CUBA CRUISE GOES ALL INCLUSIVE FOR WINTER 2015-16

Cuba Cruise has announced that it will be going all inclusive for the season of winter cruises offered on the Celestyal Crystal this year.

On board prices will now include all shore excursions, plus on board drinks, for the duration of each week long cruise.

Not long ago, Celestyal bought out Cuba Cruises. The Celestyal Crystal will thus begin her third season of Cuba voyages with a 21 night, transatlantic crossing that embarks in Piraeus at the end of November, and terminates in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Each seven night circuit allows for two full days spent on board in Havana, and embarkation is also possible at Montego Bay.

The 24,000 ton Celestyal Crystal typically carries around 600 passengers for the Cuba cruises, with a passenger mix that has been predominantly Canadian and Scandinavian in the past.

This winter also sees the introduction of a rival service, with the first arrival of the MSC Opera in Havana marking the first sailings around Cuba by any of the mainstream mega ships.

In spite of this, the relatively small size of the Celestyal Crystal, combined with the now almost fully inclusive nature of the product, offers a great value way to get ‘up close and personal’ views of the highlights of Cuba, before more mainstream cruise ships start to arrive from the USA; an inevitable fact in view of the formalising of relationships between Cuba and the USA after some five decades of isolation.

Interesting times. As ever. stay tuned.

Celestyal  Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

Celestyal Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

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

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL IN COLLISION

The 24,000 ton Celestyal Crystal has sustained bow damage after a collision with the tanker, Ste Pimlico, over the weekend.

On board at the time were some 852 passengers and 382 crew. All are reported to be OK, as are the men on board the tanker.

A photograph reveals a deep, wedge shaped gash in the prow of the Crystal- once very well known as Norwegian Cruise Lines’ popular MS Leeward.

The collision happened while the ship was embarked on one of her popular, seven night cruises from Piraeus to the Greek Isles and Turkey.

According to owners, Celestyal Cuises, the damage must be repaired before the ship can continue with its scheduled cruise season. This includes a third, upcoming winter charter to Cuba Cruises to operate the popular round Cuba cruises sold mainly to Canadian passengers.

Celestyal has been very proactive in coming forward with a number of alternative arrangements for those passengers on board at the time. These include; A free, two day hotel stay in Istanbul, free shore excursions, the option of a transfer home, or the possibility of transferring to another ship in the fleet.

In addition, all passengers will receive a full refund on their fare, plus a complimentary, free seven day cruise. This must be taken by December, 2016.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Celestyal  Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

Celestyal Crystal at Lavrion, Greece, last summer

LOUIS GROUP BUYS OUT CUBA CRUISES (Updated)

A spokesman for Cuba Cruises, the Canadian based tour operator which has chartered the Celestyal Cristal for the last two seasons, has confirmed that the Louis Group are now what is described as ‘significant majority shareholders’ in the operation.

The Greek operator has provided the use of the 24,000 ton ship for two years now, allowing Cuba Cruises to operate a very lucrative, weekly programme of voyages around Cuba for a predominantly Canadian and Scandinavaian market. Louis Group has also been active in selling cabins on board the ship for European passengers.

It appears that a joint plan by Louis and Cuba Cruise to extend a third, 2015-16 season by a month fell through, hence the move by Louis Group to take over the run full time. There was speculation last year the the Celestyal brand of Louis might also add a second ship for that season, though nothing so far has been confirmed from the company head office.

It’s a move that makes sense, and a product ideally sized and suited for the embryonic Cuban cruise scene. I’ve sailed on the Celestyal Cristal a couple of times on her summer cruises around the Greek Islands and Turkey, and she is a unique combination of homely intimacy and genuine Greek hospitality- the perfect style of ship for destination intensive cruising, such as around Cuba.

Interesting times, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

May 8th update:

A Greek source at Louis Group has officially denied that the compnay has bought out Cuba Cruises. What has happened is that the Celestyal Cruises brand will now market the sales of both Cuba Cruises and Celestyal’s sailings in the Adriatic and Aegean areas- a logical bit of symmetry.

The 2015-16 season itself has been extended to include three additional, week long, round Cuba cruises.

Covered pool area on the Celestyal Cristal

Covered pool area on the Celestyal Cristal

FERRY NICE- FOUR COMPANIES TO INAUGURATE SERVICES TO CUBA

The slow thaw in diplomatic rleations between the United States and Cuba has heated up, with the news that no less than four ferry companies are to be allowed to begin services between the mainland USA and the long isolated Caribbean island in the not too distant future.

The quartet are cited as being Airline Brokers, an operator based in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Second up is Havana Ferry Partners, another Fort Lauderdale concern. Baja Ferries is a Miami based operation and last, but by no menas least, comes United Caribbean Lines, based in Orlando and headed up by veteran cruise honcho, Bruce Nierenburg.

For the present, all four companies will only be allowed to carry all those allowed to travel to Cuba under existing American law. The still outstanding US embargo on Cuba precludes general passenger transport, but for how much longer? I would guess not much.

Of this breathlessly poised quartet, it seems to be United Caribbean Lines that is straining at the leash the most. With 1500 passenger vessels capable of embarking on overnight sailings, the line is expected to begin operations in the autumn from a variety of ports including Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. A provisional schedule lists a daily 1800 sailing from Florida, arriving in Havana at 0700 next morning. Evening departures will be at 1800 from Havana, arriving in Florida at 0700 the next day.

If nothing else, this news will have an already hugely interested cruise industry straining at the leash. The days of Cuba’s pre-eminence as one of the Caribbean’s most popular, vibrant and sought after hot spots seem set for an imminent return.

Exciting times for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

Sunrise on the Cuban run- imminent?

Sunrise on the Cuban run- imminent?

CUBA CRUISES- COMING SOON?

Cuba bound soon?

Cuba bound soon?

With the recent news of Barack Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba, the mainstream cruise lines are savouring the long cherished possibility of a return of cruise ships to the sultry, long isolated Caribbean island, Famed as a hugely hedonistic destination for Americans in the pre Castro era, it has been largely off limits to cruise ships since 1963.

There are currently a coupe of vessels making cruises around the island. Both the superlative Star Flyer of Star Clippers, and the Celestyal Cristal of Cuba cruises, run seven day itineraries that make a long circuit of the island each week during the winter months. But both of these smaller, more intimate ships cater mostly to an international market- largely Canadian in the face of the latter.

What people are waiting for is the arrival of the mega ships operated by the ‘big boys’ of the industry- Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. And, the way things are looking, that might be sooner rather than later. But there are obstacles that first need to be overcome.

Firstly, the docking facilities in the capital of Havana are nowhere near adequate to handle one big ship, let alone the armada waiting to pounce on Cuba. The infrastructure is raw, and there needs to be far more in the way of air conditioned, tourist coaches for the sightseeing passengers.

That said, none of these are decisive deal breakers. From New Jersey to Jamaica, all of the big lines have proved adept at creating their own, purpose built docking complexes. This is the obvious way forward for Cuba and, though it would entail much co-operation between cruise lines, local tourist board and, of course, government offices, there is no reason why this cannot be done.

For their money, the lines gain access to a hugely sought, legendary destination seen by many as some nostalgic nirvana. Many Caribbean ‘regulars’ are getting tired of the same old islands. Once glamourous destinations such as Nassau now seem jaded and tired. New destinations are always to be welcomed.

And a ship sailing from Florida could easily make a leisurely, fuel conservative weekly sailing to Cuba, docking for three nights in old, storied Havana at what will- initially at least- be absolutely knock down docking fees. And the flow of tourist dollars from each ship load will inevitably boost the local economy massively. Whether that is ultimately for good or ill is too far away to call.

For marketing men, filling cruise ships to Cuba would be the Holy Grail; an ultimate no-brainer that will attract the crowds, looking for the shades of Ernie Hemingwayand his ilk among all the decaying, Mojito fuelled fun on offer.

Obviously, one to watch. I will be following this with great interest.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

SECOND CUBA CRUISE SEASON FOR LOUIS CRISTAL

The Louis Cristal docked at Patmos

The Louis Cristal docked at Patmos

After the success of the 2013/14 winter season, Cuba Cruises and Louis Cruises will once again co-manage the popular, 24,000 ton Louis Cristal on a programme of seven night, Caribbean cruises, centered mainly on ports in and around Cuba itself.

The joint Greek-Canadian venture is on sale in both Canada and Europe, and offers the possibility of embarkation in either Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica. Ports of call visited on the week long circuits include Havana, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Punta Frances,  and Montego Bay. The first sailing is on December 22nd, the last on March 30th, 2015.

The fifteen cruises all feature Monday departures from Havana. For Canadian passengers, the Calgary based Cuba Cruises is arranging charter flights. While no such arrangements exist for European passengers, Air France operates daily flights between Paris and Havana.

At present, the four star Louis Cristal is operating a seven night, Greek Island schedule from both Piraeus (Athens) and Istanbul. I’ll be back aboard her at the end of September, and an updated blog will be on here soon afterwards. But here’s some of what you can expect to find on board;

Louis Cristal has a central swimming pool, covered by a sliding glass roof with plenty of sun bathing space. At the stern, several attractive, tiered decks include an outdoor buffet venue, and a hot tub overlooking the ship’s wake.

Lido deck, Louis Cristal

Lido deck, Louis Cristal

There are two main restaurants, a casino, a forward facing show lounge, several bars and lounges, and a very attractive, upper deck sky lounge cantilevered around the funnel. With angled floor to ceiling glass windows, this converts into the ship’s disco each night.

Service on board is friendly and efficient, with good food, slanted towards Greek favourites on Mediterranean cruises. For the Cuba itineraries, most provisioning is from Canada. Expect the bacon and the maple syrup to be very good.

Cabin wise, there is a handful of upper deck midships rooms that have small, V shaped balconies. Many of the inside rooms are small- get your travel agent to check exact dimensions before you book a specific room.

At the top end of the scale, there is a pair of forward facing penthouse suites on the bow below the bridge, with expansive terraces, each including a hot tub. For a good buy, the outside de luxe cabins come in at around 170 square feet, have a big picture window, and a small, comfortable sitting area.

Just as with the inaugural season last year, I expect these cruises to be very popular.

Aft terraces on the Louis Cristal

Aft terraces on the Louis Cristal

LOUIS CRUISES- NEW FOUR NIGHT CRUISES FOR 2014

Lido pool on the Louis Cristal

Lido deck on the Louis Cristal

Greek specialist operator Louis Cruises has introduced an alternative, quite appealing itinerary in the shape of a new, four day cruise for summer 2014.

Sailing from Athens’ port of Lavrion, these four night voyages will be operated by the 24,000 ton Louis Cristal after her return from a winter charter offering Cuba cruises.

Departing at 1430 in the afternoon- a complete change to the normal 1100 departures- the Louis Cristal arrives in Syros at 1900 for a four hour run ashore. Next day, the ship arrives at the Turkish resort of Cesme at 0700 for a six hour stay, before sailing on to the popular resort of Bodrum that same evening for an overnight stay, departing at five the following morning.

An 0700 arrival in Kos gives a full day on the island, with departure at 1800. Next day features a morning call on Ios, and a final afternoon call at Santorini before arriving back in Athens the next morning.

All things considered, this is a great little run to some of the lesser known gems of the Greek Islands, combined with an opportunity to sample the overnight nightlife ashore in the party capital of the summertime Turkish riviera.  And, with Santorini as a stunning finale, it packs in a huge amount into a short space of time indeed.

Santorini is a fabulous finale

Santorini is a fabulous finale

The Louis Cristal is a good choice for a short cruise; compact enough to get into the smaller, more appealing yacht harbours in the islands, she offers an intimate, comfortable ambience with good sized cabins- a handful of them have small balconies- and the warm hospitality that typifies the Louis product.

The ship has a small central pool, covered by a sliding glass roof, that also showcases a bar and buffet area. There are several other bars featuring live entertainment, and a forward facing show lounge for evening entertainment. The ship also features a casino, internet centre, and a shop for souvenirs and essential sundries.

A series of terraced aft decks offer fantastic views out over the wake, as well as a sublime, aft facing hot tub ideal for lounging in and watching the horizon.

Most impressive of all the facilities on board the Louis Cristal is a spectacular, glass walled disco cantilevered around the funnel. inward sloping, floor to ceiling glass affords spellbinding views out over the sea in three directions. It works just as well as a cool, shady observation lounge during the day, and as a vibrant, late night focal point for partying late into the night.

Combining several small, enchanting little islands with the style, warmth and intimacy of the Louis Cristal makes for an invigorating little break. It neatly side steps the often overcrowded ‘greatest hits’ ports of the Greek Islands, and offers an appealing new take on what has always been a classic, affordable mini cruise. Definitely recommended.

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.