PRINCESS OFFERING TWO SHIPS TO MEXICO THIS WINTER

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Enjoy memorable sunsets on a Princess cruise to Mexico

Princess Cruises will offer no less than sixteen seven and eight night Mexican Riviera cruises from Los Angeles over the coming winter season.

Beginning on November 21st, both Crown Princess and Ruby Princess will be making round trip right through until April 9th next year, and again from October 2016 onwards.

The far more numerous seven night sailings follow the traditional, three port round trip circuit, with calls at Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas. Two eight night seasonal sailings, departing on December 19th and 27th respectively, will also add on the port of Manzanillo.

All round trip itineraries allow for a minimum of three sea days.

The Princess commitment to the resurgent Mexico run matches recent redeployments to the area by ships from Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line. Holland America Line is also offering a series of similar sailings, departing from the port of San Diego.

Whether Royal Caribbean will return to the Mexican run remains to be seen; as of now, no sailings for the area are listed on the current UK website.

Of course, Princess are no strangers to the Mexican Riviera; back in the ‘Love Boat’ days of old, the weekly television series revolved around the fun and frolics happening aboard a Princess ship as she sailed these self same waters. The show became a television staple and, indeed, many people still credit it today for starting the great, ongoing cruise boom of the last three decades.

These current Princess ships sailing to Mexico are a lot more sassy, stylish and amenity laden than their dainty Seventies forebears, and the allure of the Mexican Riviera seems to have finally rebounded positively after a few years becalmed by rising crime rates. As a voyage, it provides a welcome, less frenetic option for winter sun seekers that might be jaded with the Caribbean.

Worth considering, especially with a few pre or post cruise hotel days at one of those sun splashed beach cities of LA.

ROYAL PRINCESS ON THE TELLY, AND SHIPS ON SCREEN BEFORE HER…..

Ironically, no ship has popularised cruising on the TV screen as much as this one...

Ironically, no ship has popularised cruising on the TV screen as much as this one…

The news today that Royal Princess is to be the ‘star’ of a new, four part ITV television series should not come as too much of a surprise, given the history of Princess Cruises and the world famous Love Boat series of the seventies and eighties. That particular show- mass marketed and seen worldwide- was a massive boon in boosting cruising’s visibility. Needless to say, it did not exactly hurt the coffers of the parent company, either.

Obviously, Princess Cruises is hoping for some kind of bounce one more time in exposing it’s newest, fully fledged star to media scrutiny. Celebrity Cruises endured a similar series of programmes a few years back, when everyday crew life aboard their then Galaxy made an unlikely star of Jane McDonald.  If these things go well, then the benefits are obvious.

But do they always go well?

Certainly, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines got mixed reviews based on a documentary series, filmed aboard their popular Balmoral. That particular programme attracted a lot of negative feedback, although, once again, the company’s bookings are said to have profited quite a lot. And if money is the bottom line rather than perception, I guess Fred still came out way ahead.

These programmes are far more ‘fly on the wall’  than the smooth, mushy goo served up by the Love Boat week in and out. And, even back in the early eighties, the legendary Alan Whicker made a series of documentaries aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 during her first, post Falklands world cruise.

But long before even that extraordinary odyssey, ships on the telly were nothing new. And, of course, one particular ship more than any other……

It was almost inevitable that the Titanic would steam across the screenscape of Upstairs, Downstairs, just as she would also sail across the backdrop of it’s logical successor in the Edwardian melodrama sweepstakes, Downton Abbey. In fact, the lost liner appeared with such regularity as a celluloid backdrop on TV that well known TV presenter, Barry Norman, famously quipped that the Titanic had ‘sailed more miles on film than she ever did in real life’.

Ironically, the constant dragging up for air of the most famous shipwreck in history seems to have had a perversely beneficial effect on cruising, and on passengers embarking on the transatlantic crossing as well. With the retelling of  such a spectacular disaster promoting such a spike in ratings, the irony is obvious.

QE2 was already a reality television star in the early righties

QE2 was already a reality television star in the early righties

And here we come to the always perennial disconnect between television and cruise line expectations. Each has their own agenda in filming these things. For good TV is not about anything so much as maximising ratings. And, in pursuit of that, if corners get cut or stories/people are misrepresented, well that’s just collateral damage.

And, of course, the ship owners want to display their product and image in hopefully the most flattering light. Which is not always the most accurate picture, either.

So, as Royal Princess prepares to tread the boards, let us all wish her well. But please, let’s take it all with at least a small pinch of salt.

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.

GOING, GOING, GONE- CRUISE SHIPS ON BORROWED TIME

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

With yesterday’s announcement that the pioneer Royal Caribbean ship, the 1970-built former Song Of Norway has been sold for scrap in China, a harsh light has been shone once more on the fate of the first real generation of small, purpose built cruise ships. With a still depressed financial outlook and the continuing public love affair with amenity laden mega ships, the real surprise is perhaps that many of these ships have lasted for so long.

There were ominous straws in the wind, principally with the long drawn out end of the Pacific, the former Pacific Princess. Nothing brought home the mortality of these ships like the sight of the shabby carcass of the world famous Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish waterfront breakers. And she was preceded to the block by the Atlantic, a ship built as recently as 1984.

So, with the maritime equivalent of death row looking like it might soon be full to capacity, what other ships are there in the background that look as if their days might be numbered? The actual roster is as illustrious as it is worrying.

The beautiful, 1973 built Saga Ruby ends her final stint of service with Saga Cruises next year and, with no future buyer yet in evidence, the smart money is on this gorgeous, iconic ship following her sister ship, Saga Rose, to some wrecking beach somewhere. I hope I’m wrong, because this wonderful ship would make a good fit for Fred. Olsen or, indeed, the rival Cruise and Maritime.

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

Speaking of Cruise and Maritime, they were the last company to operate the now laid up Ocean Countess, better known as the famous Cunard Countess of 1976. The ship has been laid up in Greece since her final sailing in October of 2012 and, barring a sale to a company like Louis Cruises (who did actually own her at one time) the pretty little ship has got to be looking at the distinct possibility of one final, one way trip.

I hope this is not the case, having been lucky enough to enjoy a sunny, fun filled weekend around the Greek Islands on this lovely ship a few years ago. Sadly, sentiment does not impact the steely resolve of scrappers, and their almost limitless lust for fresh blood.

Also looking more than a bit dodgy is the MSC Melody, the former Atlantic of 1982. Laid up in Naples and offered for sale since January 2013, the former Home Lines matriach has yet to find any gainful future employment.

This is a ship that would be a much better fit for Louis, with a decent passenger capacity that would allow relative economies of scale, especially on short, destination intensive cruises. The fact that she also has a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool would also mean that the company could consider operating her year round, perhaps in the Mediterranean, or even further afield. The one downside to this is that she has no balcony cabins, but this is less of an issue on short Greek Islands cruises.

P&O's original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

P&O’s original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

Sadly, the truth is that the future for these ships- and many others of their size, style and heritage- is not looking particularly bright. Owners want bigger, more fuel efficient and less labour intensive ships, while passengers- long since conditioned to ever larger, more diverse mega ships- want bigger, shiny new toys.

This dovetailing of owner/passenger desires and expectations, combined with what still amounts to a depressed market in the Eastern Mediterranean, sadly amounts to a perfect storm for those vintage vessels still in a state of limbo. With the warm weather, short cruise season at an end for 2013, it might well be that some lines will keep their powder dry and attempt to snap up a bargain or two at the start of the new year.

Let’s hope so and, if they are indeed playing Russian roulette, let’s also hope that at least a few of these storied, sophisticated ladies manage to dodge the proverbial bullet.

As always, stay tuned.

PARADE TO THE BLOCK: SAVED OR SCRAPPED?

Heading for a new life next year....

Heading for a new life next year….

With the recent arrival of the former Pacific Princess at the Aliaga scrapyards, it seems to be open season on all currently redundant seventies tonnage, and even for some eighties stalwarts, for that matter. Nothing better illustrates the rise of the mega ships- and the demand for more and more balconies- than the sudden fall from grace of several once storied names in the maritime firmament.

Currently languishing without comment or interest for several months are the MSC Melody of 1982, and the Ocean Countess, late of Cruise and Maritime, and best remembered as the original Cunard Countess of 1976. While there is no doubt that both ships would make ideal acquisitions for short, destination intensive cruises- such as those operated by Louis, for example- the lack of apparent buyer interest has to be worrying. Both of these ships surely have a few years left in them at least.

What really brought home the true state of play was the tragic scrapping of the 1984-built Atlantic. Here was a beautiful ship, doomed and dragged to her death simply because she was built as a steam turbine ship. Five or six years ago, some enterprising company would have thought little of buying and re-engining this smart, stylish vessel. Instead, she is being recycled to make razor blades.

It’s a worrying trend. After her 2008 sale to Louis fell through, the former Norwegian Dream endured almost five years of warm layup, before being finally revitalised this year by sister company, Star Cruises, as their Superstar Gemini. We’re not talking about some antiquated old dowager here; the ship was built in 1992, lengthened in 1998, and has at least a few dozen desirable balcony cabins.  Yet still, she has endured five wasted years.

Also currently in limbo- and of the same vintage- is the pretty little ship that was the original Superstar Gemini, now known as the Gemini. Also built in 1992, this ship- the twin sister of Fred. Olsen Lines Braemar- was last heard of being used as an accommodation ship for the 2012 Olympic games, based in Tilbury, where I saw her last October. Again, she would be an ideal choice for Louis.

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

But it’s not all doom and gloom. To the amazement of just about everybody in the maritime community, the former Classic International Cruises fleet has made the most amazing comeback since Lazarus, or even Take That. Against all the odds, the oldest quartet in maritime history- the seagoing equivalent of the Rolling Stones- is being lovingly restored and prepared to sail again, under the hopefully benevolent banner of Portuscale cruises. The oldest of the quartet- the 1948 built Azores- predates the legendary SS. United States by a full four years.

Few things in the cruise industry are as sublimely contradictory as the way that these ships have gestated, while vessels thirty years their junior are being run onto Turkish beaches like so many gutted carcasses.

In the industry’s headlong pursuit of the newest, biggest and the glitziest, some perfectly good ships are meeting the chop long before anyone might expect. Sadly, this is one trend that I see continuing over the next few years. I hope and pray that I’m wrong on this one.

PETITE PRINCESSES- SHORT CARIBBEAN BREAKS IN A LOVE BOAT STYLE

Grand Turk is one of the offerings on the Princess winter menu

Grand Turk is one of the offerings on the Princess winter menu

In Florida over the winter, and in need of a short little add on cruise to charge up the batteries? Princess Cruises have introduced some great little, fun filled four and five day itineraries out of their Fort Lauderdale home port that are certainly worth a look.

These are unusual in and of themselves; traditionally, Princess has always stuck more or less rigidly to the seven night round trip sailings to the eastern and western Caribbean. It left these types of short, four and five night itineraries to Carnival, Royal Caribbean and- at one time- Norwegian. But now the line, famous as the operator of the recently deceased Love Boat, is hoping that the travelling public will fall under the spell of their unique brand of style and service.

Why now? Partly as a result of increased tonnage becoming available, in the shape of the pioneering new Royal Princess. This allowed some deft reshuffling of the Princess pack, and the creation of these new itineraries.

Plus, with the economy on both sides of the Atlantic still critical to flat lining, more and more people are looking out for short, good value breaks that are both price and time sensitive. In that respect, Princess is playing catch up with the opposition.

Still, they have come up with some excellent deals. Here’s a look at what’s on offer.

Royal Princess: The aforementioned, groundbreaking new flagship makes her Caribbean debut on October 29th this year, with a five night round trip sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Turk and the company’s private island, Princess Cays. Prices start at £387. 

Ruby Princess: Another recent, state of the art megaship. A four night, western Caribbean itinerary calling at Cozumel sails on December 14th. Fares are from £299.

Winter? Where?

Winter? Where?

She also offers a four night eastern Caribbean cruise on December 18th, calling at Grand Turk. Fares from £299. A similar, four night Christmas Cruise sails on December 22nd, and calls at Princess Cays.  The prices are from £519.

Another, four night cruise to the western Caribbean, calling at Grand Cayman, sails on December 26th, and is priced from £519.

The New Years Eve cruise aboard Ruby Princess is a five night, festive fling, sailing from Fort Lauderdale on December 30th, and heads out to the eastern Caribbean staples of Grand Turk and Princess Cays. Fares for this voyage start from £589.

Should you be looking more in terms of options for early 2014, Ruby Princess has you covered again, with a total of twenty four different four and five night sailings, running through until April 22nd, and featuring all the ports mentioned above.

Sister ship, Caribbean Princess will then take over the Fort Lauderdale run, with some sizzling options on offer running right through into the early spring.

Princess has an on board product that offers the experience and amenities of big ship cruising in a series of more intimate scaled venues, plus signature activities such as the lines famous Movies Under The Stars programme. The product is an excellent, well balanced choice overall, and equally suited to the novice cruiser looking for a first time experience, to the veteran cruise traveller in need of a short break.

Your escape capsule awaits...

Your escape capsule awaits…

It’s a well thought through and deft little programme, and one definitely worth a look.

Please note: All prices quoted here are based on inside cabins. For fares on outside and balcony cabins, please contact your travel agent.

SHIPS GO SOUTH BEACH STYLE

Lounging to the max; dream beds on the new Europa 2

Lounging to the max; dream beds on the new Europa 2

I think it really started about five years back. All of a sudden, without any warning, cruise ships began to sprout swathes of plush, oversized outdoor sofas and chairs where none had ever been before. Areas once lined with rows of sturdy, teak steamer chairs suddenly mutated into what looked like nothing less than annexes of South Beach.

And not before time.

For years, interior architecture on cruise ships has evolved at a steady rate of knots, both in terms of decor and function. But outdoor decks had changed little since the eighties in terms of comfort; though water slides, aqua parks and rock climbing walls erupted all over the bigger ships, the comfort factor of those same open decks remained stuck in the Love Boat era. As lounging areas go, they were hardly used after dusk.

That’s the way many of the cruise lines wanted it, too. We were expected to be indoors, having fun and spending our dollars in the bars, shops and casinos that gave those ships their whole reason for existence. Life after seven o’clock on board was geared around the entire shopping mall experience. It took literally years for the cruise lines to realise that those same outer decks were nothing less than under performing acres of prime real estate. Some got this quicker than others.

Suddenly, plush double divans and cushioned pods began to spring up in strategic upper deck locales. On the bigger ships, these evolved into adults only zones, typified by the Serenity Decks on Carnival ships. Surprisingly, the biggest of mass market lines has been one of the most profligate in terms of the massive outdoor upgrades in deck areas.

Kick off your shoes...

Kick off your shoes…

Of course, where this kind of expansive largesse really works is on the small to medium sized ships, where there is not quite the same scrum to get these prime spots, and where there is less chance of there being somebody’s kids running around and generally spoiling the mood.  In particular, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea have been very good at creating some deft, aft facing little eyries on their upper decks. A martini; a little mood music, and a gently flaring sunset;  these refurbed, largely repurposed terraces have raised the bar of the entire small ship cruise experience.

As ever, sassy Crystal has taken a slightly different route. It stripped out the magrodome covered pools on both it’s ships, closed over the gap, and then filled the entire area with huge, overstuffed sofas, chairs and pod beds. The result? Probably the most attractive- and practical- indoor/outdoor lounging areas of any ships afloat. A dramatic enhancement to a pair of already stellar ships.

Mind you, the daddy of all outdoor lounging areas for me remains that small, perfectly formed upper deck terrace on the mesmerising little Paul Gauguin, just outside the La Palette disco. To be fair, I think this has as much to do with the quality of the matchless Tahitian sunsets it showcases as much as everything else, but the small, plush, intimate sensation of height certainly helps as well.

The bottom line is that cruise lines have finally woken up to the potential of using these spaces at night. On the fabulous new Europa 2 the other week, we had an outdoor party round the pool area that could have been something straight out of the South Beach or Mykonos playbook. And almost all of the ship’s inhabitants were up there, enjoying the space, style, fun and luxury through till the small hours.

Style and shade aboard Europa 2

Style and shade aboard Europa 2

There’s something special, unique and wonderfully self indulgent about lounging about under the stars, with or without friends. A simple, timeless pleasure, deftly rediscovered. Happy sailing.