their regular, year round overnight runs from Tallinn and Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Princess Anastasia was once well known in the UK as the popular Pride Of Bilbao, a stalwart of the Northern Spain run for many years. Rooms on these two ships are advertised from 63 euros upwards per night.

There is also another ferry, the Italian SNAV Toscana, a 30,000 ton vessel usually operated on overnight runs between Civitavecchia and Palermo, Originally built as the Wasa Star back in 1981, she has accommodation for around 2200 people in normal service.

Seasonal Greek islands operator, Louis Cruises, is sending two ships, the aptly named 38, 000 ton Louis Olympia and the 33,000 ton Thomson Spirit; sensible and gainful employment for two ships that would have otherwise remained laid up in Piraeus until March. Unlike the two ferries mentioned above, these two vessels are full service cruise ships. Rooms priced from 168 euros per night.

Spanish operator, Iberocruises is sending the 46,000 ton Grand Holiday, which originally started life in 1985 as a Carnival ship. Rooms on board this ship start from 158 euros.

Largest of all, Norwegian Cruise Line is sending the 92,000 ton Norwegian Jade, with rooms on board starting at the highest rate of all, at at 208 euros per night. Unlike most of the others, the Norwegian Jade offers the added plus of a large number of balcony cabins.

Between them, these six very different ships can offer in excess of some twelve thousand berths. While the cruise ships of Louis, Norwegian and Iberocruises are usually in the Mediterranean for the spring season anyway, the long voyage to and from the Baltic by the two Russian ferries represents a significant redeployment on the part of their owners, albeit an obviously lucrative one.

CRUISING SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT- OPTIONS OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Let’s face it, there are times when the lure of even the most famous of cruising venues begins to fade when you’ve done it time after time. So, if you’re beginning to fall a little out of love with the dolce vita lifestyle of the usual Meddy-Go-Rounds, or feeling blase about the sun splashed Bahamas, what are the options if you still want to enjoy the seductive cruising lifestyle?

Well, fear not. Here’s an idea or two that will hopefully rekindle your interest in the world at large.

One option you might like to look at is the Black Sea. Cruises tend to be on offer here traditionally in late summer and early autumn. You’ve still got the advantage of hopefully good weather, linked in with a chance to see ports such as Odessa, Yalta, with it’s famous Swallow’s Nest castle perched high up on a cliff above the sea, or even Sevastopol, from where you can see the killing field that once witnessed the futile, heroic charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

If the Canary Islands just don’t cut if for you any more, consider going even further south to the islands of the Azores, for a more up close and personal, less tourist driven flavour of what those islands once were. Beautiful, remote and bathed in more or less year round sunshine, the Azores attracts a small, select handful of sailings each year. It’s not by any means a big market but, if the object is to avoid the crowds, then this is pretty much a perfect choice.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

The Amazon is also an amazing, unforgettable foray. Sailing nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus is a fantastic experience; the city emerges from it’s jungle cover like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route you’ll see amazing beaches, samba displays, and streams of black and white water literally flowing side by side.

You’ll also see bugs and insects of every size, shape and colour imaginable, as well as gimlet eyed caimans. And where else could you go fishing for piranha if you’re so inclined?

Something not so steamy and in your face? Consider an expedition cruise to the remote, pristine fastness of Antarctica, an austral winter wonderland where the sun never sets at all during the main season, from November through February each year.

See vast ice floes, tinted rose pink by the glow of the endless sun, as flocks of cawing penguins skitter across them. You might see giant whales breaching the surface, leaving plumes of icy spray against a backdrop of cold, clear blue sky. There are giant, jagged icebergs as large as cathedrals, parading past you in slow motion like so many ghostly galleons. For something completely different, this is as good as it gets.

Bermuda is a famous beauty

Bermuda is a famous beauty

And, if you want some seductive, sunny island life without the crowds, traffic and beach hawkers, you could do a lot worse than consider a summertime cruise to Bermuda. Most of the voyages run between April and October, and typically sail from both Boston and New York. The short distance- just 700 miles sailing in either direction- allows ships to spend a minimum of three days/two nights docked at his beautiful island.

Bermuda is clean, safe, uncrowded, and features some of the most singular and stunning beaches anywhere in the world, a string of blush pink beauties drummed by surging Atlantic rollers. It’s perfect for families, too, as well as honeymooners. It really is a little floating piece of paradise.

So, there you go. These are just a handful of ideas that will hopefully whet the appetite at the very least. Wherever you go out there- enjoy.

GOING FORWARD- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY IN 2014

The Aegean Odyssey

The Aegean Odyssey

There’s a reassuring mix of the familiar and the fascinating in the newly announced Voyages to Antiquity programme for 2014, aboard the line’s small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey.

Familiar in the sense that all the creature comforts that have made the ship such an outstanding and appealing travel option are still there; things such as all shore excursions included, as well as beer and wine at dinner, plus a series of intriguing pre and post hotel stays in landmark cities such as Istanbul and Athens.

The new? That comes in the shape of new ports of call at Bodrum, and gorgeous Greek gems such as Syros and Kos. Owing to demand, the company is stepping up the number of its popular Black Sea itineraries to four in the 2014 season. One of these will also encompass the best of the Greek islands at the same time.

All told, the Aegean Odyssey will offer something like seventeen cruises from March through November, beginning with a sweeping, twenty eight day progress from Athens through to Istanbul, by way of the history and highlights of ancient Egypt. This should provide one of the most comprehensive exposes of both the Greek and Roman empires ever offered on such an inclusive basis.

These tie in with a pair of diverse itineraries that will put the focus firmly on both Athens and Istanbul. Like many options in the itinerary, these can be combined to make one outstanding long voyage.

Voyages to Antiquity is also offering some very attractive, low priced single supplements for the season. All cruises will feature the line’s usual high standard of in depth, on board lectures with experts in the fields of the history of the visited region. Coupled with the largely inclusive nature of the experience, and the sheer quality of the on board product, these cruises represent an outstanding return on the cost.

The entire Voyages to Antiquity operation is the brainchild of Gerry Herrod, fondly remembered in the cruise and leisure industry as the creator of both Ocean Cruise Lines and the legendary Orient Lines.

Aegean Odyssey is a low key, extremely comfortable ship, more than a bit akin to a floating country club. With a smart casual dress code and open seating dining either indoors or outside, she can access a great many smaller, more intriguing ports that bigger ships cannot enter. With a capacity of just 330 passengers, this is intimate, informed cruising for people more interested in feeding their minds than partying until daybreak.