ROYAL CARIBBEAN; ROAMING AND ROLLING…..

As all eyes await the imminent arrival of Anthem Of The Seas in Southampton, and the first full season deployment of an Oasis class ship in the Med is about to be ushered in by Allure Of The Seas, other bits and pieces are going on at Royal Caribbean that seem to have largely slipped under the radar.

With two such genuine, headline grabbing acts, this is hardly surprising. Yet these other comings and goings are, in their own ways, no less news worthy than the shenanigans involving their bigger offspring. So, let’s look at two of them.

Firstly, Splendour Of The Seas will be leaving the fleet in 2016 to join Thomson Cruises (Thomson Splendour, anyone?) The 69,000 ton ship, delivered in March of 1996, was the second of the so-called ‘Vision’ class ships. Like her earlier sibling- Legend Of The Seas- she boasted a vast amount of glass walls all around the ship and, for the first time, larger than average cabins compared the the previous Sovereign class.

Make no mistake; the sale of the first of the Vision class marks a true watershed for RCCL. For Thomson, the ship is a tremendous acquisition. Twice as large as anything else they have ever owned, and with a larger number of good balcony cabins, the ship will replace the Island Escape- ironically, another one time ex-RCCL ship- in the Mediterranean, at least initially. Itineraries are due to be announced next month.

Also next April, Majesty Of The Seas will finally leave the fleet. The last of the original Sovereign class trio will enjoy a happy reunion with her two previously departed sisters over at Pullmantur. The question is, what will replace her on the lucrative, three and four night Bahamas and Key West runs out of Miami.

It is possible that Legend Of The Seas could step into this role. In any event, I fully expect it to be one of the remaining five ships of the Vision class. It seems as yet unlikely that one of the newer, shinier Radiance class vessels would be relegated to such a short, port intensive run.

Finishing the ‘Royal Round Up’, the line has announced that the third of the Oasis class vessels- Harmony Of The Seas- will debut in the Caribbean next year, alongside her two sisters. And- one that is already proving popular news here in the UK- the ever popular Independence Of The Seas will be returning to Southampton to resume year round sailings.

As ever, stay tuned.

PANAMA AT 100; SOME CRUISE OPTIONS FOR 2014

Legend Of The Seas is offering Panama Canal cruises in 2014

Legend Of The Seas is offering Panama Canal cruises in 2014

2014 is a big year for anniversary travel, especially bearing in mind the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and, from a land based side, the centenary of the Great War, But it is also the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the waterway that cut the journey time between Atlantic and Pacific from weeks to hours.

Panama was a waterway that literally changed history. One of the most desperate. last ditch Japanese plans for changing the course of the Second World War centered around a submarine launched bombing raid on it that never came to pass. When the passage hewn at such ghastly human cost opened in 1914, the long, perilous voyage around the tip of South America became a thing of the past, and the tempo of east-west trade changed forever.

Literally tens of thousands of lives were lost to malaria and yellow fever in the jungle shrouded killing fields of Panama, but finally the forty eight mile long canal- the brainchild of a French engineer named Ferdinand De Lesseps- was completed by the Americans, and officially opened on August 15th, 1914, by which date Europe was already at war,

There are plenty of indolent sea days en route

There are plenty of indolent sea days en route

Today, the legacy of Panama’s genesis is one of the most amazing travel experiences on offer anywhere today, an astonishing, eight hour passage through a panoply of dense, rolling tracts of jungle that tumbles down to the waters’ edge on both sides. As your ship gradually rises and falls more than eighty feet as it is threaded gingerly through a series of gigantic locks, the air all around you is a live with the sound of chattering, humming and screeching local birds and wildlife; it really is an all out visual and vocal assault on the senses.

Essentially, most Panama transits take place as part of relocating cruises. In spring, many cruise ships relocate from Miami to Los Angeles, from their winter Caribbean cruise grounds to the popular Alaska summer runs. In the autumn, they relocate the other way. Either way, these cruises- which always of necessity involve a full transit of Panama- take between thirteen and fourteen days.

Either way, it’s a pretty exhilarating adventure, swapping the indolent playgrounds of the Caribbean for the sparkling, sun splashed waters of the Pacific, where the sunsets defy belief. Whichever direction you sail in, you’ll stop off at such places as beautiful Huatulco on the Mexican side, as well as famously feisty and fun Cabo San Lucas, with the soaring Los Arcos rock formations, and its internationally famous freewheeling, fun vibe.

On the other side, after that spectacular, stand out transit of Panama proper, you might stop in at breezy, Spanish accented Cartagena, before heading north to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale. In between, reckon on quite a few relaxing sea days to just kick back and soak up that delightful tropical sun.

Parrots of Panama

Parrots of Panama

Typically, Florida to California (westbound) Panama cruises sail in the spring, with eastbound trips running from September onward. With that in mind, here’s my pick of some of the best cruises, running in both directions, over the course of 2014.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN has four transits of Panama announced, all of them on the 70,000 ton, recently revitalised Legend Of The Seas. Eastbound dates: April 1 and November 30.  The two westbound departures are on March 17 and November 15.

More upscale? Sassy CELEBRITY CRUISES has no less than seven Panama transits on its roster. The classically styled Celebrity Century sails westbound on both January 5 and March 6, and eastbound on January 20.

Her larger, more contemporary fleet mate, Celebrity Infinity, also offers a tempting quartet of options. She sails westbound on March 30 and again on November 4, and has eastbound crossings available on April 14 and November 19.

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE is the pioneer of Freestyle Cruising, and the line has no less than four ships making Panama transits next year. Here’s how the four ships line up;

Norwegian Pearl: westbound on April 18; eastbound on October 3.

Norwegian Star: westbound on October 20 and November 17. Eastbound on April 20 and November 3.

Norwegian Sun: westbound on April 28; eastbound on November 4.

Norwegian Jewel: westbound (from New Orleans) on April 20. Eastbound (to Houston) on September 25.

Any of these options will provide you with a good, solid cruise experience. The one essential recommendation I would make is that, if you are going to go to all the trouble of embarking on a Panama Canal adventure, then it is definitely worth booking a balcony cabin.

Enjoy!

SPLENDOUR OF THE SEAS- ROYAL CARIBBEAN’S STALWART

Splendour Of The Seas off Santorini

Splendour Of The Seas off Santorini

Looking at the graceful, flowing contours of Splendour Of The Seas, it’s hard to believe that the Royal Caribbean stalwart is now some seventeen years old. Always gleaming and recently extensively refurbished, the 70,000 ton Splendour has been a consistently successful team player; never really a headline maker, but rather a solid, workmanlike ship with a unique style and vibe of her own.

Part of this relatively low profile comes down to her being the second member of the six ship, oddly named Vision class. Twin sister ship, Legend Of The Seas, was the trailblazer for this innovative new class. The namesake ship was actually the last of the sextet to enter service.

Splendour Of The Seas debuted in Southampton in March of 1996, almost a year after her sister. I visited her then, and found her to be a hugely impressive ship. As with all of the class, a huge amount of floor to ceiling glass was used in the superstructure, to bathe the ship in natural light. The two deck high dining room was especially stunning, and must still rank as one of the most beautiful ever installed on any ship.

The showroom was pure Art Deco and, as with her sister ship, there was a conscious effort by Royal Caribbean to provide bigger cabins than the company ever had before. Gone were the ‘get out there’ shoeboxes of the Sovereign class; Splendour showcased over two hundred balcony cabins; a huge amount for that time.

These ships also began Royal Caribbean’s relentless march towards bigger, more amenity laden ships. Splendour featured a full, eighteen hole mini golf course on her upper decks, and it was a huge talking point at the time.

She soon settled into popular cruise service, mainly in the Mediterranean, but within three years she was eclipsed by the mammoth Voyager Of The Seas, the first of a five ship series that was, incredibly, twice the size of the Vision class.

These behemoths upped the ante enormously in the amenity stakes, and it was eventually decided that all of the Vision class ships should be retro fitted with some of the new eateries, leisure and entertainment options- such as the rock climbing walls- that have become as much signature Royal Caribbean trademarks as those famous Viking Crown lounges of old.

The result is, quite literally, the best of both worlds. Splendour Of The Seas remains relatively intimate, yet still replete with a conga line of cruising goodies comprehensive enough to satisfy the most jaded of travellers. She usually sails from the stunningly beautiful backdrop of Venice through the spring and summer, to the highlights of Croatia and the Greek Islands.

At the end of autumn, the Splendour usually relocates to South America, crossing the Atlantic in good time to offer that continent when the weather is usually at its best. Typically, she operates a series of three to seven day cruises from Santos, the port for Sao Paolo.

For those looking for an elegant, accommodating ship that offers more than just a little charm and style, the Splendour Of The Seas is definitely one of the better choices out there.