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.

MSC CRUISES; CHANGES AND AN ABOUT TURN

In a move intended to neatly side step areas of increasing potential conflict across the globe, MSC Cruises have announced a cessation of all calls to both the Ukraine and Egypt for the balance of the 2015 season.

Instead, the line will arrange a series of calls in destinations such as Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete and Israel. These will be on offer to passengers of the MSC Sinfonia, Opera, Fantasia and Musica, running through at least until the spring of 2016.

In addition, the heavily booked series of Canary Islands cruises operated by the MSC Opera will be extended, and all sailings will now include an overnight stay on Madeira, the only Portuguese island on the mainstream Canaries circuit. Also new next year is a quartet of calls to the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

In addition, the MSC Divina will return to year round Caribbean cruising from Miami once she returns to the Florida port this November. Benefitting from a newly refurbished terminal in the port, the MSC Divina will offer a series of alternating, seven night sailings to the highlights of the Eastern and Western Caribbean, mainly concentrating on the ‘greatest hits’ ports of call such as Grand Cayman, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico.

Interesting times for the ambitious Italian juggernaut. As ever, stay tuned.

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

MSC ARMONIA PLUS; SHIP BEGINS DRY DOCK EXTENSION

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the 'Italy afloat' lifestyle

MSC has become one of the standard bearers of the ‘Italy afloat’ lifestyle

MSC Armonia has entered a Fincantieri dry dock in Palermo, Sicily, for a major ‘chop and stretch’ operation that will create more balcony cabins, as well as a vastly enhanced set of new facilities for children and teens. The ship arrived in Palermo on August 31st, and work was put in hand immediately.

A pre built mid section, some twenty four metres long and containing one hundred and ninety-four new cabins, will be inserted after the operation to cut the 58,000 ton ship in half. MSC Armonia is one of four similarly sized vessels in the MSC fleet. Over the next year or so, the other three ships- MSC Lirica, MSC Sinfonia and MSC Opera- will also undergo similar drastic surgery.

In all, the work is expected to take some seventeen weeks. MSC Armonia is scheduled to leave dry dock on November 17th to make a repositioning voyage for her second season of seven night, winter Canary Islands cruises. Her new passenger capacity will be in the region of 1,960, based on double occupancy.

As well as the vast structural expansion, MSC Armonia will be enhanced by the addition of new children’s and teen clubs, and a lavish new water park. A new lounge will be added, and the lido buffet opening hours extended in order to provide a twenty hour a day food service. The main restaurant will also be expanded to cope with the projected passenger increase of three hundred and ninety two extra people per week. The ship’s MSC Aurea Spa will also be the recipient of significant upgrades.

Originally built in France in 2001 as the European Vision for the now defunct Festival Cruises, the MSC Armonia came over to her current owners in 2004. She was one of the key elements in the initial, dramatic expansion of MSC Cruises, but has in the past few years been overshadowed by huge new builds such as the MSC Magnifica and MSC Divina.

The extension of the ship makes perfect sense, in view of the ongoing pursuit of the multi-cultural family market by MSC Cruises as a whole. The four sisters as a whole have far fewer balcony cabins than their larger siblings, and less in the way of restaurant choices. The Palermo project should provide all four ships with useful, cost effective life extensions, making them more competitive in the future, but at the same time not quite so big as, and more personal than their larger siblings.

The project as whole is fascinating and multi-faceted on many levels, and the refurbished, renewed MSC Armonia should be a formidable competitor on the winter Canaries run.

As ever, stay tuned.

TIMESLIP: THE MAIDEN CROSSING OF THE SS. FRANCE, FEBRUARY 1962

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

When the France was laid down in 1958 as the long term replacement for the ageing Liberte, more than 1.2 million passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. But that same October, the first ever Pan Am jet airliner flew eastwards across the Atlantic in just six hours, and the apple cart was not so much upset, as reduced to matchwood and splinters.

By the time of her launch just two years later, those same jets had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade, and those numbers were climbing as steadily as a Boeing 707 cleared for take off. So by the time that the France was finally ready for her first passengers at the beginning of 1962, a huge amount was riding on her, both figuratively and literally.

The France was the last true Atlantic liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Europe and America, with  no thought whatsoever being given to ever using her as a cruise ship. She was every bit as much of an Atlantic thoroughbred as the Normandie before her and, to the French, she was intended to be every bit as much a national showpiece as that fabled thirties showstopper. Though her actual cost was astronomical- the American press was already referring to her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’- the French invested far more in her in terms of emotional currency.

But this maritime Joan Of Arc (a perhaps unfortunate comparison when considering how many French liners were actually lost to fire) was to turn out to be more of a gilded Canute, fighting valiantly to stem the unstoppable. All the same, she was almost ready by the dawn of 1962 and, prior to her maiden crossing to New York, the French Line decided to send her on a nine day, trial run of a cruise down to the Canary IslandsIt was an idea taken up again by Cunard, when they introduced the brand new QE2 into service in early 1969.

This trial voyage sailed from Le Havre on January 19th, 1962 and, while it was a good exercise in PR, it also served to highlight the numerous potential shortcomings of the France as a cruise ship. It was the equivalent of expecting a premier league centre forward to switch to rugby league, and perform at the same level. These shortcomings- mainly revolving around a lack of outdoor deck space and her glass enclosed swimming pools- would only be permanently addressed during her 1979-80 conversion into the Norway at Bremerhaven.

However, the cruise did serve to demonstrate the excellence of her machinery. The France was the second fastest ocean liner ever built but, with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, any attempt at a tilt for the speed record, held for the past ten years by the SS.United States, was quietly ruled out. The France was expected to excel on an entirely different level.

Finally, at 1400 on the afternoon of February 3rd, 1962, Commandant Georges Croisiele took the flag bedecked France clear of the dock at Le Havre, to begin her maiden crossing to New York. Among the capacity load of 1,958 passengers on board was Madame Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the president. She was making the voyage in her official capacity as the Godmother of the ship. The young actress, Juliette Greco, was also on the roster.

February was hardly a typical time for a gala maiden voyage, and the Atlantic slammed the new liner with a series of savage, forty five foot waves that forced Croisile to reduce speed from thirty knots right down to six at the height of the gale. That said, the only casualties were a slightly dented anchor housing, one broken window in the first class library and, perhaps most distressingly, some eight bottles of premium scotch. The passengers responded with typical panache, by adapting the dance steps to the brand new ‘twist’ craze to suit the weather conditions and, despite this vicious baptism of fire, France and her surviving, happily ample supply of scotch were able to make up the lost time. She duly arrived off Quarantine in New York on schedule on February 8th, 1962.

The welcome was as warm as the day itself was bitterly cold. A quartet of fire boats arced vast, icy plumes of water into the air all around the France as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her berth; this was the exact same pier where her predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank some twenty years minus one day before. The arrival date can hardly have been a coincidence.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

A flotilla of tugs and small pleasure craft rode shotgun around the new ship as she proceeded in state past the Battery. Helicopters buzzed her like random, curious dragonflies, filming the event for posterity. Crowds shivered along the freezing banks of the Hudson and banners snapped in the icy breeze as the soaring flank of the France kissed the edge of Pier 88 for the first time. Despite the adverse conditions encountered on the crossing, the France had, indeed, performed flawlessly.

The subsequent press conference held on board was a curious mixture of euphoria and tempered wisdom. The owners stated that ‘the captain is satisfied with his ship- and the ship is satisfied with her captain.’ They then went on to enshrine her as ‘the last refuge of the good life.’

At the same time, the multi millionaire Charles Cloredisembarking from the France, took occasion to deny to the assembled press that he was planning to buy the Cunard Line.

The press were in general, enchanted and awed by the stunning new ship, but elements of it did reiterate the ‘eighty million dollar gamble’ epithet in their subsequent coverage. They also questioned the fact that the huge beam of the liner made her too large to transit the Panama Canal

That drew a classic, Machiavellian retort from no less than General De Gaulle himself, back in France. He said flatly that ‘the ship is not too big; the problem is that the canal is too small.’ In his grandiosity, Monsieur Le President had also conveniently forgotten (or ignored) the fact that the dimensions of the Panama Canal had actually been decided by another determined Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps.

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.

CHRISTMAS CRUISES- THE PROS AND THE CONS

The most attractive view of winter. Astern of you....

The most attractive view of winter. Astern of you….

On the face of it, there’s a lot to be said for a Christmas cruise, And most of it is even good. It’s the perfect time- and the best possible reason- to exchange leaden skies and stale turkey at home for sunshine, warm breezes, and the wonderful opportunity to let somebody else do the washing and tidying afterwards. Sounds good so far, doesn’t it?

I have to say upfront that most of this piece is for the benefit of people travelling from the UK and Europe, but no doubt many of my American and Canadian friends will recognise some striking similarities here, too. So welcome aboard, one and all, and let’s ponder this thing together.

From Europe, a flight of around four hours delivers you into another world. One stripped of snow, howling winter gales and howling, disappointed kids that didn’t get the sun, the moon and the stars as their rightful due from Santa.  This magical land is called the Canary Islands.

Norwegian Spirit cruises the Canaries from Barcelona and Malaga

Norwegian Spirit cruises the Canaries from Barcelona and Malaga

It’s a world turned on it’s head; a never never land of unfeasible, benevolent sunshine, streets filled with pavement cafes and packed, surf kissed beaches. Bustling harbours studded with yachts bobbing idly on a sparkling, sun lit seascape. And, in the middle of the port, there’s some huge, unmissable white dream of a ship, festooned with a string of languidly waving flags.

Other people might call it a wonderful vision. But for the next week or so, chances are that you’ll be calling it ‘home’.

So off we go. Out on a carousel ride of a Christmas cruise that will, likely as not, take in all the ‘greatest hits’ of the Canaries circuit. Tenerife. Las Palmas. Gran Canaria. Lanzarote and stately, dignified Madeira. One or two might even make for an exotic Moroccan landfall in Agadir, or perhaps Casablanca.

It sounds enticing, and it is. The downside is that you’ll be paying a lot more for that Christmas cruise than you would if you’d taken the same trip in, say, early December, or even early january. Christmas and New Year fares are eagerly ratcheted up by all the cruise lines; it’s kind of like a Christmas present to themselves, I suppose. In any event, you’ll have to be prepared to bite the bullet, and stump up the extra readies. Ouch.

But, once you’re there, it should be smooth sailing from there on in, right? Erm….

Make winter history...

Make winter history…

Actually, the Canary Islands are situated in the Atlantic. So that would almost certainly be a ‘no’ at some stage. Though you can more or less guarantee sunny weather most of the times, the sea can kick up even here every now and again. Be prepared for the ship to indulge in a little pre-dinner rock and roll of her own at times.

That’s a point worth noting. But it’s equally fair to note that you’ll be ashore most days, soaking up the sun at a pavement cafe in Santa Cruz, or sizzling on one of the black, volcanic sand beaches of Lanzarote.  So the amount of time you actually spend out at sea is not excessive; it’s the mutual proximity of these islands to each other that made it such a popular cruising region in the first place.

If you’re really looking for culture or diversity, you might find the Canary Islands a bit dull; the islands are mostly pretty similar, with few outstanding archaeological exclamation marks to stop you in your tracks. That said, Madeira is very different; lush, winding and mountainous, and very Portuguese. It makes for a scintillating contrast to the rest of the Spanish flavour on offer in this part of the world.

But- again- you should never, ever underestimate the sheer psychological boost inherent in just getting away somewhere warm for a week. And nothing pampers you quite like a luxury, mostly inclusive cruise ship that moves the scenery for you each and every evening, and then magically delivers you into somewhere new each day of the trip.

It actually can make winter seem shorter; something that even the most frugal among us would probably be only too happy to gift ourselves, given the chance. And, with a glut of cruise ships fleeing the unstable Middle East towards the warmer, safe cruising zone of the Canaries, there should be no shortage of bargains to be had out there this year.

And anyway- you deserve it. And yes, you are worth it. Have fun.

CRUISING WITH FRED- A GREAT BRITISH TRADITION

See the highlights of the Baltic with Fred. Olsen

See the highlights of the Baltic with Fred. Olsen

There’s no doubt that cruising with Fred has become a great British tradition over the last few decades or so.

That’s Fred Olsen, by the way. Not Fred Elliott. But the amorously rotund, verbose bullhorn of the Weatherfield cobbles would surely have admired the dedication and care which the long established Norwegian company lavishes on its food offerings, right across the board. Fred has always fed his guests exceedingly well.

The company operates a quartet of smaller, distinctive ‘ladies’, most always from and to home ports in the UK. Black Watch and Boudicca are former Royal Viking Line stalwarts that still look and feel like the classy, classic cruise ships they were intended to be. Their distinctive funnels- not at all unlike the original one on Cunard’s QE2- are among the most famous and easily recognisable at sea.

Braemar has been a staple of the company since her debut in late 2001, and was lengthened a few years back to incorporate extra cabins, deck space and public rooms. Even so, at just 24,000 tons, the light, airy little ship is able to nip smartly into many of the more appealing harbours that the bigger competition has to sail past.

Balmoral is the flagship and, at 43,000 tons, by far the biggest ship in the fleet. Fondly remembered by many as the legendary Crown Odyssey, she too was lengthened in 2008. An upper deck pool, several new balcony cabins and a pair of extra, upper deck restaurants helped to enhance the look, feel and styling of a ship that already held iconic status. As the matriarch of the Fred. Olsen fleet, she usually undertakes the company’s annual world cruise each January.

Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

But what is Fred Olsen like as a product?

First and foremost, the line skews resolutely towards it’s older, mainly British passenger base. if late night partying and glitzy, giddy entertainment is your thing, I’d advise you to look elsewhere.

That’s not to deride the usually excellent singers, bands and entertainers that Fred. Olsen serves up for its passengers. Far from it. But the line palpably does not offer the fur and feather boas style of nightlife that some people find irresistible at sea. It’s a different crowd and, like any sensible host, the company plays to the established house that it already has.

Internally, the ships have a distinctly Scottish baronial feel. I’m not talking moose heads and massed bagpipes here, but tartan carpets in places, and wall plaques of historic Scottish castles. It’s accent rather than overkill; the ships of the fleet as a whole are very light, airy, and all of them make a lot of use of floor to ceiling windows to  bathe the interiors in warm sunlight.

But what really makes the ships so popular and compelling is the sheer human scale of each one. That, and the fabulous, mainly Filipino service staff who go absolutely above and beyond when it comes to looking after their guests. A more warm, pleasant and caring group of genuinely kind and lovely souls would be hard to imagine.

Fred. Olsen mini cruises take you to such beautiful cities as Antwerp

Fred. Olsen mini cruises take you to such beautiful cities as Antwerp

And, as intimated earlier, the food is also a real treat. Quality wise, it is absolute top end for the rates charged by the company. There are no extra charge dining rooms, and the main restaurants operate as two sitting affairs for dinner. They are still pretty formal in terms of dress codes, though that has been slightly pared back of late- to howls of outrage from certain quarters of the Old Guard.

Menu choices tend to reflect the British palate, with some engaging continental twists from time to time. Fish is almost always excellent; Fred. Olsen have always emphasised their ongoing commitment to crafting and cherishing a superb on board dining experience. Happily, it continues to remain so.

Drink prices are very reasonable indeed compared to many rival companies, and the line has now gone one further by offering an all inclusive option on several sailings.

Outdoor deck space tends to be expansive for the numbers carried on board, and there are pools and hot tubs aplenty amid the acres of gleaming teak real estate. There are always alfresco dining options for all main meals, and sometimes the line features outdoor parties and events around the pool; mainly on leaving port. Gym facilities tend to be adequate rather than expansive; given the older age of the passengers and the limitations of space imposed by any ship’s parameters, they are actually quite good.

The older English passengers also like their card rooms and libraries; the latter especially are some of the best afloat. And each of the four ships has a comfortable, forward facing observation lounge, with views out over the bow of the approaching horizon.

And even the exotic sweep of the Far East

And even the exotic sweep of the Far East

Fred. Olsen operates everything from three and four day mini cruises right up to a stunning, three month around the globe spectacular. Add in the fact that the line offers sailings from a whole raft of convenient UK departure ports- including Dover, Southampton, Portsmouth, Harwich, Liverpool, Newcastle, Rosyth and Belfast- and you’re sure to find something in the company’s offerings that will whet your particular appetite.

Fred. Olsen is a sturdy, quietly understated product that does this kind of low key, destination intensive style of cruising very well indeed. It delivers exactly what it promises to, and the smaller size of the ships is a definite plus when it comes to getting in and out of smaller ports that you might otherwise never get to see.

What’s new? Well, after an absence of several years, the lovely Braemar is making a short return to Caribbean fly cruising; a role she performed with conspicuous success for over a decade, before rising air fares forced the cancellation of the programme. These cruises are selling very well by all accounts, and could hopefully presage a full time winter return to those popular Caribbean cruising grounds Here again, the smaller size of the ship allows her to get into the smaller, more ‘Bounty bar’ style of islands that most of the floating theme parks have to sail past.

So. Why not give Fred a whirl? You won’t be disappointed. I say, you won’t be disappointed….

HOUSE OF CARDS- SYRIA AND THE POTENTIAL CRUISE INDUSTRY FALLOUT

Norwegian Cruise Line could be affected by any Syrian conflagration

Norwegian Cruise Line could be affected by any Syrian conflagration

The current situation in Syria- seemingly ratcheted up by the minute by posturing from both the west and east- could have massive ripple effects for the entire cruise industry in the eastern Mediterranean, especially over the coming winter months.

A potential stack of slowly falling dominoes is now firmly in place; one that eerily echoes the situation in Europe back in June of 1914, in the months that ran up to the Great War; the most cataclysmic conflict seen on the planet up to that time.

Syria has uneasy neighbours in the shape of both Turkey and Lebanon; the latter in particular knows to its cost that a desperate and deluded Syrian leadership would have no hesitation in extending the conflict through to Beirut, on the eastern edges of the Med. That potentially makes all of the waters through to the Aegean a probable no go zone for cruise ships, never mind the flights required to bring potential passengers in. And that’s assuming passengers could still be coerced into booking; a long shot in and of itself.

Meanwhile, both Iran and Iraq continue to back the horrific Assad regime, and Israel- the crucible of the entire region- remains jittery, tigger happy, and ready to do whatever it takes to defend its own interests, come what may. Any overt action on the part of either of the first two countries would almost certainly trigger a potentially lethal response from the third.

It goes without saying that this would shut down the rump of what is left of an already seriously denuded eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit. With Egypt still a flaring conflagration, the last six lines offering cruises to that country have now unilaterally cancelled all calls there, and for the foreseeable future as well (See my previous blogs for details). Remove the highlights of the Israeli circuit- Ashdod and Haifa- and the entire eastern Med effectively becomes a no go area.

MSC would also feel the effects of such a breakdown

MSC would also feel the effects of such a breakdown

Who will be most affected? The obvious candidates are the perennial winter visitors, such as Costa and MSC. But Norwegian also have the Norwegian Jade in this area for most of the shoulder season winter months, based out of Civitavecchia.

No doubt all of these lines are looking nervously at the potential ramifications of a meltdown in these waters. Sudden redeployments, and even possible winter layups, could be on the menu. Already, a glut of cruise tonnage, about to be expelled from the seasonal winter Red Sea market, will soon be surging west towards the warm, soon to be serially over saturated cruising grounds around the Canary Islands.

Future abrupt redeployments would be a logistical nightmare, and certainly difficult to operate at a profit. But that is potentially not the worst of it.

You only have to think back to 1985, and how the murder of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro plunged the entire Mediterranean cruise market into freefall for well over a year. The difference is that nowadays, there are five or six times as many berths to fill.

Add to that the still prohibitive air fares from America to Europe- the very thing that has done such damage to the Med cruise industry this season- and you have the makings of a perfect storm, with potentially awful ramifications. Plus, the increasing volatility in Libya makes the entire north African coastline look and feel like a slowly smouldering brush fire.

Of course, none of this might come to pass. Common sense and mutual self preservation could yet prevail over the jingoistic, often self serving sabre rattling of the political classes in all the countries concerned. But, given the past record of politicians in dealing with the Middle East- more than a dozen centuries of abject failure, appreciation and complete lack of understanding- it seems that we are all looking at what amounts at the very least to a winter of discontent.

Let’s all hope and pray that’s truly the maximum extent of it.

ARMONIA OUT OF HARMONY: MSC CHANGES ITINERARIES

MSC are abandoning Red Sea cruising for the foreseeable future

MSC are abandoning Red Sea cruising for the foreseeable future

In a not altogether surprising move, MSC Cruises has decided not to go ahead with it’s winter programme of Red Sea cruises, scheduled to be carried out by the Armonia. Citing escalating violence and international tensions in its reasoning, the line is instead to deploy the 58,000 ton stalwart on two different, seven day Canaries and Morocco itineraries, both starting and finishing in Gran Canaria.

One itinerary will call in at Tenerife, Madeira, Las Palmas and San Sebastian. The second will showcase Agadir, Casablanca, Puerto Del Rosario, and Lanzarote.

Both itineraries are combinable to create a fourteen day round trip sailing. They are on sale as of Wednesday, July 24th.

With the Red Sea itineraries scrapped, it remains to be seen whether other companies such as Costa and Thomson will follow the example of both MSC and Holland America in curtailing their current planned Egyptian deployments.

The Armonia originally began life as the European Vision, built in 2001 for the ultimately ill fated Festival Cruises. That line fell a victim to the fallout from 9/11, and after a spell in lay up off Barbados, she was sold to MSC and entered service for them as Armonia in May of 2004.

Prospective passengers wishing to escape the UK winter blues will find the Armonia to be a comfortably sized ship. She has some 783 cabins in all, including 132 with private balconies, and a total passenger capacity of 1,556 based on lower berth numbers.

Distinctively Italian themed and beautifully styled, Armonia has two outdoor pools, numerous indoor and outdoor bars, several lounges, and entertainment which, in typical MSC style, is aimed across several languages, with the emphasis mainly on visual shows and productions.

Armonia is now one of the smaller ships in the MSC fleet, along with her sister ship, MSC Sinfonia, and is typically used to explore the potential of new markets for the company brand. She has been a staple on the highly popular, port intensive Red Sea itineraries for a couple of years now. Sailing from Sharm El-Sheik, the Armonia offered a series of seven night round trips to the highlights of the Red Sea each winter, typically from November through until April.

Where this leaves the increasingly fragile middle eastern market is difficult to see. Norwegian also have Norwegian Jade scheduled for some calls at Alexandria over the winter at the time of writing. The Egyptian city had been combined with several ports in Israel to create some alternative warm weather options through the winter months.

But unless the situation in Egypt calms down soon- and that’s unlikely in the extreme- then the entire mid east cruise market could go into meltdown.

WINTER CRUISES IN THE MED- THE PROS AND CONS

CNV00073One of the major growth areas for sea travel in the past few years has been in the gradually increasing number of winter cruises in the Mediterranean. Originally limited to the warmer waters around Egypt and Israel, the trend has now spread to the western extremes of the region. The famous, seven day ‘Meddy-go-rounds’ of the summer season have now become a permanent, year round fixture.

Companies like MSC and Costa really dominate this trade. In the last few years, Norwegian has also done well by placing a pair of ships in the region year round. Most of these cruises depart from Venice, Rome and Barcelona, and last from between seven to twelve days.

What are the advantages? Well, there are far smaller crowds, which makes sightseeing a lot easier than in the summer heat. Temperatures are a lot milder- indeed, some days verge on the downright chilly- so heat exhaustion is not going to be a big issue.

You’ll usually benefit from cheaper air fares as well over the pre- Christmas/post New Year period. If you’re putting your own package together, you’ll probably find better hotel prices at this time of year, also.

The cons? Back to the weather. It can be rainy and unpredictable. Sudden, high swells might mean that your ship is unable to get into a port that’s on the itinerary. The same conditions might also result in the cancellation of certain tender ports, too.

If you must get your fix of winter sun, consider a Canary Islands cruise from either Barcelona, Malaga or Genoa. Mother sun will almost certainly smile upon you as you amble among those blinding, sun washed little slices of paradise; but be aware that those same islands are out in the Atlantic; an ocean famed for its unpredictable moods and swings. It can turn into a rock and roll themed cruise at any given moment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe ships of MSC and Costa feature lido pool areas with a sliding glass roof overhead, that still permits you to enjoy the whole Mediterranean vibe of la dolce vita even when the weather is not kind. The ships are often crowded, noisy and endearingly chaotic, with upwards of seven or eight different nationalities on board. By and large, they are good natured melting pots. Just don’t expect English to be always the most spoken language.

If most of this intrigues you rather than irritates, then winter cruising in the Med is definitely the way to go. Perceived ‘cons’ are often a lot less troublesome if you do your homework first. So just get out there, and enjoy yourself.