A NORWEGIAN ‘WHERE ARE THEY NOW’- SHIPS YOU LOVED AND THOUGHT YOU’D LOST (Updated)

Louis Aura is still instantly recognisable as the old Starward

Louis Aura is still instantly recognisable as the old Starward

In the legion of seemingly lost and vanished ships, few companies can equal the turnover of Norwegian Cruise Line. And yet, again, you would be surprised how many of their smaller, mid sized ships still survive to this day, and exactly what they are up to now.

So, here we go; a Norwegian edition of ‘where are they now’. If an old particular favourite isn’t listed, then apologies in advance, but the likelihood is that the ship in question has been scrapped. Sorry.

When Knut Kloster started his barnstorming, revolutionary Caribbean cruise line in 1968, it was known simply as Norwegian Caribbean Line, or NCL. Kloster fired the starting gun with a quartet of white hulled, racy little dream boats that were space age at the time. And, incredibly, some of these are still doing the rounds today.

His funky little Sunward II actually began life sailing for Cunard, as the Cunard Adventurer. Bought by Norwegian in 1977, the Sunward II spent many years on the short, three and four day cruise runs from Miami to Nassau, and the company’s private island of Great Stirrup Cay.

She’s still in service with Louis Cruises, as the Coral, but will be renamed as Louis Rhea next year for a full programme of Mediterranean cruises. Externally, she’s almost as she was in her Norwegian days.

Louis Cristal is the former Leeward

Louis Cristal is the former Leeward

Several of her fleet mates have made the trek over to Louis Cruises, to such an extent that the Louis fleet is almost an NCL Part Two. The Starward, built in 1968, is still sailing as the Orient Queen. Shortly due to be renamed Louis Aura, the veteran ship is off to Brazil over the winter to operate a series of three to seven night cruises for a local tour operator.

Louis also has the Louis Cristal, at one time the Leeward. She was the successor to the Sunward II on the short cruises from Miami and now, by a supreme irony, she is part of the same fleet. This winter, she is off to operate a series of ground breaking Caribbean cruises from Havana, in Cuba, under charter to a Canadian tour operator.

Last for now in the Louis beauty pageant is the Thomson Majesty, chartered by the UK based Thomson Cruises, but still owned by Louis. The ship, fondly remembered by many as the Norwegian Majesty, sailed for many years on the Boston to Bermuda run, and she also offered winter cruises out of Charleston. Like her fleet mates, she is essentially unchanged from her Norwegian days.

The other great beneficiary of old Norwegian Cruise Line tonnage has been parent company, Star Cruises. Back in the early nineties, Norwegian built a pair of more or less identical sisters, the Dreamward and the Windward (they were nicknamed ‘Forward’ and ‘Backward’ by industry wags). Later, after being lengthened, these two ships were restyled as Norwegian Dream and Norwegian Wind, respectively.

Thomson Majesty still betrays her Norwegian Cruise Line interiors

Thomson Majesty still betrays her Norwegian Cruise Line interiors

Norwegian Wind was transferred to Star Cruises and renamed Superstar Aquarius. Slated to go to Louis, Norwegian Dream was declined, and spent five years in warm lay up, before finally re-entering service for Star Cruises this year as the Superstar Gemini.

Another Norwegian stalwart found her way to an unlikely new life with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. Their feisty little Braemar actually spent a long period as the Norwegian Dynasty, a ship that sailed summer itineraries in Alaska, and winter Caribbean cruises.

And the current flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet is yet another ex-Norwegian stalwart. Although originally built in 1988 for Royal Cruise Line as the stunning Crown Odyssey, Balmoral spent two full decades as part of the extended Norwegian ‘family’, including two spells with the now defunct Orient Lines. Stretched during the course of her 2008 conversion, many of her interiors are still instantly recognisable from her early days.

So, there you go. And if some of your fondly remembered favourites are in this list, now you know where they are. And if you’re hankering to renew old acquaintances, now you have what amounts to an absolutely perfect excuse. Have fun, and happy sailing.

OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS- COMING UP IN THE CRUISE WORLD

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Quite a few things worth noting here, actually, as we begin the long, slow slide into winter. A possible new build. maybe a new cruise line, a big refurb, and some big shifts in deployment are all here in the mix;

AIN’T NO SUNSHINE

After an initially troubled start up following her unprecedented, bow to stern refit, Carnival Sunshine (the former Carnival Destiny) will leave Barcelona on November 1st for a sixteen night transatlantic crossing to New Orleans. With her goes the last deployment of any of the ‘Fun Ships’ in any European cruising region until at least 2015.

Carnival Sunshine will operate seven night Western Caribbean itineraries from New Orleans through April 2014, when she comes around to Port Canaveral to offer six and eight night round trip Eastern Caribbean itineraries.

SERVING UP INDIAN…..

Word is circulating about the likely start up of a new, Indian based cruise line, aimed at tapping the potentially huge local domestic market. Royal Asian Cruise Lines is said to have already bought the laid up Gemini, last used as an accommodation ship at the 2012 London Olympics. The line is also said to be in the market for up to four more, second hand ships of a similar size and vintage.

Final financing arrangements were due to take place in Barcelona this month. The cruise line will initially operate in the Indian Ocean, including the waters around Sri Lanka.

SEABOURN’S FAB FOUR?

Ultra luxury Seabourn Cruise Line is said to be on the cusp of ordering a fourth vessel in the highly successful, 32,000 ton Sojourn class. If so, it will give the line a consistency across the fleet, and a potential depth of world wide deployment that is going to be hard to match. Meanwhile, first of the initial trio, Seabourn Pride, will leave the fleet to join new owners, Windstar, in April next year, with the other two smaller sisters completing the transition in 2015.

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

LOUIS SWINGS SOUTH

With the season for short Aegean and Greek Islands cruises coming rapidly to a close (the last few sailings are in early November)  Louis Cruises is sending two of its ships across the Atlantic on full winter charters.

Louis Aura, currently sailing as the Orient Queen, will be heading for Brazil, to operate a series of itineraries varying in range from between three to seven nights, concentrating mainly on the north east coast of Brazil.

Louis Cristal (familiar to many as Norwegian Cruise Lines’ former Leeward) is off to begin a series of pioneering, seven night fly cruises from Havana, Cuba to the Caribbean. The Louis Cristal is under charter to a Canadian tour operator. Embarkation is also going to be possible for these cruises in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

NOW, VOYAGER

Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Voyager will enter dry dock in Marseille on October 14th  for an eight day refit that will see full refurbishment of the Horizon and Observation lounges with new carpetings, furnishings, and a new bar in each. All penthouse suites will also get a comprehensive makeover.

In addition, all balconies will receive new teak decking, and outdoor relaxation areas will be enhanced with new deck furniture. The Constellation theatre and the atrium will be refurbished with new soft fittings, and marble enhancements.

Carpeting throughout the 708 guest all balcony, all inclusive Voyager will be replaced, and new art works added right throughout the ship.

Seven Seas Voyager is due to resume service on October 23rd, with a ten night sailing from Rome to Venice.

I’ll be on board for that, so expect a more comprehensive appraisal soon after. Stay tuned.

WINTER BRAZIL SEASON- WHO’S SAILING THERE THIS YEAR?

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Now that autumn’s cold, clammy fingers are tickling our collective windpipe, many of us start to succumb to an almost pathetic sense of yearning for clear skies, sparkling seas and yes, good, warm sunshine. If the Marie Celeste had only been able to drift like our collective thoughts, then she would never have been becalmed in mid ocean…..

Assuming you’re ready to take the plunge (pun wholly intentional) then; where to? If the Caribbean seems overcrowded, or the Canaries too ‘same old’, then options look as if they are beginning to stretch thinner than the credibility of Donald Trump’s wig. The Far East too far out? The winter Mediterranean not warm enough? Dubai just ‘duh’?

So- how about Brazil in particular and, indeed, South America in general?

OK. Halt. Who goes there? Well, you might be surprised at just how many options you actually have, my friends…

Late each autumn, a conga line of cruise ships flee the leaden European winter and flock like so many exotic birds of passage to the warmer, far friendlier waters of South America. Every kind of ship and line, from budget to mass market, to deluxe, all inclusive icons of the cruise trade. And they do it for very good reasons.

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal...

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal…

For starters, there’s that sultry, samba fuelled fire cracker otherwise known as Rio De Janeiro. But Brazil is far more than just Rio. There are stunning beach resorts like Ilhabela, Paraty and cool, swaggering Recife. Argentina rolls out the red carpet in sultry, full blooded Buenos Aires, the tango capital of the world. An overnight stay here on most cruises is almost mandatory. Quite right, too.

Uruguay is often overlooked and forgotten in the South American beauty pageant, and yet Montevideo is one of the most stately, graceful monuments to sheer indolence and tropical cafe life that you’ll find anywhere south of the equator. In short, there are no shortage of places, parties and sheer pleasurable experiences to be had down under the balmy tropical Latin skies.

You just have to decide what ship and style is right for you.

Louis Cruise is operating the Louis Aura (ex-Orient Queen) in those waters over the winter. She’s small, intimate and unassuming, but well fed and chock full of charm and fun. Cruise lengths are everything from three days to a week. The ship is an absolutely great budget choice for the region.

Latin flavours are on offer from both Iberocruises and Pullmantur, The two Spanish operators both have a ship or two ‘down Rio way’ during the winter, offering predominantly seven day cruises. Of the two, Pullmantur has the advantage of being all inclusive, and generally offers bigger ships. Both products are great value for the fares charged.

MSC know how to get the samba started

MSC know how to get the samba started

Staying in that Latin groove, both Costa and rival MSC have big, amenity laden megaships aplenty down here for the season; a hangover from the days when Italian liners routinely made line voyages from Italy down to South America. The big draw with both lines is the vast number of available balcony cabins that they offer.  These are probably the best party boats in the region if you’re looking for some serious hedonism, but the lines to get off and on them at some ports might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Good prices, though, and again, itineraries are typically six and seven days, with a few shorter cruises in between.

Touch more international? Royal Caribbean usually has a pair of its gorgeous Vision class ships down here, with their updated eating areas and vast swathes of floor to ceiling glass windows. They, too, will offer six and seven night round trips- typically from Santos, the port for Sao Paolo- but they will also fold some shorter, three and four night jaunts into the mix as well. And, don’t forget that Royal Caribbean now offer a handful of single cabins on many of their ships as well.

Want luxury? Fine. Sassy Crystal, sophisticated, European accented Silversea and classy, all inclusive Regent Seven Seas all offer winter holidays on wonderful, expansively opulent ships, where tailored service, gourmet food and a classically styled cruise experience are all in the mix. Longer itineraries- typically in excess of ten days- allow for a far more immersive experience, but at a price.

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Most of these lines will offer you packages including airfare, hotels and transfers, but what if you want to book your own flights? Well, here’s a few ideas….

British Airways offers a string of flights from all over the UK through Heathrow, and many of these are often on a code share with it’s Spanish partner, Iberia, over Madrid.

Air France/KLM also offers good regional connections to both Brazil and Argentina over it’s main hubs at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport and Amsterdam Schipol.

You could also do worse than to take TAP Air Portugal. They fly from their main hubs in Lisbon and Porto, with connections from the UK available from Gatwick, Heathrow, and also a limited number from Manchester in the winter months.

So-food for thought? Throw off your winter woolies, put on your dancing shoes, slap on the factor thirty sun screen (lots of it) and- get out there!

BRAZILIAN CRUISES ON THE LOUIS AURA, WINTER 2013-14 (Updated)

Louis Aura will sail from Brazil throughout the winter of 2013-14

Louis Aura will sail from Brazil throughout the winter of 2013-14

Brazilian company, CVC, has released a series of winter itineraries for the specially chartered Louis Aura, currently sailing in the Greek Islands as the Orient Queen on a three and four night schedule from Piraeus. The deployment to Brazil is the first for Louis, although the ship herself did a season under charter in these waters a few years ago.

The 16,000 ton ship-fondly remembered by many as the pioneering Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line- will offer some sixty-three cruise options, commencing with a two night itinerary on November 28th 2103, and concluding with a final sailing on March 26th, 2014.

Itineraries will run from two to seven days in length, and concentrate mainly on the northern region of Brazil. Departures from Recife and Cabedelo feature ports of call such as Fortaleza, Natal, and the stunningly beautiful group of islands of Fernando de Noronha.

There is no attempt to compete with the series of hectic, seven days sailings usually undertaken by the mega ships. Also, by eschewing the ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Buzios and Rio De Janeiro, the charter company is offering a very different kind of experience to that served up on the mainstream ships.

A key factor here is the small size of the ship, which allows her to access smaller, more off the beaten track itineraries not open to the competition. Another is her maximum capacity of around eight hundred passengers, which should facilitate quicker embarkation and debarkation.

Louis Aura has one main dining room and an alfresco buffet that also has an indoor area, there are five bars, a two level casino, and two outdoor pools. One of these is partially shaded from the elements. None of the cabins have balconies, but even the smallest insides have private facilities. Pack lightly; the dress code is smart casual, and exactly right for these tropical waters.

There is a large show lounge at the forward end of the main deck. Most public rooms run along the length of deck number five, with the Mermaid Restaurant at the stern. This room has a wall of floor to ceiling glass windows that overlooks the ship’s wake.

The Mermaid Restaurant

The Mermaid Restaurant

Louis Aura also has a library, internet centre and small shopping area, as well as an upper deck, Balinese themed spa.

CVC celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2012, and is well known as one of Brazil’s biggest tour providers.

No details of the transatlantic crossings have yet surfaced. It is not yet clear whether Louis Cruises will sell these voyages.

From mainland Europe, TAP Air Portugal operates services to Recife from it’s main hub at Lisbon’s Portela International Airport. The city is also served by a number of mainstream US carriers.

With very grateful thanks to Daniel Capella for his help in linking in to the CVC itineraries.

12/12: Daniel Capella has kindly informed me that these cruises are now being operated by the smaller Orient Queen II, better known to many as the former Spanish cruise ship, Vistamar.

THE HINDENBURG: FLYING HIGH BEFORE THE FALL ON THE ‘RITZ OF THE SKIES’

ImageThe thunderous, climactic fireball that marked the death of the Hindenburg, seen here, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If ever there was a real life bonfire of the vanities, it was surely the death of the Hindenburg. Her blazing, charred hulk was the funeral pyre of the entire airship industry. And yet, it could all have been so very different.

By the time of her immolation, the Hindenburg was into her second year of service. Indeed, her comings and goings in America had become so routine by May, 1937 that they attracted scant media attention. For fifteen months, the great, silver grey dream ship had ghosted passengers across the Atlantic between Germany and America, as well as making headlining flights down to South America.

Hindenburg, or LZ-129 to use her official designation, was an enormous craft; almost as long as the Titanic. With her public rooms and cabins arranged in the great silver belly of the beast, she brought comfortable, stylish air travel to the Atlantic run for the first time. Some would also say it was the last, too.

There was a hermetically sealed smoking room, and two promenades with views down over the scenery below that were lined with ocean liner style deck chairs. There was a small lounge with a grand piano, and an excellent restaurant, staffed by former waiters from the Hamburg-Amerika line. It came complete with crockery that was specially commissioned for the giant airship.

Twenty-four small, Pullman type cabins were functional, with beds one above the other. Incredibly, there was even a shower available. For her passengers at least, the Hindenburg was intended to be a joyride on more than one level.

The Germans had to fill her with hydrogen, after the American government refused to allow the export of helium to Germany, supposedly on the personal orders of President Roosevelt. Helium was much safer, although five times more expensive than hydrogen.

But helium also had military uses, and Roosevelt- way ahead of the curve when it came to recognising the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazis- was not about to invite charges of fuelling both the Hindenburg and the German war machine. So the great, graceful giant kept using the hydrogen that was available. And, of course, that ultimately would lead to her destruction.

In her first season in 1936, the Hindenburg was a stunning success; so much so that she was often wait listed for cabins in both directions. She could make the flight from Germany to America in two days- a speed which made her more than twice as fast as the record breaking transatlantic liners, Normandie and Queen Mary.

The airship would usually maintain an altitude of around six hundred feet, and was known for being remarkably steady in the air. In fact, she proved so popular in service that another set of cabins were shoe horned into the hull during her refit over the winter of 1936-7.

It became normal for the Hindenburg to descend low enough to show her passengers drifting Atlantic icebergs. Approaching her berth, the Hindenburg would fly along the length of Broadway, before eventually coming to alight at her Lakehurst, New Jersey tower.

All things considered, it was the ultimate way to fly. So successful was the Hindenburg that a sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction in Germany by this time.

The premature, controversial final demise of this great sky goddess- the airborne equivalent of the Ritz- put paid to the notion of airship travel. Had it happened at any other time than in the hysteria fuelled run up to the Second World War, it might not have been a fatal blow. But in the war of words and ideas between competing world views, the loss of the Hindenburg became a political statement on both sides.

It was, without question, an apocalyptic end to an incredible vision. The Hindenburg was, in the end, as much a victim of Nazi megalomania as she was of freak weather conditions on that fatal night.

AMAZING AMAZON ADVENTURES…..

The unique 'wedding of the waters' at Tapajo, Brazil

The unique ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, Brazil

The Amazon. A staggering, serpentine waterway that snakes for thousands of miles from the Atlantic, right up into the hinterlands of South America. It’s unlike any conventional cruise you’ll ever make, and that accounts for a huge part of its appeal.

You can sail more than nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus, a jungle shrouded, rustic gem of a city that looks like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route, you’ll encounter sights, sounds and scents that will sear themselves into your memory forever.

Vast tracts of rich, dense foliage that tumble down to the banks of the muddy river. Canoes attempting to keep pace with your ship as she glides silently upstream. Cows and oxen grazing near the banks of the river, while gimlet eyed Caimans watch from the water for a first, slight slip. Thatched houses on rickety stilts that seem to cling to the riverbank for comfort.

You’ll be surprised by beautiful, pristine beaches far upstream at Alter do Chao, and maybe experience some vibrant, frenetic displays of samba at one of the local displays in Parintins. You’ll certainly be blown away by the unique, unreal ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, where currents of brown and white water flow literally right alongside each other. You might even catch sight of some of the local pink dolphins that frolic in these same waters.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

And there are always lots of options on offer in this spectacular natural wonderland. You could go on a night hunt for Caimans with a torch, or take up piranha fishing from a small tourist boat. And anyone fascinated by insects will find literally thousands of diverse, brightly coloured bugs competing for their attention. The air is alive with the screeching of brilliantly hued and plumed parrots, as well as thousands of other colourful, chattering birds.

There are incredible, lush tracts of fauna and flowers, and enormous floating lily pads that look big enough to crash land a helicopter on.Vast swathes of gnarled, twisted tree stumps and roots form a myriad of  dank, impenetrable mangroves that suddenly give way to patches of pristine, cultivated farmland. The heat and the humidity can be overpowering at times.

But nothing prepares you for Manaus.

The capital of Amazonia was established by Jesuit priests, and later greatly expanded thanks to Henry Ford, and his use of the rubber plantations here. Ferries chug up to the beach here and literally run aground on the sand under the promenade wall. A glut of goods- everything from printers to live pigs- is carried ashore here.

The locals

The locals

There’s an adjacent walk that takes you right past the heart of this teeming, jungle shrouded juggernaut of a city. For an elegant contrast, check out the elegant Teatro Amazonas Opera House, with its stucco facade. It looks as if it has been lifted intact from a Parisian boulevard. Topped by a graceful cupola draped in the Brazilian national colours, it is the focal point of the entire city.

Yes, the Amazon is a different kind of adventure. It’s thrilling, spellbinding, and more than a little bit raw in places. But it is totally distinctive as cruise destinations go, and it is never, ever boring.