REMEMBERING THE NORWEGIAN DREAM

Before Norwegian Cruise Line went on a mega ship building binge, there was a time in the early nineties when the company slowly began the transition from running smaller, sold out cruise ships such as the Starward, to a series of medium sized new builds that formed the mainstay of the company for the better part of a decade and a half.

The first of these new ships was the Seaward, which entered service in 1988. She was strictly a one off vessel, but she did pave the way for a new pair, to be built in the same French shipyard as the beloved company flagship, the ageing SS. Norway.

These twin sister ships would be called the Dreamward and the Windward. At around 42,000 tons each, they introduced some radical new concepts for NCL when they first debuted. Of the two, it was the Dreamward that arrived first, in November of 1992. She was showcased to the UK travel trade at Greenwich on a rainy winter Sunday but, even then, the new ship shone through.

The Dreamward featured a centrally located main pool, with the sun decks in front of it stacked up in a series of tiered steps. A modified version of this arrangement would later become a feature of the new Carnival Destiny class, the first cruise ships in the world to exceed the 100,000 ton mark.

Aft, a series of curved, window walled terraced restaurants formed a graceful cascade at the stern, offering stunning views out over the ship’s wake. A second, smaller plunge pool was located just behind them.

Inside, every cabin- both inside and outside- featured a small, dedicated sitting area that was separate to the bedroom. And, bowing to a rising tide of demand, the new ship also featured a handful of balcony cabins.

The Dreamward was formally christened by her godmother, Diana Ross, in December 1992. Almost immediately, she entered service on the popular, seven night eastern and western Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami. For the 1993 summer season, she moved north to New York, from where she operated a series of seven night cruises to Bermuda.

The centre piece of these cruises was a full, three night stay alongside in Hamilton, and these proved to be immensely popular. By this time, sister ship Windward was also in service, sailing to Alaska in the summer, and then joining the Dreamward out of Miami in the winter months. With little real variation, it was a routine that the two sister ships would follow over several seasons.

In 1997, Norwegian Cruise Line decided to lengthen both ships. In January of 1998, the Dreamward was dispatched first to a German shipyard, and there cut in half to facilitate the insertion of a pre built new mid section, some forty metres long.

In addition to this, both the mast and the top of the funnel were fitted with special hinges that would allow them to be ‘flipped’ to one side, to facilitate passage under the lower bridges of the Kiel Canal. Once refurbished, NCL planned to use the ship on a series of first time, pioneering cruises out of the United Kingdom to the Baltic capitals. And, with her new look came a new name; the ship was restyled as the Norwegian Dream.

In this guise, her tonnage increased to around 50,000, and her passenger capacity was increased. from around 1,250 up to 1,750.

The first season of these twelve night Baltic sailings were well received. Each one featured an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, as the highlight of a circuit that typically included such ports of call as Warnemunde, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, and sometimes Oslo as well. In this role, the Norwegian Dream became something of a trend setter; a role she would play out during the remainder of her service with NCL.

Then, in August of 1999, the Norwegian Dream collided with a container ship, the Ever Decent, in the middle of a thick English Channel fog. The bow of the cruise ship crumpled like rice paper, but she was never in any danger of sinking. Mercifully, there were no injuries on either ship.  Her mangled prow had to be rebuilt, at great expense, back in Germany. Following this, she re-entered service just in time for the winter time Caribbean peak season.

As newer, more amenity laden tonnage entered the NCL fleet, the Norwegian Dream was sent further afield during the winter season. She sailed a series of superb, round trip cruises in South America and to the Chilean fjords for several seasons, usually voyages of seventeen days’ duration. It was while she was on one of these that the Norwegian Dream was involved in a second collision, when she hit a barge while leaving the port of Montevideo in December of 2007. Fortunately, the damage to neither ship was serious.

The Norwegian Dream also started the tradition of winter cruising from New Orleans for NCL, running on seven night circuits to the western Caribbean. But, by 2008, it was clear that the ship no longer matched the new company profile. Her sale was expected imminently by many.

That year, the Norwegian Dream ran one final season of cruises to Bermuda from Boston, in a kind of valedictory farewell to her original role. Her sale to Louis Cruises had by then been announced and, at the end of that season, the ship sailed over to Greece, ready to begin a new life.

It never happened.

Though Louis did indeed take up the purchase of her fleet mate and fellow ‘Bermuda boat’, Norwegian Majesty, the Greek company declined to go ahead with also taking the Norwegian Dream. Louis Cruises cited ‘mechanical issues’ as a major hurdle. For a full three and a half years, the Norwegian Dream sat on life support in the Aegean, making occasional short runs between the islands to try and resolve the issues.

Finally, at the end of 2011, the ship got under way once more and headed for a dockyard in Singapore. Here, she would be transformed into the Superstar Gemini for NCL’s parent company, Star Cruises, to operate short, port intensive cruises in the Far East.

Heavily refurbished and in many ways re-invented, the Superstar Gemini enjoyed a happy reunion with her sister ship. The Norwegian Wind was by now sailing as the Superstar Aquarius for Star Cruises, and the two sister ships are now once more sailing in harmonious tandem service.

This $50 million renovation also brought her passenger capacity back down to around 1,532- a sensible decision. On a Bermuda cruise in June 2008 that I made aboard her, the Norwegian Dream– fully booked for the sailing- had seemed really crowded.

I was also lucky enough to sail on her in June of 2000, up to Scandinavia, after the repairs to her bow. In the opinion of many, the lengthening of the ship spoiled the formerly good passenger traffic flow through the ship but, having never sailed her as the Dreamward, I am not really in a position to comment.

This pioneering ship deserves more respect and appreciation than she often got back in her NCL days. The Norwegian Dream was a stylish, well thought out design that combined a wonderful external harmony with more than a dash of elegance. Like her sister ship, she served the company well during it’s ‘lost’ years of the late 1990’s. In fact, in many ways, she and her sister helped lay the foundations for the miraculous recovery that the current company enjoys to this day.

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008

LOUIS REBRANDS AS CELESTYAL CRUISES

Celestyal is going to a three ship fleet as of June, 2015.

Celestyal is going to a three ship fleet as of June, 2015.

In a not altogether unsurprising move, Louis Cruises (as was) has rebranded itself as Celestyal Cruises.

The Greek niche specialist operator created Celestyal as a ‘spin off ‘product late last year. The emphasis of Celestyal was to be on Greek history, cuisine and culture, all to be experienced in authentically Greek surroundings.

To that end, the company hived off the two main stream ships to Celestyal. Former Louis Cristal- currently cruising around Cuba for Cuba Cruises– will be restyled as Celestyal Cristal. Larger fleet mate, Louis Olympia, will morph into the Celestyal Olympia when she resumes sailings from Piraeus in March.

The duo will be augmented by the recently purchased Celestyal Odyssey, currently sailing as the Semester at Sea ship, Explorer. The 24,000 ton ship, with accommodation for 834 passengers, will join the Celestyal Olympia on the popular, three and four night Greece and Turkey itineraries from June.

The rebranding makes simple sense. As things stand, retaining the Louis name would have left just one ship- the 1968 built Louis Aura- sailing under that flag. There is as yet no news on the company website regarding the 2015 deployment of this former NCL veteran, but she is usually chartered to a French company for much of the early summer, before reverting to short sailings from Cyprus for the remainder of the season.

As ever, stay tuned for future developments.

C’EST CELESTYAL- LOUIS AIMS FOR THE STARS

See gorgeous Santorini on a Louis cruise

See gorgeous Santorini on a Louis cruise

Louis Cruises will expand its cultural and culinary horizons next month with the launch of a new brand called Celstyal Cruises. The new line will put the emphasis firmly on Greek culture and local cuisine, as well as local wine, history, and music. Full details are expected to be rolled out in September.

The core product will be built around the two ships currently sailing out of Piraeus and Lavrion respectively, namely the Louis Olympia and Louis Cristal. The two ships will lose the ‘Louis’ prefix from their name, sailing simply as Olympia and Cristal.

At present, Louis Olympia is sailing the line’s very popular programme of three and four night cruises from Piraeus, while the smaller Louis Cristal is sailing a more all embracing series of seven night, round trip cruises from Lavrion, just south of Athens near Cape Sounion. I’ll be on the Louis Cristal next month, and there will be a full report from on board posted here soon after.

There is no word yet how the smaller, veteran Louis Aura of 1968 will fit into the Louis schedule for 2015. The ship operated a successful French charter earlier this year, and is currently sailing short cruises out of Limassol. The French charter has apparently been renewed for next year.

In related news, Louis Cruises is also said to be close to completing a deal for another ship for it’s fleet. The line is said to be considering both the laid up Gemini and the slightly larger Aegean Paradise. The latter has a fair number of balcony cabins, which would be a first for the company if they do take that option.

The central fountain in Rhode old town

The central fountain in Rhode old town

For the 2014 season that runs through until November, Louis added a series of new destinations to the Aegean portfolio, including Bodrum and Cesme in Turkey, and smaller, less visited Greek islands such as Chios and tiny, picture perfect Symi.

For those travelling from the USA and perhaps further, it is worth knowing that Louis Cruises has a tie in with several luxury hotels across Greece and the islands, as part of the larger Louis Group portfolio.

Many will remember the Louis Olympia as the former Song Of America, the first mid sized new build for Royal Caribbean back in 1982. The Louis Cristal will be familiar to many as the angular, popular Leeward of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Over this winter, the Louis Cristal will head for a second season of popular, round Cuba sailings for a Canadian charter company. Embarkation is possible from both Havana and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Though primarily aimed at the Canadian market, the cruises are also on sail to Europeans, via Louis.

As ever, stay tuned.

NORWEGIAN DREAM- BERMUDA 2008 CRUISE

In her last season with Norwegian Cruise Line in 2008, the Norwegian Dream was put back on her old Boston to Bermuda run for one last season.

Having first sailed the ship in the Baltic in 2000, I decided to go back one more time, to experience the ship before what was intended to be her sale- together with fleet mate, Norwegian Majesty- to Louis Cruises.

Sailing over mid summer week, the Norwegian Dream was scheduled to spend three nights’ docked in the old, historic capital of St. Georges’ -very much my favourite part of that wonderful island. But, as we approached the entrance to the channel, high winds kicked in. Captain Aage Hoddevik decided to take the ship around to Hamilton instead.

We would spend our three days here, and it was fun all around.

The shots in here are not ‘glamour’ pictures; they simply portray every day life aboard a cruise ship, making a weekly circuit in the summer season. For a number of reasons, the sale to Louis Cruises fell through, and the Norwegian Dream endured five years of soul destroying lay up in the Greek Islands.

 Finally rescued by Star Cruises, the 50,000 ton ship was extensively refitted, and resumed service as the Superstar Gemini in 2013, on short, port intensive cruises in the Far East. So; here we are.  A look back at a ship that was a favourite of many passengers- the Norwegian Dream.

She was originally built as the Dreamward in the shipyard that is now STX France, back in late 1982, and christened by Diana Ross. A few months later, she was followed by a nearly identical sister, the Windward.

As Norwegian changed direction, both ships were sent back to Germany in 1998 to be cut in half and lengthened with a substantial mid section. They were then restyled as Norwegian Dream and Norwegian Wind, respectively.

For her first season of Baltic cruises in 1999, the Norwegian Dream was fitted with a set of hinges to the top of her funnel that allowed it to be flipped sideways, a necessity for passing under the relatively low bridges of the Kiel Canal.

It was in that year that she rammed a container ship, the Ever Decent, in thick fog in the English Channel, at the end of a Baltic cruise. Her bow crumpled like wet cardboard, and had to be entirely rebuilt at massive expense. Luckily, there were no fatalities on either ship.

Later, in December 2007, the Norwegian Dream was involved in another, luckily far less damaging collision with another container ship in Montevideo, Uruguay. 

Now sailing successfully for Star Cruises, she has been reunited with her sister ship, Norwegian Wind, now operating for that company as the Superstar Aquarius.

The boat deck. Look how close we are to the city centre

The boat deck. Look how close we are to town

The main pool deck on the Norwegian Dream

The main pool deck on the Norwegian Dream

Life on deck changed very little in those days

Life on deck changed very little in those days

Deck. Ship. At sea....

Deck. Ship. At sea….

Strange shaped swimming pool...

Strange shaped swimming pool…

Looking aft to the funnel

Looking aft to the funnel

That deck house was a sweet little spot

That deck house was a sweet little spot

I think this was called Lucky's Bar?

I think this was called Lucky’s Bar?

Remember these big, forward observation windows?

The big, forward observation windows

This was my Promenade Deck cabin

This was my Promenade Deck cabin

Arriving in Hamilton

Arriving in Hamilton

The ship alongside in Hamilton

The ship alongside in Hamilton

Looking back from ashore

Looking back from ashore

Norwegian Dream, seen from a ferry

Norwegian Dream, seen from a ferry

Bow shot from a waterfront bar

Bow shot from a waterfront bar

Ship to shore; just a few short steps

Ship to shore; just a few short steps

Dusk on the Hamilton waterfront

Dusk on the Hamilton waterfront

Band limbering up on deck

Band limbering up on deck

Hamilton waterfront from on board

Hamilton waterfront from on board

The sit in pool bar

The sit in pool bar

The Rendezvous Bar

The Rendezvous Bar

Entrance to the Four Seasons Restaurant

Entrance to the Four Seasons Restaurant

The beautifully backlit terraces

The beautifully backlit terraces

Terraces from starboard, looking forward

Terraces from starboard, looking forward

This was the quiet part of the ship

This was the quiet part of the ship

THOMSON CRUISES RENEWS THREE YEAR CONTRACT WITH LOUIS CRUISES

Thomson cruises; promising platinum

Thomson cruises; promising platinum

The Cyprus Mail newspaper is reporting today that Thomson Cruises has inked a second, three year charter renewal of two ships with the Cyprus based Louis Cruises.

According to a source in Limassol, Thomson has renewed charters of the 1983 built Thomson Spirit and the 1992 built Thomson Majesty through until November of 2017. The two vessels form part of the five ship Thomson UK operation.

The other ships- Thomson Celebration (the twin sister of Spirit), Thomson Dream and the Island Escape, are owned outright by the company.

The relationship between Thomson and Louis goes back to as far as 1996, when Thomson began chartering ships from the Cypriot operator in a bid to compete with the new, highly successful budget operation of its major rival, Airtours.

 By one of those quirky accidents of fate, the biggest of the Airtours ships now sails for Louis as the Louis Olympia, and was even chartered out to Thomson itself for several successful seasons.

This is a good deal for both lines; Louis has traditionally chartered out several of its vessels to various operators in both the UK and France. Thomson Majesty was originally built as the Royal Majesty for Majesty Cruise Lines in 1992, with Liza Minnelli acting as godmother.

She was for many years a staple of the summertime Boston to Bermuda run, a role she continued after her purchase and lengthening by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1999. She went to Louis in 2009, and has been under charter to Thomson since 2012.

The Thomson Spirit began life as the Nieuw Amsterdam for Holland America in 1983, coming to Louis Cruises after a short, ill fated attempt to revive US flagged cruising out of Hawaii.

  Both ships were recently upgraded with the addition of balconies to the higher priced cabins and suites on board. Marketed to the Thomson UK market and served by flights coming in from several UK airports, both ships sail these days on predominantly seven night, destination intensive itineraries.

With on board food and entertainment tailored to suit their British clientele, the Thomson ships have been very successful. Though the entertainment programme and cruise staff are supplied by Thomson, the ships are still owned, staffed and provisioned by Louis Cruises. 

Typically, both ships spend spring, summer and autumn in the Eastern Mediterranean (Majesty) and the Baltic (Spirit) and, while Thomson Spirit usually spends the winter season on the Red Sea, the Thomson Majesty will be running Canary Island cruises this coming winter.

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

A ROYAL CARIBBEAN ‘WHERE ARE THEY NOW’- SHIPS YOU LOVED AND LOST…

Will one of the Vision class ships be next to go?

Will one of the Vision class ships be next to go?

Without doubt, no single cruise line has enjoyed the phenomenal growth trajectory of Royal Caribbean in the past few years. And, with a continuing conga line of new builds yet to come, that giddy momentum shows no signs of stalling.

As more and more incredible, amenity laden ships have come on line, there has been an inevitable shedding of the smaller, older ships that were the foundation blocks for the 21st century incarnation of Royal Caribbean. And, while the first of those ships have now sadly come to the end of their lives in foreign scrapyards, a number of those original, storied stalwarts are still out there, leading happy and profitable ‘after lives’ …..

SONG OF AMERICA (1982)

The first new build for Royal Caribbean in over a decade, the 38,000 ton Song Of America was the first ship in the company to have a full, wrap around Viking Crown lounge around the funnel, as well as the ‘cabins forward, public rooms aft’ layout which was then very popular in the cruise industry.

She was a stunning vessel, with acres of open deck space and large, twin pools. In her early years, the Song Of America ran on the popular, week long New York to Bermuda circuit. The ship was very popular for many years, and became a mainstay of the fleet.

Happily, she is still with us. After a few changes of owner, she is now sailing for Louis Cruises as the Louis Olympia. The ship-still immediately recognisable- runs three and four night cruises from the port of Piraeus, Athens, to the Greek Islands every week, from March through to November each year.

Sovereign Of The Seas

Sovereign Of The Seas

SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS (1988)

The original Royal Caribbean mega ship, Sovereign Of The Seas was the first of a 74,000 ton, French built trio that were the largest sister ships ever constructed at the time. Her impact was sensational, and her vast, five story Centrum Lobby was widely acclaimed at the time as the most sensational public space at sea.

Visually, the Sovereign Of The Seas was a vastly upscale version of the earlier Song Of America, and followed that ship in having the same arrangement of cabins in the forward part of the ship, while most of the public rooms were arranged in a kind of ‘layer cake’ in the aft part.

Originally, the Sovereign Of The Seas ran a series of hugely successful, seven night cruises out of Miami to the Caribbean. As new ships came on line in the 90’s, the ship was relegated to running three and four night cruises to the Bahamas out of Port Canaveral.

This ground breaking ship is still with us, sailing for Spanish cruise line, Pullmantur (a Royal Caribbean affiliate) as the simply renamed Sovereign. She now runs seven night cruises in the western Mediterranean out of Barcelona, and occasionally sails over to South America to offer winter cruises from Brazil. Ironically, like her former great rival, the SS. Norway, she now sports a stunning, royal blue hull.

Inside the Viking Crown, Majesty Of The Seas

Inside the Viking Crown, Majesty Of The Seas

NORDIC EMPRESS (1990)

Originally ordered for the soon to be defunct Admiral Cruises, but then purchased by Royal Caribbean on the slipway, the beautiful, 42,000 ton Nordic Empress was built in the same French shipyard as all three of her Sovereign class counterparts in the fleet.

Smaller and more intimate, the Nordic Empress operated for many years on the lucrative Bermuda circuit in summer; a run for which her smaller size made her perfect. Over the winter, she usually offered longer, in depth, ‘deep Caribbean’ cruises from Miami.

She was especially famed for her aft facing, three story high dining room, without doubt one of the most beautiful rooms ever to go to sea. After a spell of being restyled as the Empress Of The Seas, she also made the move over to Spanish subsidiary, Pullmantur.

Today, renamed as Empress, this still lovely ship sails in the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and occasionally in Northern Europe as well.

VIKING SERENADE (1990)

Possibly the quirkiest ship ever owned by Royal Caribbean, the Viking Serenade was actually built as the 24,000 ton Scandinavia,  a luxury passenger/car ferry, designed to run year round between New York and the Bahamas. Despite the high quality of the ship, the service never really worked out in practice. She came back to Europe for a time, but never really clicked there, either.

Royal Caribbean purchased her in 1990, and gave her an imaginative makeover. A Viking Crown lounge was cantilevered around the funnel, all the car carrying capacity was used for other purposes, and the entire ship was stylishly refurbished to Royal Caribbean standards.

As the Viking Serenade, she spent many profitable years, sailing on year round,  three and four night cruises from Los Angeles to Ensenada and Catalina Island. But she never quite came up to the standards of the rest of the fleet. In particular she had many small cabins, even by Royal Caribbean standards.

Sold to Island Cruises and later incorporated into the Thomson Cruises fleet, she sails on as the budget cruise ship, Island Escape. At one time, she also offered a winter season from Brazil, but now sails almost exclusively on seven night, destination intensive Mediterranean itineraries. A recent refurbishment added some balcony cabins to parts of the ship, in order to increase her viability. She remains a popular, high density staple of the UK cruising market.

Entrance lobby on Majesty Of The Seas

Entrance lobby on Majesty Of The Seas

MONARCH OF THE SEAS (1992)

Delivered from France in 1992, the 74,000 ton Monarch Of The Seas was the second of the three ship, Sovereign class trio that marked the beginning of the dramatic expansion of Royal Caribbean as a major player. She, too, became a spectacular and successful staple of the seven night Caribbean circuit, sailing from Miami and, later, from Puerto Rico.

Like her two sisters, the Monarch Of The Seas was updated with the addition of some sixty two balcony suites and cabins. She then went round to Los Angeles, from where she sailed fora few years on three and four night cruises to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. Subsequently, she returned via Panama to Port Canaveral, from where she operated similar, short three and four night Bahamas cruises until April, 2013.

Renamed as Monarch, she also made the transition over to Pullmantur Cruises. Now painted in the same deep, royal blue paint scheme as the rest of the fleet, she sails year round, seven night Caribbean cruises from Aruba, an obvious and telling echo of her original employment with Royal Caribbean.

So, there you have it. I hope this little voyage into the past has brought back some memories and, hopefully, provided some inspiration for those that might have missed these five, fine vessels the first time around. They are still sailing and- in the immortal words of Royal Caribbean itself- my advice is; get out there.

Happy sailing!

OCEAN COUNTESS FOR THE SCRAPYARD

And another one sails off into the pages of history...

And another one sails off into the pages of history…

And another one bites the dust….

In a move that will probably sadden many and yet surprise few, the fire damaged Ocean Countess is listed as being ready for an imminent final journey to a Turkish scrapyard at Aliaga.

She follows hard on the heels of the Pacific Princess and, ironically, her former fleet mate Louis Rhea, originally the 1971-built Cunard Adventurer.

The ship was originally built in Denmark as the Cunard Countess, back in 1975. Together with her almost identical (and still intact) sibling, Cunard Princess, she spent several decades in Caribbean cruise service for Cunard, mainly from San Juan. Not until 1996 was she sold for a brief lived, soon ended Asian cruise service, before passing on to Epirotiki Cruises in 2001.

It was that now defunct company that renamed her as Ocean Countess, employing her on short, destination intensive Greek Island cruises from Piraeus. Her intimate size and large amount of open deck space made her perfect for just such a role.

She was taken over by Louis Cruises in 2007 after a brief lived German charter. That company was in need of tonnage to replace the recently lost Sea Diamond, and she was put back on her old Greek Islands run, under the name of Ruby.

It was in this guise that I spent a short but memorable weekend aboard her. Even then, the Ocean Countess still had many little reminders of her Cunard heritage dotted around the public areas. She was a feisty, funky little ship with a lot of soul; I liked her a lot.

Her subsequent 2010 charter to Cruise And Maritime for ex-UK cruising seemed encouraging, especially as the ship was given some three million pounds’ worth of cosmetic updating, prior to entering their service. Sadly, the charter was ended in September 2012, and the Ocean Countess came round to lay up in the port of Chalkis, Greece.

She spent all of 2013 laid up here, but was actually in the course of being refurbished, ready for a 2014 Russian charter,when fire engulfed her on the afternoon of Saturday, November 30th.

Five workmen on board were safely rescued from the flames, which seemed to engulf the forward observation lounge, as well as part of the adjacent pool deck. Though the ship burned and smouldered overnight, the flames were actually extinguished by the next day, and the ship remained on an even keel.

What followed was a wall of deathly silence, and the inevitable tidal wave of media speculation.

Today’s sad, yet expected news puts an end to all that as, sadly, another classic lady slips away from our sight.

RIP Cunard/Ocean Countess, 1976- 2013

LOUIS CRUISES GREEK ISLAND ITINERARIES FOR 2014

Symi is on the Louis schedules in 2014

Symi is on the Louis schedules in 2014

Louis Cruises has gone official with a dedicated brochure aimed squarely at the UK market, offering voyages on two ships on a cruise only basis.

The season begins on March 14h, when the line’s largest ship, the 38,000 ton Louis Olympia, embarks on the first of some thirty three, three night sailings, leaving from Athens on a Friday morning, with calls at Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Heraklion and Santorini. The last sailing is on October 24th.

Monday morning sailings on the Louis Olympia cover a four night itinerary to the same ports, with the added extra of a wednesday arrival in Rhodes. With a first departure on March 17th, the ship will make some thirty three of these circuits, with the final voyage beginning on October 27th.

The Louis Olympia carries around 1600 passengers in a mix of inside and outside cabins, plus a handful of upper deck balcony suites right forward. People might remember her in her former incarnations as the Song Of America and, in the UK, as the Sunbird and Thomson Destiny. She’s a comfortable, well run ship, with plenty of deck space and  a couple of decent sized outdoor pools, perfect for enjoying the balmy Greek evenings alfresco.

Summertime on Mykonos

Summertime on Mykonos

I’ve said before that these are fun, really destination intensive cruises that pass at a rapid rate of knots. To get a better feel (and a better return on your air fare) why not combine the two cruises to make a full week? It will give you more choices in ports where you spend a few hours per day.

Or, as an alternative, you could consider the seven night itineraries on offer on the slightly smaller Louis Cristal.

Returning from her winter Cuba charter, the Louis Cristal is operating  a superb seven nighter through July and August. Again, this is based on combining a three night friday departure from Athens, with a four night departure on the monday. Separately, they break down like this;

The three night cruises begin on friday, July 4th, and call in to Mykonos, Kusadasi, Samos and Milos, before returning to the port of Lavrion, just outside Athens.

A four night itinerary then departs from Lavrion on the monday, and this one visits Syros, Cesme, overnights in Bodrum, and continues on to Kos, Ios, and Santorini.

These can be combined to form some really tempting seven night cruises, without repeating the same ports of call. Options include departing on either a friday or, instead, a monday.

Lido pool on the Louis Cristal

Lido pool on the Louis Cristal

Lavrion is a ferry port, located approximately sixty kilometres from Piraeus, and apparently better suited for direct access from Athens International airport.

A second, full seven night round trip from Lavrion on the Louis Cristal begins on April 25th. There are eighteen sailings, running through until October 24th, and all take in the highlights of Istanbul, Kusadasi, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Symi, and a final call at Mykonos.

The Louis Cristal carries around 1200 passengers, and weighs around 24,000 tons. Particularly nice is the midships poo areal, with it’s sliding glass roof, and a stern facing Jacuzzi that overlooks the ship’s wake. There’s a glass walled observation lounge, cantilevered around the funnel, that offers wonderful views out over the horizon. At night, this doubles up as a late night disco.

Cabin wise, the Louis Cristal has insides, some decent sized upper deck outsides, and a handful of upper deck cabins with unusual, v-shaped balconies. There’s also a couple of forward facing balcony suites at the base of the superstructure, each with its own hot tub, that have one of the best locations of any ship afloat.

Both Louis Olympia and Louis Cristal are intimate, welcoming, and serve dinner in two main sittings each evening. Quite at home in these waters, the Louis Cruise ships are an absolutely perfect way to see the islands and resort highlights of Greece and Turkey from a safe, good value vantage point.

Rhodes Town

Rhodes Town

All told, this is a new and varied programme that cherishes all the old favourites, while at the same time folding in some new, very tempting options. For instance, you have the flexibility to combine a three, four or seven night cruise with a stay in Athens, or even a few days on one of the major islands, such as Mykonos.

One that is definitely worth considering for 2014, I think.

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.