SOME CRUISE NEWS AND VIEWS FROM THE WEEK

One way and another, it has been quite an eventful few days in the cruise industry. And at least two of the biggest stories originate, or at least impact, on the potentially burgeoning cruise trade in and around Cuba,

Yesterday, MSC Cruises announced that they would homeport the soon to be massively refurbished MSC Opera in Havana from December 22nd, for a series of sixteen, seven night Caribbean cruises that will feature a two night stay in Havana itself as a centre point.

The arrival of MSC Opera marks the first, serious deployment of a very large cruise ship on the Cuban market. Though initially not for sale in America, the cruises go on sale to Europeans as of July 9th. For French and German passengers, these can be complete fly cruise packages. For the UK passengers, they are sold on a cruise only basis.

In related news, the Celestyal Crystal requires repairs after colliding with a tanker while on one of her scheduled, seven day summer cruises from Greece. Mercifully, there were no fatalities or injuries to the people on either ship, but the 24,000 ton Crystal will require complete repairs before putting to sea again.

Whether this will impact the ship’s upcoming, third winter charter to Canada based operator, Cuba Cruise, is too early to say. But, potentially, Celestyal could substitute the similar sized Celestyal Odyssey for the damaged ship if need be.

And on a much happier, note, today the Cunard flagship, Queen Mary 2, embarks passengers in Liverpool for the official celebration of the company’s 175th anniversary. The great liner wills ail westbound for Halifax, Boston, and New York on what is sure to be a remarkable and evocative odyssey.

It was in July 840 that the Halifax born businessman, Samuel Cunard, inaugurated the first reliable, year round transatlantic steamship service, when the diminutive paddle steamer, Britannia, set sail from Liverpool for the port of Boston. In subsequent years, the service centered mainly on New York, but the Boston connection was never completely severed.

The Cunard Line became the first of the great transatlantic steamship companies and today, 175 years later, it remains the last. In that time, it has survived two global conflicts, several world wide recessions, and a near deadly duel with jet airliners for the transatlantic trade. And, though the storied line today concentrates mainly on cruising, the splendid Queen Mary 2 maintains the timeless transatlantic crossing in a style that those first, furtive passengers aboard Britannia could only have dreamed of.

I wish the ship, and those fortunate enough to be sailing aboard her today, a very heartfelt ‘bon voyage’….

QM2 is westbound for Canada and America today on the company's historic 175th anniversary crossing

QM2 is westbound for Canada and America today on the company’s historic 175th anniversary crossing

SWANS AGEING GRACEFULLY; ORIANA AND CRYSTAL SYMPHONY AT 20

I had to double check myself today when I came to the sudden realisation that two of the finest ships afloat turn twenty years of age this year, namely P&O’s stately dowager, Oriana, and the truly sumptuous Crystal Symphony, of Crystal Cruises.

Though designed and executed for two totally different markets, both of these beautiful vessels actually have some strikingly common characteristics.

For a start, the interiors of each were the concept of the Swedish based firm, Tillberg Design. Both ships boast beautiful, flared bows and a series of elegant, stepped terraces at the stern. Each is crowned by a single, graceful funnel amidships, looming above a central, open pool complex on the lido deck area.

However, they are the product of two different yards. Crystal Symphony emerged from what was then the MASA shipyards in Turku, Finland, while the Oriana was delivered from German shipbuilders in Papenburg.

While Oriana is the bigger of the two at some 69,000 tons against 50,000 for Crystal Symphony, the former has a large number of inner and outer cabins without balconies, whereas the Crystal ship features no inside cabins at all, and a vast number of balconied cabins and penthouses. Her passenger capacity is also considerably smaller- around 1000 as against 1900 for Oriana.

That said, Crystal Symphony was designed for the deluxe market from the start, while Oriana- the first P&O cruise ship to be named by the Queen, some twenty years in advance of new fleet mate, Britannia- is very much a mainstream resort ship, albeit a very beautiful one. The requirements of two such diverse markets resulted in two very different kinds of cruise experiences.

That said, both ships have aged quite beautifully, and sympathetic updating in the case of both has made them among the most compelling classic cruise experiences afloat today. Oriana took on board many of the most popular features of her earlier sibling, the beloved Canberra. Crystal Symphony has been sympathetically updated over two decades to enhance her extensive spread of on board facilities, without selling short on her original sense of style and panache.

Each ship has retained a great sense of cool, classy poise, though the jury is still out on whether the ‘new’ P&O colours suit the distinguished Oriana as much as the old ones did. Few people resent change as much as traditionalists, and P&O has sold just that for decades.

New to Oriana, and very welcome too, is a small block of single cabins. And, to complement her stylish, mellow vibe, the ship is now sold as an adults- only vessel.

The take over of Crystal Cruises by Genting has left more than one Crystal veteran gazing uneasily at the future over the rim of their pre dinner martinis. Could more change be in the offing? Time alone will tell.

But meanwhile, it is definitely worth celebrating this beautiful brace of ‘ladies of the sea’ as they celebrate their 20th anniversaries. Each is a landmark vessel in her own way; stylish and chic in execution, comfortable and familiar to legions of passengers that have come to know and love them both over the decades.

Smooth sailing and fair seas to both!

SPOILT FOR CHOICE; UK MINI CRUISES IN 2015

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

For those looking to dip a first time toe into cruising’s alluring world, one of the best and most economical options is the mini cruise. With options ranging from between two to five days, these are a good deal both in terms of time and cash outlay. You can break the assumed preconceptions without breaking the bank.

And, no matter what type of ship and short break you might be into, 2015 serves up more options and styles of seagoing fun and fascination than ever before. From the seriously intimate to the stunningly spectacular, there’s a seagoing smorgasbord on offer in 2015 that has never been equalled before.

First up, Royal Caribbean International has the spectacular, ground breaking new Anthem Of The Seas doing some short, three night summer cruises to ports such as Le Havre and Zeebrugge. if you’re into technologically advanced ships laden with a wealth of fascinating gimmicks, this ship is an excellent, if rather expensive option.

Want smaller, more intimate ships that can access the spots that the big ships find difficult to access? Consider Cruise and Maritime, which is offering a series of two to five night options on the veteran Marco Polo, a classically styled, adults only ocean liner. Built in 1965, this unique ship- very much a one off- is celebrating her fiftieth anniversary this year.

Larger and more contemporary, but still human in scale, the line has a new flagship in the shape of the Magellan. The 46,052 ton ship also offers a series of short cruises and, with her large number of single cabins, she is an excellent buy for the solo traveller.

In similar vein, the highly styled quartet of ships belonging to Fred. Olsen Cruise Line remain perennially popular favourites on the short break market. With excellent food and service, plus some enticing overnight stays, these lovely ships have a style and atmosphere that is truly all their own.

Go bigger? No worries. P&O Cruises has long been one of the most established names in the cruising firmament. This year, the new Britannia– the largest ship ever built solely for the UK cruise market- joins her recently restyled fleet mates to offer a string of exhilarating short jaunts out of Southampton, varying in length from two to five days, throughout most of the year. Some of the pre Christmas sailings in particular make for fantastic shopping opportunities on the continent.

Of course, Cunard remains the very epitome of the great ocean going experience. The line celebrates an unparalleled 175 years of success this year, and you can be part of it on a mini cruise of between two and five nights on any one of their trio of opulent, expansive vessels.

And, if you are not too worried about flying one way, the magnificent Queen Mary 2 offers several opportunities throughout the year to sail between Southampton and Hamburg, or reverse, on a two night voyage that allows you to get an incisive little glimpse into this most storied of ocean liner experiences.

All of these voyages are short on time, but they do provide an experience somewhat akin to a film trailer for a major feature. And, because all of these lines want you to see them at their best, they will often push the boat out-pun wholly intentional- to offer up the best in food, service and, of course, entertainment. All are crucially aware that today’s two night neophyte passenger is next year’s potential two week voyager.

So-different stokes for different folks. And you can always tailor your break to suit your moods. I know many people who simply never leave the ships at all, staying on board to soak up all the luxury on board for the duration. Others treat them as extended, exotic spa breaks and spend the weekend in a bathrobe. Others consider sleep as an optional extra, and simply want to party from A to Z. And, of course, still others use them as an excuse for an indulgent shopping and sightseeing break.

Whatever your pleasure, there is more than enough on the menu on one of these enticing, exhilarating little breaks to leave you wanting more. Have fun,

FOUR NEW ORDERS FOR FINCANTIERI?

MSC look set to confirm yet another two ship order from Fincantieri

MSC look set to confirm yet another two ship order from Fincantieri

I mentioned in a previous blog that MSC Cruises were very strongly rumoured to be about to announce a second pair of new builds, in addition to the pair of new mega ships just ordered from the French shipyard, STX. It now looks like that announcement could be imminent.

The two new Italian builds are bruited to be of around 152,000 tons, with a length of some 310 metres each, and a projected total cost of some 1.4 billion euros. The first ship could be slated for delivery as early as 2017.

And- as previously alluded- the same yard is also expected to announce confirmation of yet another order, this time for a brace of sister ships for Oceania Cruises. Unlike the new MSC designs, these two vessels are reported to be another pair of sisters for that company’s first two, highly popular new builds, Marina and Riviera.

The Italian yard has been fantastically busy, and indeed it still is. As well as the above projected announcements, Fincantieri is also cutting the steel, ready for all four of the Lirica class lengthenings. Beginning at the end of the autumn, each ship will be cut in half, then have a new mid section inserted.

The yard is also in the process of putting the finishing touches to the rival Costa Cruises new flagship, the Costa Diadema, which is due to debut this coming November, and is also building the fourth, expanded Odyssey class ship for Seabourn, as well as the new Seven Seas Explorer for Regent Seven Seas, the first new ship for that line in more than a decade.

The yard has literally just delivered the second of class Regal Princess, and is working now on outfitting the Britannia for P&O Cruises, a vessel built to the same design. In addition, the yard is also building the 47,000 ton cruise ship, Viking Star, for Viking Cruises, and also two similar sized sister ships which have recently been confirmed.

This construction programme amounts to a quite astonishing coup for the Fincantieri yard. While the likes of Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean continue to favour the Meyer Werft yard at Papenburg for their new builds, and the once dominant shipyards of Finland seem to be floundering, it is the Italian yard that is picking up orders for a whole raft of diverse new cruise ship designs, ranging from the mass market to the ultra luxury products.

With an enviable record for delivering superb quality vessels, on time and within budgets, the dominance of Fincantieri as the world’s pre eminent builder of cruise ships seems assured, at least for the next few years.

As always, stay tuned.

RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

INTRODUCING BRITANNIA, AND A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM

Southampton's legendary Bargate

Southampton’s legendary Bargate

It was the announcement that surprised almost no one in the end, but it still managed to excite a vast flotilla of cruise fans. Royal Caribbean International will homeport Anthem of the Seas, the second of it’s new Project Sunshine series, in Southampton from 2015.

The arrival of this fabulous ship sets up an interesting potential duel with the rival P&O Cruises, with the 2015 advent of that company’s own Britannia, a very slightly smaller vessel. Built on the same platform as Royal Princess, she will be the largest purpose built ship ever introduced to the UK cruise market.

Anthem of the Seas will replace the longstanding UK stalwart, Independence of the Seas, after near on five years of sailing from the Hampshire port. Britannia, by contrast, merely augments the already formidable P&O line up currently homeported there.

With her new facilities such as the already hotly anticipated North Star capsule, her dodgem cars and virtual balcony cabins, Anthem continues the Royal Caribbean trend for incorporating dazzling, state of the art new amenities into each successive class of newbuild. By contrast, Britannia will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; a continuation of a popular, easily embraced product and palette enshrined on all of her fleetmates still in service. While the Anthem will scream about her superlative new style and facilities, Britannia will not be screaming at all, thank you very much.

Is there room for both? Well, both lines will be naturally bullish about their new builds, and Royal Caribbean are also retaining the popular Adventure of the Seas on the Southampton roster as well. But in a revealing little insight not so long ago, Norwegian head honcho, Kevin Sheehan, said categorically that the company thought it impractical to dedicate a ship to a permanent UK homeport in the near future.

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

Now, whether this is a totally financial decision, or whether it simply reflects the hard fact that Norwegian currently has less tonnage to shuffle around than Royal Caribbean, I honestly do not know. But I do know that, once both Anthem of the Seas and Britannia enter service, it is going to give Southampton a year round roster of superships, unseen even at the highlight of the ocean liner era in the late 1950’s.

What is for sure is that there will never be a better time to embark on a big ship, sailing from what is still the premier UK passenger port. The choice is nothing short of monumental, with the Cunard trio on hand to augment their P&O fleet mates, plus seasonal summer deployments from the likes of Princess and MSC. That company is also debuting the mighty MSC Magnifica in Southampton for a few cruises next year. How long before one of these newer, bigger vessels replaces the current, stalwart MSC Opera on a permanent basis?

Fred. Olsen also maintains a presence with Balmoral, practically the only mid sized ship sailing regularly from Southampton. So far as we know, no one else has plans to homeport smaller ships there, save for the already present, graceful swans of P&O.

The next few seasons should be interesting. Will the new ships result in overkill in a market that has still vastly depressed prices? Will Sheehans’ side swerve look like sound business? Remember that Norwegian had a ship based in Dover each summer for twelve seasons, before withdrawing altogether in 2011. And, of course, Southampton has infrastructure challenges- rail, road and hotel accommodation- to address as well.

For sure, it is a time of giants, one unseen in any British port before. Almost all of these mega ships can accommodate half as many passengers again as such Southampton legends as the Queens, the United States, or even the venerable, beloved old Canberra. A unique convocation of cruising hardware, wrapped in different shades of style and substance.

CUNARD AND LIVERPOOL- 175 YEARS OF AFFILATION

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

Liverpool’s attempts to re-establish itself as a premier UK cruise port have received a massive psychological boost, with the news that Cunard will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2015 with a historic meeting of all three current Cunard Queens in the Mersey port on May 26th, 2015- 175 years after the diminutive paddle wheeler, Britannia, inaugurated Cunard service from Liverpool to the New World. Flagship Queen Mary 2 will actually arrive on May 25th, and overnight on Merseyside.

It is sure to be an incredible spectacle, and a massive media event. And, with Cunard having been largely homeported in Southampton for the better part of a century now, it’s perhaps worth remembering just how close the links once were between the first- and last- company offering a regular transatlantic service, and the famous port on the North West coast of England.

At the turn of the 20th century, Liverpool was the pre eminent port of the British Empire, at a time when it covered fully one quarter of the earth’s surface. The Royal Navy and the British Merchant Marine were the largest of their kind in the world. From Liverpool, liners sailed from the famous Landing Stage to quite literally all corners of the globe.

The flagship service to New York was handled by the newest and latest steamers of those two age old rivals, Cunard and White Star. Both companies had their head offices in Liverpool, and their ships came and went with the punctuality of express trains for decades. Famous names such as Campania, Lucania, Oceanic, Celtic and Caronia all began their lives on the Liverpool to New York run. Some continued to sail it right through their long working lives.

The Mersey port basically got used to being top dog, a position that became seemingly unassailable when Cunard inaugurated the 1907 express service with the immortal Lusitania and Mauretania. And, in the last days prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the palatial new Aquitania became the largest and most opulent liner ever to call Liverpool home. She made just three round trips before the conflict erupted.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

But there had been straws in the wind as early as 1907, even as the Lusitania made her record breaking debut. That same year, the White Star Line quietly moved it’s first string service to New York- the so called  ‘Big Four’- out of Liverpool, and down to Southampton, on the channel coast. The burghers of Liverpool were mortified; but White Star knew exactly what it was doing.

For a start, the Hampshire port was unaffected by the fast tides that saw the waters in Liverpool rise and fall a full thirty-three feet, twice a day. It also provided better wharfage and docking facilities than Liverpool. More importantly for White Star, Southampton offered easy, convenient access to channel ports such as Cherbourg, a rapidly growing place of embarkation and disembarkation for Europe bound Americans, while still being convenient for taking on the masses of Irish emigrants that kept the coffers of both major players buoyant.

Last, but not least, strong winds that buffeted the Mersey had the habit of blowing docked ships clean away from their moorings, with potentially dangerous ramifications. Both the Lusitania and the Mauretania suffered just such mishaps and Cunard, not unreasonably, became increasingly alarmed by such events.

It was amazing that Cunard stuck with Liverpool as long as it did; the premier express service continued to sail from there until the outbreak of war. But once the conflict was over, even that company bit the bullet. The surviving Aquitania and Mauretania left the Mersey for Southampton, never to return. The baton of number one passenger terminal had unquestionably passed to the Hampshire port.

But this was not the end of Liverpool as a passenger port; far from it. Second string Cunarders continued to sail from Liverpool to New York, Boston, and numerous Canadian ports. White Star also introduced its new, medium sized Britannic and Georgic into service from Liverpool to America in 1930. And, when Cunard introduced a second Mauretania into service in June of 1939, this stately, mid sized matriach also sailed on the Liverpool to New York run, at least to begin with.

QE2's funnel became a familiar sight on the Mersey

QE2’s funnel became a familiar sight on the Mersey

Even post war, Cunard ran it’s premier passenger service to Canada- the 20,000 ton quartet of Ivernia, Franconia, Saxonia and Carinthia- from Liverpool. This continued sailing right up until 1967, by which time the liner trade- both from Liverpool and Southampton- was pretty much dead in the water in any event. It would take the slow initial growth of cruising to see any sort of revival for both ports.

But Liverpool has always remained a truly mythical port, steeped in memories and maritime lore. And, if anyone needed any proof on that subject, the first, emotional arrival of the Queen Elizabeth 2 in the Mersey in July, 1990, on the 150th anniversary of the maiden crossing by Britannia, definitely put that to rest. More than a million people blackened the banks of the river to see the legendary Cunard icon on that incredible day. Subsequent calls- and I was on board on both her 25th and 40th anniversary cruises- merely reaffirmed the deep, still unbroken bond between Cunard and it’s true, spiritual home.

So the convergence of the current trio of Cunard Queens on the famous Mersey waterfront in 2015 is sure to be a huge, highly charged media event. I am constantly amazed by the way at which even people who normally have no interest with either ships or the sea, can be moved and carried along by just such occasions.

And, with the iconic former Cunard building open for business as a cruise terminal by then, passengers should be able to embark directly aboard the monolithic Queen Mary 2 for her anniversary crossing on July 4th, 2015, an evocative ten day tempter to Halifax, Boston and, ultimately, New York. With this representing the first opportunity to sail direct from Liverpool to New York in half a century, I fully expect it to sell out in a couple of hours once bookings open.

For those lining the Liverpool waterfront, as well as those actually embarked on the Cunard trio on the day itself, this is sure to be one of those great landmark events that stay with you, long after the day itself is history.