SS UNITED STATES; CRYSTAL SALVATION?

Yesterday’s hydrogen bomb of an announcement concerning Crystal’s acquisition of the SS. United States left me with my jaw scraping the tops of my shoes. Stunned, incredulous disbelief does not even begin to cover it.

And the idea that she will be returned to service, subject to a full maritime evaluation, topped even that. Shock and amazement gave way to a tidal wave of euphoria.

Of course, it’s not one that is shared by everyone.

Sure enough, within minutes of the formal press announcement at New York’s historic Pier 88 on Thursday, a whole tidal wave of dissent, derision and- in some cases- sheer, surly denial- began breaking over the whole project.

But first and foremost, let’s look at the bare bones of what is proposed.

The former transatlantic speed queen, built to carry 2.000 passengers in three classes on a 53,000 ton hull, will be completely re-engined, with a new service speed of roughly twenty five knots.

All accommodation will be rebuilt to feature just four hundred suites, averaging some three hundred and fifty square feet, on a hull that will have the superstructure extended aft, with extra upper decks built fore and aft to accommodate balcony cabins. Capacity will fall to just eight hundred passengers, served by a crew of six hundred, on a hull whose GRT will increase to an estimated 60,000 tons.

This would give the restructured SS. United States a passenger/space ratio roughly comparable to most current six star ships. Add in Crystal’s unique level of style, hospitality and cuisine, and the potential for such a project is incalculable.

On the aesthetic front, the original colour scheme will be retained, and the two great, red, white and blue funnels- surely among the most iconic in maritime history- will remain. That gracefully tapered prow will stay as well.

This is only right. Messing with any of these would be the artistic equivalent of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa; an abject capitulation to hype over style. Thankfully, we now know that such will not be the case.

Inside, such perennial locations as the famous Navajo Lounge and the long, interior promenades will be restored to their original lustre.

Restored and enhanced beyond anyone’s most optimistic dreams, the SS. United States will be uniquely able to offer her passengers two voyages for the price of one.

The first, of course, is on a modern, state of the art luxury vessel that can take her guests all over the world cocooned in sybaritic standards of flair and finesse. And one whose dimensions also allow her to transit the Panama Canal as well.

The second is a trip back into the past, aboard an ocean liner so legendary in history that even the mention of her name makes the adrenaline flow faster. Imagine sailing up the Hudson River, inbound for New York, on the United States. The idea is spine tingling and delicious. For many, that seems too good to be true.

And that’s where the naysayers come in.

After all these years of stop-start, false promises, and coming within weeks of the executioner’s axe, many simply cannot absorb that this long suffering, much adored legend has been not only reprieved, but actually looks like returning to sea. Their incredulity is not to be underestimated. Or, indeed, disrespected. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

The ship needs a complete, stem to stern survey to determine exactly what will be required to return her to a seagoing state. But anyone who thinks that either Crystal, or indeed, parent company Genting Hong Kong, have not already done their homework is deluding themselves on this front.

This complete survey will, apparently, be undertaken very soon. But in the meantime, there are more cosmetic aspects that could surely be embarked upon without either moving the ship or, indeed, breaking the bank.

An obvious sign of intent would be to remove the acres of superficial rust that currently shroud the ship, giving her a kind of forlorn, Miss Havisham sort of appearance. The hull and funnels could surely be repainted in situ.

And illuminating those huge funnels at night would be a far bigger statement of intent; a potent message to every naysayer out there that revival is not only imminent, but actually already incubating within the dark recesses of that fabulous hull. It would represent a kind of spiritual unshackling of the ship from the ties that have bound her for these long, lonely years. The psychological effect- and, of course, the press it would generate- are quite incalculable, but totally positive.

Genting, of course, now also owns the great Lloyd Werft shipyard in Germany. And, while no formal announcement has been made as to where the projected restoration of the ship would be carried out, few would bet against Lloyd Werft. With it’s reputation for delivering timely, consistently excellent quality work, Crystal’s own in-house shipyard has to be the clear front runner by a country mile.

Will it be easy? Of course not. A very conservative preliminary survey estimates the conversion price at around $700 million.

But the job is not impossible, and the return is truly priceless.

This is Field of Dreams stuff, with a maritime twist. And, once rebuilt, I for one have no doubt that the people will, indeed, come.

They will come to sample an authentic American legend, restored and enhanced, and put back on the one stage that she once so dominated.

They will come to experience a ship that has survived against incredible odds, thanks to the unimaginable tenacity of Susan Gibbs and her ‘Band of Brothers’ at the SS. United States Conservancy. The story of their ‘never say die’ fight to keep the ship afloat, when all others had given up, is surely worthy of a film script in itself.

They will come to experience a unique vessel, one suffused with the courteous, effortlessly elegant sense of warmth, beauty and style that the Crystal brand personifies.

The SS. United States, the fabled ‘Yankee Flyer’, looks set to find a whole new audience. Once again, the truly savvy among the travelling public will get the chance to fall in love with a ship that has heart, style and soul in spades. A ship where space meets grace; one where the benign shades of Duke Ellington and his band can almost be heard once more in the ballroom, just as on her historic maiden voyage in July. 1952.

I have the feeling that the United States may very well be leaving Philadelphia under tow before too much longer has passed, thence to begin her dramatic renaissance; a rebirth that is without parallel in maritime history.

And when she comes back, it will be under her own power. That famous bow will once more furl the steel grey Atlantic rollers back along her glistening black flanks, to where her wake surges back to Europe. Row upon row of her deck lights will dance like hundreds of skittish fireflies on the Atlantic. Naturally, the soundtrack will be sassy, ebullient swing and jazz.

Many will refuse to believe it until they see it, of course. But the idea of this maritime Sleeping Beauty emerging from her slumber is one so powerful, so utterly compelling, as to be the real stuff of dreams.

This great, long neglected, nearly forgotten cathedral of the sea is coming back, sailing straight at you at twenty five knots. I, for one, cannot wait to meet her.

 

 

 

VOYAGE REPORT- CRYSTAL SERENITY

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

I boarded the Crystal Serenity in Venice at the beginning of last month for a week long swing down through the Adriatic, stopping in at Mykonos before transiting the Dardanelles, and finally leaving the ship in Istanbul. It was a frantic, fun fuelled week that neatly balanced magnificent history with a dollop of indolent hedonism, with a couple of welcome sea days in between to allow me to catch my breath,

The cool. marble suffused expanse of the Crystal Atrium was filled with the strains of a violin quartet, swinging lushly through The Blue Danube as I walked back on board. Instead of going straight to the suite, I lingered long enough to grab a maiden glass of glacially chilled champagne. I needed to linger for a minute or so and let it all come back to me.

Since Crystal had come under the auspices of Genting Hong Kong, a series of seismic announcements have unfolded like a string of muffled drum rolls. Crystal is not so much gathering headway, as going to warp drive.New ships, a stunning yacht, a brace of deluxe river ships, and even a pair of opulent air cruises. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of it all.

But a nagging feeling of unease had still gnawed away at me. What would the new regime mean for the actual, current on board experience? How would the Genting hegemony impact on board a pair of ships that I have come to cherish over a decade and a half. Surely change and retrenchment on board were inevitable?

Over the next week, those doubts vanished like sea fret. The on board experience remains as compelling, inclusive and all pervading as ever. Crystal Serenity remains suffused in a patina of care and concern from bow to stern, truck to keel.

Service throughout the ship remains as flawless and timely as ever. The staff are adept at appearing when you need something, yet without falling over the line into being overly intrusive. Of course, the high staff to guest ratio makes this easier, but that very ratio itself is indicative of the mindset originally instilled by Joe Watters from day one. It is heartening indeed to see that Genting understands this. Quite simply, it creates a bond, a contract of sorts between crew and guests that elevates the entire experience into something far more than a ‘mere’ voyage.

Crystal’s cuisine remains peerless; a series of beautifully executed snacks and feasts, running from the simple to the sublime. Whether we are talking about the simply gorgeous chocolate ice cream at Tastes, the dainty little custard tarts at the Bistro, or the succulent, full blown Italian fare at Prego, the Crystal Serenity delivered in spades.

Particularly enjoyable were some amazing, saffron accented lamb skewers served up one night in the Trident Grill. And being able to pick at prawns and lobster while lounging on my balcony as we skirted the coast of summertime Turkey is a level of indolence that is almost stratospheric.

God knows, I looked for signs of slippage in a product- and on a ship- that I know really well. I looked in vain.

The overall vibe on this spacious, supremely comfortable ship remains as upbeat and accommodating as ever. Wonderful live music filled the shimmering Crystal Atrium before and after dinner each night as we surged through some of the most fabled, historic waters on the planet. Banner destinations such as Dubrovnik, Mykonos and Izmir unfolded around us like stunning portals to the turbulent past of one of the most mesmerising regions in the world. And, having been sated and fascinated by these incredible places, we would return to the reassuring welcome of our floating home from home. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what sailing on the Crystal Serenity still feels like.

Over the years, the ship- along with the equally sybaritic Crystal Symphony- has been constantly refined and re-imagined, especially in the public areas. Particularly beautiful is the lounging space under the sliding glass roof of the Trident Grill. Teak decking, liberally sprinkled with plush lounging chairs and sofa groups, is now framed by vibrant climbing walls draped in lush greenery. There is even a small tree draped with twinkling fairy lights that makes for a stunning focal point while enjoying more casual evening fare over dinner.

The classic, on board alchemy achieved by this marriage of space and grace creates a clean, harmonious whole that is, quite simply, without peer. Details delight the eye and lift the spirit. The Crystal experience remains as vibrant and uplifting as ever.

Crystal CEO, Edie Rodriguez, was on board for this voyage. Affable, accessible and hugely capable, she is well aware that the line’s key asset remains the superb Crystal staff that give both ships their heart, soul and personality. From the start, Crystal was a line that hired it’s staff based on their attitude first and foremost. The theory always was that such staff could be trained up to offer the best possible levels of service for the guests then. It was a proven formula, and it remains one that has paid huge dividends for the line itself.

This level of intimately styled excellence, married to superb, quality hardware and a series of carefully thought out, round the world itineraries, is what really marked out the Crystal product of old as a thing apart. Happily, it still does to this day.

In my opinion, Crystal Cruises is the obvious heir to the cherished seagoing traditions of such stellar travel icons as the Royal Viking Line, and even the French Line. And, while it operates in a very different market to those long gone legends, Crystal’s ongoing adherence to those self same, timeless values of care and courtesy garnished with a ‘can do’ attitude, mark it out as a singular, worthy counterpart to both.

As I noted at the start of this piece, one of my concerns was whether or not that vital, all pervasive attitude might have changed under the new regime. After my recent trip on the Crystal Serenity, I can say emphatically say that it has not.

And in a world where hype too often attempts to masquerade as style, that is something that I for one find truly heartening.