PORTUSCALE- IS THIS THE ENDGAME?

Yesterday’s sad departure for the scrapyard of the ailing Lisboa, ex Princess Danae, throws a pretty stark light on the state of parent company, Portuscale Cruises.

With no news of any employment for the company’s flagship, the beautifully restored, 1961 built Funchal, or the smaller, 6,000 ton, 1965 built Porto, things are looking anything but good.

Mercifully, the one success story in this bleak litany seems to be the 1948 built Azores, soon to be renamed as Astoria. The former Stockholm has been chartered by British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, for a few years. In turn, she will go out on an extensive, French based charter for most of 2016. So, for the future at least, her future seems assured.

The potential loss of Funchal and Porto would be devastating for those who love smaller, classically styled ships. Fewer and fewer of these charismatic dowagers remain in service with each passing year. And, while it does not actually bear thinking about, the possibility that these two fine ladies might follow Lisboa on her last, lonely voyage can no longer be discounted.

I hope and pray that this can be avoided. More than ever, the maritime community needs to be able to experience ships that come with no other gimmicks than that of being at sea on a solid, dependable, classically styled ship.

Fingers crossed on this one. As ever, stay tuned.

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

The Athena, currently sailing as the Azores for Cruise and Maritime, off Kotor, Montenegro

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

MARITIME SNIPPETS; TIDE, TYNE, AND OUT OF TIME…..

There’s no shortage of news to digest on the maritime front. And, like anything that you are obliged to chew over- whethether actually or mentally- some leave a better taste in the mouth than others. In this industry, that is the inevitable default setting.

I was immensely saddened, but not surprised, to see the sale of the lovely little Lisboa to a scrapyard, some two years after her partially completed refit had to be aborted owing to unexpected extra costs. I had the pleasure of sailing on this staunch, dignified little dream of a ship and, to those who love her, her loss is tragic indeed, if inevitable.

On the plus front, the forthcoming arrival in the UK of Anthem Of The Seas will add a welcome splash of colour and diversity to the big ship market. Sleek, state of the art, and jam packed with a conga line of beguiling new gimmicks and estalished, old fashioned favourites, I expect this ship to be an absolute smash during her first ever European season.

For my own, native North East, this coming August will see the very welcome visits of not one, but two, six star ships within two weeks of each other. First is a very welcome debut for Regent’s sybaritic Seven Seas Voyager, still currently one of only three all suite, all balcony cruise ships in the world. She is followed a fortnight later by the excellent, perenially elegant Crystal Symphony, recently extensively refurbished and definite

Old, new, borrowed and blue. It's all going on right now in the cruise industry...

Old, new, borrowed and blue. It’s all going on right now in the cruise industry…

ly looking as regal as ever.

The arrival of such high end vessels in the region is a wonderful opportunity to show just how much this area has to offer to cruise ship passengers. I hope all concerned do everything possible to provide these incoming visitors with a wonderfully inclusive experience for the day.

For my part, I am also very much looking forward to seeing CMV’s Magellan when she arrives for her inaugural visit to the Tyne on Saturday, 28th March. The 46,052 ton ship- formerly the Holiday of Carnival Cruise Lines- has been extensively refurbished, and looks stunning in her new livery. Expect a full review of this ship shortly.

And, of course, it is not too long now until the poised, beautifully styled Viking Star makes her debut. The first of Viking Ocean’s quartet of cruise ships is very much a throwback to the traditional style of inclusive excellence once typified by the legendary Royal Viking Line, and this new ship is clearly aimed at a market that prefers a more inclusive, tradtional kind of cruise experience. Clearly, the lady is going to be quite something.

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

 

SHIPS GOING NOWHERE? DEUTSCHLAND AND A SUPPORTING CAST

Are some lines moving ahead faster than others this year?

Are some lines moving ahead faster than others this year?

The last couple of weeks have seen a blizzard of new, very positive announcements in the mega ship market from the likes of MSC Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian and, of course, most recently Carnival.

In addition, the mid size, upscale market has had cause to celebrate with the keel laying of a superb new vessel for Regent Seven Seas, plus the acquisition of a fourth of the original ‘R’ class vessels by Oceania. The exciting new Viking Star is imminent. And, in just a few months, Windstar is set to showcase the pair of lavishly refurbished ex-Seabourn yachts that are being added to the fleet.

In so many ways, it seems like ‘full speed ahead’ for the industry. But, while all of the developments listed above are welcome and to be lauded, somewhere in between, other ships seem to be slipping, forgotten and neglected, between the cracks in the sweeping media spotlights.

What, for instance, of Deutschland? Last linked with a bizarre takeover by Crystal Cruises, the former Peter Deilmann stalwart- one of the most beautiful, stunningly decorated ships ever built- is still swinging idly at anchor off Gibraltar. There were stated to be between two to four buyers interested in purchasing her only two months ago. Now, the sound of silence is deafening,

And what of Gemini?

Last known to be laid up in Tilbury following her stint as a hotel ship during the 2012 London Olympics, the trim little cruise liner seems to have donned some kind of cosmic invisibility cloak. No one seems to know who-if anyone- might be interested in this lovely little ship, built as relatively recently as 1992.

And no word, either, from Portuscale Cruises after stories began to circulate that the partially refurbished, 1955 built Lisboa had been put up for sale, appearing on at least one shipbroker’s sales list. The ship is said to be mechanically sound, with some work needed on the bridge instruments. Many are thinking that her future is not looking good and, par for the course, Portuscale has been typically recitent to say anything, A state of affairs that serves only to confuse the issue further.

On the plus side, the similar sized (20,000 ton) Astor has found a happy home with Cruise and Maritime Voyages, who will also continue to operate the veteran, 1948 built Azores and, of course, the superb, 1965 built Marco Polo. That ship celebrates a well deserved 50th anniversary this summer.

The latter news is a welcome glimmer of light in what seems like an otherwise constant parade of smaller, more intimate cruise ships to the scrapyard. And their demise, while perhaps understandable from an economic point of view, deprives the industry as a whole of some of the charming, quirky diversity that used to be integral to its make up.

In the midst of all the welcome news about the big ships, some more positive developments in the smaller ship sector would be very welcome as well.

And should any such news transpire, it will be recounted right here as it comes in.

My advice? As always, stay tuned.

PRINCESS DANAE PHOTO ESSAY

The photos you’re about to see capture scenes from on board what is, in effect, a floating time capsule. They were taken aboard the Princess Danae of Classic International Cruises on a cruise from Rhodes through to Piraeus in the early Autumn of 2009.

The sun at that time of year casts a wistful, almost melancholy light on the waters of the Aegean. And there, you’ll see it throw parts of this venerable, 1954 built ship, with her riveted hull, into amazing relief.

As of now, the ship, now owned by Portuscale Cruises and renamed Lisboa, is part way through an extensive, presently suspended refit in Lisbon. 

The Princess Danae at Kusadasi

The Princess Danae at Kusadasi

Broadside view, Rhodes harbour

Broadside view, Rhodes harbour

At sea, looking forward from the stern

At sea, looking forward from the stern

Long, narrow outdoor promenade

Long, narrow outdoor promenade

Looking aft at the pool deck

Looking aft at the pool deck

Shaded lido buffet area

Shaded lido buffet area

View from upper terrace out over stern

View from upper terrace out over stern

Port side boat deck, facing the stern

Port side boat deck, facing the stern

Looking forward, from fantail to funnel

Looking forward, from fantail to funnel

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Wicker furniture is just right on a ship like this

Wicker furniture is just right on a ship like this

Pool and lido

Pool and lido

Twilight on the dreamlike Aegean....

Twilight on the dreamlike Aegean….

Lido lounge and funnel at night

Lido lounge and funnel at night

Inside the lido pool lounge

Inside the lido pool lounge

Main bar on board the Princess Danae

Main bar on board the Princess Danae

The show lounge, sited amidships

The show lounge, sited amidships

Side view of show lounge, looking forward

Side view of show lounge, looking forward

Lounge bat, Princess Danae

Lounge bar, Princess Danae

The beautiful, riveted bow

The beautiful, riveted bow

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

Princess Danae alongside at Kusadasi

Princess Danae bow shot

Princess Danae bow shot

Starboard side shot of hull and superstructure

Starboard side shot of hull and superstructure

Funnel with the old CIC logo

Funnel with the old CIC logo

Interior of my suite- very fifties retro

Interior of my suite- very fifties retro

View aft from starboard side bridge wing

View aft from starboard side bridge wing

Bridge telegraph on the Princess Danae

Bridge telegraph on the Princess Danae

Same bridge shot, very different light

Same bridge shot, very different light

 

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.

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.

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.