AND IT’S ADEUS TO LISBOA…..

Reports are coming in from various sources that seemingly confirm the sale of the partially refurbished MV Lisboa for scrap.

Built as one of a pair of combination cargo/passenger liners for the Port Line back in 1955, she and her sister were later extensively remodelled into high quality cruise ships in the mid 1970’s.

Sailing as the Princess Danae along with her renamed sister, Princess Daphne, this beautiful ship found profitable employment for many years with the popular niche operator, Classic International Cruises. With this company, the grand heritage and fine lines of both ships made them two of the most stellar attractions anywhere at sea..

When CIC collapsed following the death of its’ guiding light, George Potamianos, the Princess Daphne was sold for scrap after a long, debilitating lay up in Crete.

Meanwhile, Princess Danae came under the banner of the resurgent Portuscale cruises, and sailed to Lisbon for a major refit. Renamed Lisboa, work on her ceased a few years ago, ostensibly after the discovery of additional structural and material problems not at first apparent. She has lain in the Portuguese capital ever since.

Her sale for scrap is saddening, soul destroying, but hardly surprising. Since it’s inception, Portuscale has limped from pillar to post.

Of the three remaining ships, both Arion and Funchal remain in lay up, while Azores- soon to be restyled as Astoria- is on long term charter to British cruise operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

The demise of this admittedly long lived ship still constitutes sad news, indeed. Adeus.

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

CASUALTIES: SCHETTINO AND FUNCHAL

This week brought an endgame of sorts to a duo of needless, long drawn out, totally depressing events in the maritime community. And, worse still, one of these resulted in the irreplacable loss of thirty two innocent people. Both are salient events and, hopefuly, neither will bear repetition.

Firstly, an Italian court finally got round to sentencing the hapless Francesco Schettinio to sixteen years in jail for the catastrophic capsizing of the Costa Concordia in 2012, with the loss of thirty two lives. The sinking of the huge, state of the art cruise ship rocked the entire industry to its very foundations.

I’m not getting into assumptions about the length or suitability- or not- of the sentenece. I am not in possession of all the facts, and simply not in a position to make an emotionless, analytical judgement on said facts.

But what I do know is this; having driven his ship dangerously close inshore like some adolescent yuppie, showing off his brand new Maserati to his friends, Schettino wrecked his ship. Far worse, he then abandoned the hapless thousands entrusted to his care and concern, and fled the scene. This action brought on him the immediate ire and contempt of his opposite numbers of the Italian coast guard. Left to organise a spur of the moment rescue mission in the middle of the night, in freezing cold conditions, their courage, ingenuity and devotion to duty stands as a stark, undeniable contrast to the actions of a man who, once confronted with the enormity of his handiwork, cloaked himself in head to toe denial.

Of course, this availed him little. And, with the lengthy appeals process yet to come, we could be up to the centenary of the disaster before the hapless Schettino himself is steered into a jail cell.

But the man is walking wreckage; his career and future prospects are as bright as that of the ship he destroyed. And, while my sympathies remain totally with the victims of this ghastly tragedy, it is impossible for me not to feel a shred of sympathy for the man himself, while retaining absolute abhorrence at his performance as a so-called captain. Enough said.

Casualty number two appears to be the lovely, beautifuly restored MV Funchal, whose entire summer porgramme of chartered cruises was cancelled this week. This leaves the ship- and, by proxy, owners Portuscale Cruises- effectively shackled to a Lisbon pier for the duration of the year.

While the restoration of this 1961 built classic liner was a thing of beauty to behold, the attempt to charter out Funchal and her fleet mate, Porto, has been a disaster. Third in fleet, Lisboa remains half upgraded in Lisbon, and reportedly up for sale. Only the ongoing, successful charter of the veteran Azores to Cruise And Maritime Voyages seems to be keeping the Portuguese operator on life support. But for how much longer?

Words such as ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ are academic at the moment. Perhaps Portuscale should have concentrated on marketing and sailing the ships themselves, instead of placing them at the beck and call of a conga line of largely whimsical and capricious charterers.

But, whatever, the company has not been good at engaging and getting across the appeal of these unique, soulful quartet of ships. Despite being two years old, only in the last few months has the line opened a Twitter account, for instance. E-mails to their Portuguese offices have just gone unanaswered in the past- and I’m speaking from personakl experience here.

I think it is these two factors that have largely led to the present situation. Is it too late? I hope not. But a radically different course plainly needs to be set.

Otherwise, we are likely to lose one of the most beautifully original and appealing passenger ships still available to travel on today. Make no mistake; the loss of Funchal would be an act of vandalism on a par with taking a scalpel to the portrait of the Mona Lisa.

Let us all hope and pray that it does not come to that.

As ever, stay tuned.

A pair of less than perfect sunsets are in the offing, it seems

A pair of less than perfect sunsets are in the offing, it seems

IS PORTUSCALE CRUISES IN TROUBLE? (UPDATED 13/3/2014)

Heading for a new life next year?

Heading for a new life next year?

Reports are currently rife at the influential Seatrade Miami conference that Portuscale Cruises is in trouble.

Stories are circulating that the Lisboa has been arrested at Lisbon, while the recently renovated Azores- due to leave over the next few days to start an almost year long charter for German cruise company, Ambiente- has been delayed from leaving the same port.

Renovation work on Lisboa was suspended a few weeks ago, when an official Portuscale announcement stated that structural problems with the ship were far more extensive than had been originally ascertained. A lucrative charter to a French cruise operator had to be cancelled at very short notice. Provisionally, Lisboa is intended to resume sailing in 2015.

Meanwhile, the veteran Funchal is due back at sea shortly, off to begin a season of cruises from the UK and Sweden through the spring, summer and autumn. There has as yet been no word about the future of these.

Fourth of the Portuscale trio, the smaller, also renovated Porto, was still in Lisbon at last report.

It is little more than two years since Rui Allegre first masterminded the astonishing resurgence of the veteran Portuscale quartet from the ashes of the imploded Classic International Cruises. The owner saw an obvious market for the elegant, traditionally styled quartet in an era largely dominated by amenity laden mega ships.

Funchal actually went back to sea for three months last year, beautifully restored and looking better than ever, Rave reviews came from on board, and guest satisfaction rates were high. The future did, indeed, seem bright.

However, the abrupt cancellation of work on Lisboa- which had been progressing nicely- rang alarm bells.  Portuscale had gone so far as to announce a programme of cruises for the renovated ship on her French charter, as well as going to the extent of making public some artist renderings of her restored interiors and outer decking.

The loss of revenue from the French charter must have been quite a hit. And the ships, with their vintage styling, are very labour intensive, and expensive to maintain.

At this time, no formal statement is forthcoming from Portuscale. It is to be hoped that the Azores can leave on schedule for her charter to Ambiente Cruises as planned.

I suspect that the potential loss of that German charter might well prove catastrophic to the nascent cruise line. And it would be a true tragedy if these four ships were to be lost after so much hard work has been done to bring them back up to speed.

As always, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

With regard to the Azores charter to Ambiente, German sources have reported that the ship has, indeed, left Lisbon, en route to begin her programme of cruises from Bremerhaven on March 16th.

She was apparently delayed by the non issuance of a necessary sailing certificate, which has now been supplied.

While this news is indeed a relief, there has been no official word from Portuscale Cruises over the alleged arrest in Lisbon of the partially refurbished Lisboa, as outlined below.

ADDENDUM:

Well worth checking out in the responses to this piece is a note from Luis Miguel Correia, one of the most renowned, knowledgeable and well informed writers and photographers in the entire maritime industry, and someone whom I have had the pleasure of sailing with in the past.

Luis is well connected to the current owners and operators of the Portuscale fleet and, as such, his response to my original blog post above, is definitely worthy of your consideration.

IT WASN’T ALL BAD: MY MARITIME HIGHLIGHTS OF 2013

The classics are back, courtesy of Portuscale Cruises

The classics are back, courtesy of Portuscale Cruises

In my previous post, I wrote about the string of maritime casualties that have begun piling up like so many car wrecks over 2013, from the plain sad to the simply absurd. Thankfully, that has not been the whole picture for the cruise industry during the course of the year. There have indeed been a number of outstanding events, and some cracking new ships have arrived. Here’s some of my personal highlights.

Firstly, the Lazarus style resurrection of Portuscale Cruises from the wreckage of Classic International Cruises will have warmed the hearts of anyone that appreciates the simple pleasures of classical, well run ships. There has been no more resolute-or miraculous-statement of intent than the return to service of the flagship, the doughty, dignified little Funchal. And, with the rest of the fleet on course for a 2014 relaunch, the outlook is very promising.

Big ship of the year was unquestionably the stunning new Norwegian Breakaway, the Peter Max mentored floating tribute to New York style that debuted at the end of April. Brimming with life, and beautifully styled by Tillberg Design’s Fredrik Johansson throughout, Breakaway brings a whole host of outdoor eateries and bars to the balmy Bermuda run. With cutting edge entertainment and an easy, freewheeling vibe, this ship ups the ante for the contemporary mega ship experience by a long mile.

Stylish Regent has something new coming soon

Stylish Regent has something new coming soon

The announcement of a new ship for Regent Seven Seas is very exciting, and way overdue, too. Seven Seas Explorer will build on the obvious success and sumptuous style of her well established trio of upmarket siblings. And I had a delightful preview of the new ship, with some of her soon-to-be signature elements showcased aboard Seven Seas Voyager after a $25 million, bow to stern refurbishment. The whole look is more open and vibrant, with fresh carpeting and new artwork everywhere, while the new, cushioned comfy chairs on the balconies make them sublimely relaxing little enclaves.

The start up of new, traditionally styled Viking Ocean Cruises is a real, refreshing example of a new cruise line, actually listening to, and acting on, the ideas of potential passengers. With an identical quartet of traditionally styled , 47,000 ton siblings coming on line from 2015 onwards, there’s a firm emphasis on elegance rather than excess, and more than just an echo of those sybaritic Royal Viking Line stalwarts of the past. Certainly one that bears watching, for sure.

But, without doubt, the highlight of 2013 has been the debut of the sensational, stand alone Europa 2. With balconies for every single room- and even the smallest of those half as large again as on her nearest rival- this brilliant, uber-elegant new ship is designed to appeal to families of all ages, with many inter- connecting suites. Internally, the decor is sharp, linear and bright; a true ‘grand hotel’ on the ocean that offers no less than eight sumptuous, open seating restaurants for a maximum of 516 guests.

Pool area on the Europa 2

Pool area on the Europa 2

Owners Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines have created what is, quite simply, the most diverse and dramatic luxury ship afloat. From her indoor/outdoor nightclub to her central pool with its sliding glass dome, the Europa 2 feels like as much of a clean break with traditional maritime luxe as did the Normandie back in the thirties. Time and tide might prove her to be every bit as epochal.

So, no, it’s not all doom and gloom out there. While there’s not yet as much diversity across the cruising spectrum as there once was, those ships that are emerging are more chock full of delightful innovations than anything that has preceded them before. At the same time, a slowly growing realisation is gathering pace that the industry per se is not a one size fits all shop. Lines are responding to demand, and that can only be good for all concerned.

As ever, stay tuned.

GET THEM WHILE YOU CAN- CLASSICS STILL SAILING IN 2014

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale's Lisboa has few modern equivalents

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale’s Lisboa has few modern equivalents

Last week delivered a trio of heavy shocks for lovers of the traditional, smaller cruise ships. First came the sad news that the pioneering Song Of Norway, the start up ship for Royal Caribbean, had been sold for scrap. More than anything, this brought home the shaky mortality and status of that maritime ‘Brady Bunch’ of older vessels.

There followed the indescribably painful sight of the Pacific Princess, famed as the original Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish slaughterhouse. Listing painfully, shabby and dilapidated, the once graceful ship has been reduced to a sad, squalid shadow of her former glory.

Then, only yesterday, the beloved Ocean Countess caught fire in the Greek port of Chalkis as she was being readied for a new charter season next year. The fire, now extinguished, seems to have centered on her midships pool and forward observation lounge. No impartial assessment of the resultant damage has yet been put in the public arena, but it hardly helps the prospects of the 37 year old former Cunard stalwart.

Even worse, 2014 will see the withdrawal from service of the Saga Ruby, the former 1973 built Vistafjord. This legendary ship, the last passenger ship to be built in the UK, is facing a very uncertain fate, and optimism regarding her future employment- if any- is very thin on the ground.

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

All of these point up a simple, salient fact for anyone wanting the chance to sail in one or more of this dwindling band of thoroughbreds; get out there and do it, while you still can. The clock is ticking, and options are really running out now.

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the classically styled ships still sailing out there. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible, and apologies in advance for any unintentional omissions.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines still operate the classic duo of Boudicca and Black Watch, a pair of 1972 beauties originally built for the Royal Viking Line.

Competitor Cruise And Maritime offers cruises on the Discovery, the former Island Princess (and sister ship of the Pacific Princess) as well as the 1965 built Marco Polo.

All four of these ships can be embarked from a series of different ports around the UK. Looking further afield increases your options a lot. Here’s a few more options for your consideration.

Louis Cruises will sail the Louis Rhea, the former 1971 built Cunard Adventurer, out of Piraeus this summer. She will be running with her former Norwegian Cruise Lines fleetmate, the 1968 built Louis Aura, best remembered as the famous, fondly remembered Starward.

From Israel, the Golden Iris operates cruises for Mano Maritime. She is the former Cunard Princess and, by an ironic coincidence, she is currently laid up for the winter alongside her former sister, the fire ravaged Ocean Countess, in the Greek port of Chalkis.

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Most potent of all, the Lazarus- like resurrection of Portuscale Cruises in Lisbon has put a quartet of platinum chip, beautifully styled former ocean liners back on the market. Azores, Funchal. Lisboa and Porto will all be sailing full schedules over the 2014 season and, while some of these will be on European charters, there are options to board the exquisite Funchal in the UK over the summer. Many of those cruises are being marketed by Travelscope Holidays in the UK.

The future prospects of all of these ships are, of course, directly related to their profitability as going concerns. That being so, 2014 might well be a good time for true lovers of the ocean liners of the past to turn those fond, romantic dream voyages into a more practical, eminently rewarding reality.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

PORTUSCALE CRUISES; BACK FROM THE ASHES

The classics are back

The classics are back

Few things stunned the maritime community quite like the Lazarus style resurrection of Portuscale Cruises, the nascent niche operator that has risen, Phoenix style, from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and it’s spectacular collapse a couple of years ago.

Make no bones about it; Portuscale is as far removed from the accepted tenets of mainstream cruising as it is possible to be. While modern ships divert their passengers attention from the elements by showcasing a whole string of eye boggling, constantly evolving new features, the Portuscale experience is resolutely, exquisitely retro.

Here you’ll find much smaller, more intimate ships that still have the personal touch, while keeping the base amenities that made ocean voyages such a compelling way to travel in the first place. You’ll find good restaurants offering traditional, fixed seating for dinner, a show lounge and a piano bar, a few shops, and large, commodious cabins that actually give you room- and reason- to relax in. Though not too many have balconies, there is a really agreeable trade off on these small, beautifully crafted gems.

This comes in the shape of their simple, stunning lines; a clear throwback over more than six decades, to an age when seagoing ships had beautiful, bewitching lines. In short, they possessed camber, sheer and poise; things once deemed to be marketing attractions in and of their own right. Things rescued from the scrap heap by Portuscale. And quite literally at that, too.

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

Each of the four ships- Funchal, Porto, Lisboa and Azores- represents one of the most elegant and evocative travel experiences available anywhere today- the maritime equivalent of the magnificently resurrected Orient Express luxury train. Vessels that offer two journeys for what amounts to the price of one.

Firstly, each ship will take you on a hopefully compelling voyage of discovery to a string of ports around the globe; the smaller size of the ships also allows them to nip smartly into the smaller, sweeter little port havens that their bigger, glitzier brethren have to glide past. This is a compelling excuse for booking in and of itself.

The second journey? A voyage back in time, to an age when more personalised service actually counted for a lot. To an age when a good steamer chair proved far more preferable to gimmicks like cantilevered walkways and rock climbing walls. An age when you could actually look out at the ocean in all it’s moody, matchless majesty, and feel a real connection with it. A time when ship and sea were unashamedly symbiotic.

The living, breathing proof of this renaissance emerged a few weeks ago, when Funchal emerged from her dusty concrete cocoon like a flower bursting into bloom after three years of darkened lay up.  Scrapyards around the worlds had flexed their cheque books and sharpened their knives over the demise of the Classic International fleet; it seems that those gentlemen- so busy and feted of late- are to be disappointed on this front, at least.

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

God knows, the maritime community needs the diversity that is wrapped up in this quartet of proud, distinctive little hulls. 2013 has seen Sleeping Beauty begin to slowly blink herself awake. It is very much to be hoped that 2014 sees a resurgence of interest in what amounts to a truly largely forgotten form of travel; the small ocean liner.

CLASSICS TO INFINITY…. AND BEYOND

ImageIn the world of modern cruising, the miraculous salvation of the former Classic International Cruises fleet must rank as the most staggering comeback since Lazarus. OK, well at least since Take That.

When the banks foreclosed on the fleet of classic liners so lovingly maintained by the late, great George Potamianos, scrapyard owners everywhere opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives. And who could really blame them for scenting blood?

ImageHere was what had been a modern cruise accountant’s nightmare. A fleet of low density ships, floating anachronisms that were incredibly expensive to sail and maintain. Labour intensive, with only a handful of balcony cabins across the five ships. A complete lack of modern, time killing attractions and, above all, their sheer age working relentlessly against them. Though I remained outwardly optimistic, in my heart I had also written those lovely, fondly remembered ships off.

I have never been so glad to be proven wrong.

In a move that stunned and surprised everyone, four of the five ships have been bought from the banks by Doctor Rui Alegre, a Portuguese business man. He immediately reinstated the stalled revitalisation of the handsome, 1961 built Funchal. Now, after several years of stop-start work, the ship is scheduled to start sailing again under charter this September. This was originally thought to be in Northern Europe, though another source has the ship going to the Mediterranean.

ImageBaby of the fleet, the 6,000 ton Arion has now been renamed as the Porto. She now sports a smart black hull, and a black and yellow funnel bearing the logo of the newly named Portuscale Cruises. At the time of writing, she is undergoing final refurbishment in Lisbon.

Nearby, the classic, 15,000 ton Princess Danae is being refurbished, and has been renamed the Lisboa, in honour of the Portuguese capital.

Athena, the former Stockholm, is already back at sea, operating charter cruises in the Black Sea for a Russian firm, under her new name, Azores.

It is expected that all the ships will be up and running by 2014, though whether some or all go out on charter is as yet unclear. Portuscale is being quite tight lipped. Indeed, silent.

Also encouraging is the revival of the Classic International Cruises brand itself, with the Potamianos brothers-sons of the original owner- having completed the repurchase of the 15,000 ton Princess Daphne, currently laid up in Crete. Again, details are thin on the ground, but it seems that the brothers have gone to great lengths to buy back the ship so beloved of their late father.

ImageIt remains to be seen how this small, beautifully styled band of survivors can buck the trend of a depressed market that is largely dominated by mega ships. But, having seen these ships come so far, and watch them re-emerge after defying all the odds, it would be a rash man indeed who would bet against them.

I’m not that man. I wish both operations smooth seas, and a rising tide of good fortune.