She was the world’s first true, purpose built mega cruise ship. It was twenty-five years ago, back in January 1988, when the Sovereign of The Seas first swept into Miami, and began a glittering career that would completely revolutionize contemporary cruising.
Every modern cruise ship built since owes its existence at least in part to her, and her two later sisters. The vast, white Sovereign proved that huge cruise ships could operate to reasonable economies of scale, while still delivering a first rate product, and all the facilities of a resort hotel.
At 73,000 tons and just under 900 foot long, she was exceeded in size only by her great rival, the SS.Norway. But the new ship came with a new set of firsts; for a start, the great bulk of the cabins were situated in the forward half of the ship, and the public rooms were aft, piled up in a kind of ‘layer cake’ effect.
The boundary between these came in the form of the most beautiful, stunning atrium lobby that had ever gone to sea. A full five stories high and trimmed in brass, marble and glass, it fanned out from the middle and created an amazing communal area, one quite unlike anything seen anywhere before. And it became the benchmark for all new cruise ships for the two decades that followed.
Everything about the Sovereign was pristine, beautifully styled. Built by the same legendary St. Nazaire shipyard as the Normandie and Norway, the new ship featured a wonderful, flared bow and a beautiful, knuckled cruise stern. Snow white and immaculate, she was a stunning vision to behold, topped by the famous, glass walled ‘viking crown’ lounge that crouched midway up her funnel, like some mildly curious flying saucer.
Her debut preceded the subsequent balcony craze, and she initially had none at all. The small, interior cabins were functional, and the outer ones not much larger. In those days, the company’s motto was ‘Get Out There’. By which they meant; get out of those small cabins, hit the bars and casino, and spend time-and money- enjoying your vacation.
And what a vacation it was. There was a vast lido area, complete with two large pools and sit up bar, between the main mast and the funnel. Even when she was full with over 2300 passengers- and that was often- the Sovereign still gave the illusion of being far more spacious than was actually the case.
She was an immediate, resounding success, and settled into many happy, profitable years on the seven day, Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami. By early 1992, she had been joined by a pair of almost identical siblings, Monarch of The Seas and Majesty of the Seas. Royal Caribbean was surfing a class ten rated roller of success, and the good times seemed never ending.
But this new class of ship had triggered a gigantic race, and arch rivals Carnival, soon responded with their own version, the Fantasy class (see previous blogs). On board gimmicks and sensationalism became the order of the day. and more so with each new addition.
One by one, the three graceful, white sisters were overhauled. A string of sixty-two upper deck balcony cabins was added to each. Later, all three ships would also get a branch of Johnny Rockets, the popular fifties retro diner, on one of the upper decks.
It was no longer enough to compete with the bigger, more modern and amenity laden ships being rolled out by their rivals. All three sisters found themselves relegated to short, three and four night cruises out of Miami to the Bahamas. For a few years, Monarch of The Seas sailed on similar short cruises from Los Angeles.
But, with Royal Caribbean now almost awash with new, mind boggling floating resorts, all three ships were clearly on borrowed time. However, they would be kept in the ‘family’ as distant cousins.
RCCL’s buy out of Pullmantur, the all inclusive, budget Spanish cruise line, gave the company a year round foothold in the lucrative, Spanish speaking market. And with the transfer of Sovereign to the Pullmantur brand, that company gained its first ever mega ship.
Now, after a couple of winter seasons in Brazil, the ship- her name handily shortened to simple Sovereign– does year round, seven night Mediterranean cruises out of Barcelona, on two separate routes. Her once snow white hull is now a fetching dark blue, but she is still instantly familiar as the original, pioneering mega cruise ship. She seems to be doing quite well in her new role.
Pullmantur is not quite up to speed. The crippling Spanish recession has hit the company hard. Without Royal Caribbean’s protective financial cover, it would almost certainly have collapsed. Sensibly, the company is now sourcing passengers from beyond its original Spanish base. With cheap prices and an all inclusive upgrade as standard, these cruises are a great buy.
Recently, second-of-class Monarch rejoined her sister at Pullmantur, and will soon operate seven night Caribbean cruises out of Aruba. Majesty, the sole survivor of the original RCCL trio, is set to make the move to a Latin groove next year.
So, here’s to the rather splendid Sovereign, now twenty-five, but still not yet out. I hope this lovely, still proud and elegant ship can go on making thousands of new passengers happy for many years to come.
Disclaimer: in the interests of clarity, I should state that all the pictures in this blog are of the Majesty of The Seas, the near-identical sister to Sovereign.