SS UNITED STATES; CRYSTAL SALVATION?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s where the naysayers come in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

QUEEN MARY 2 SUFFERS SMALL FIRE IN GAS TURBINE

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Queen Mary 2 Mid Atlantic funnel shot

The Queen Mary 2 has suffered a small fire in one of her gas turbines today while docked in the port of Lisbon.

The fire is under control and the damage- described as minor- is currently under assessment. Right now, the liner is still scheduled to sail on time for her next port of call- the Spanish port of Vigo- later tonight.

However, one of the pods is not coming on line right at this moment.

The Queen Mary 2 is currently in the last stage of a twelve night, round trip cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands and Portugal, that sailed from Southampton on December 3rd. The ship is due back in the Hampshire port after her Vigo call on December 15th. Later that same day, she is scheduled to sail on her final, westbound crossing of the year to New York.

Stay tuned for news.

My grateful thanks go to Ron Acosta for this on the spot update.

QUEEN MARY 2 SAILS ON 250TH ATLANTIC CROSSING TODAY

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The Queen Mary 2 will embark passengers today for an historic Atlantic crossing- her 250th such voyage since she first entered service in January of 2004.

The great liner will sail from the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn, New York, on an eight day eastbound transatlantic crossing this afternoon.

Following her arrival in Southampton on December 3rd, the Queen Mary 2 will conclude her 2015 season with three additional sailings; a twelve night round trip cruise to the Canary Islands will be followed by a return, seven night crossing to New York departing on December 15th.

Following her scheduled arrival back in New York on the 22nd December, the Queen Mary 2 will sail her customary, round trip Christmas and New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, before embarking once more for Europe on January 3rd, 2016.

Next summer, the Queen Mary 2 will embark upon the most complete and comprehensive refit since her aforementioned debut. Carried through by the SMC Design company, the work will see the installation of some forty five new cabins; thirty new Britannia Club balcony cabins, and a long overdue, dedicated fifteen single cabins.

Also of note is the transformation of the current Winter Garden into a new venture called the Carinthia Lounge. Located on Deck 7, the redesigned venue will hosts breakfasts and light lunches, as well as champagne afternoon teas, and evening entertainment.

Elsewhere, the interior of the liner will be refreshed to give her more of a classic Art Deco feel, a process should help to emphasise her North Atlantic heritage.

The refit is slated to be carried through in Hamburg over the period from May 27th to June 21st 2016, inclusive. Queen Mary 2 will then resume service with a ten night, scheduled transatlantic crossing from Hamburg and Southampton to New York.

The extent of the refit makes this the most eagerly anticipated refurbishment of the 2016 cruising season so far announced. No doubt it will also prove to be the most extensively scrutinised one as well.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

QE2- HAS THE TIDE TURNED?

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

After months of silence from Dubai, words of sort finally emerge on the future of the QE2.

Those in charge at DP have been moved to say on record that the great lady will ‘not be scrapped’ and that a ‘new plan’ is extant for her future.

Of course, we have heard words from these people before. Over time, a conga line of preposterous pronouncements, followed by awkward silences, came and went to such an extent that, in the end, people (myself among them) lost all faith in anything that these gentlemen either said or did. Talk, after all, is the cheapest thing on tap in Dubai.

But, this time, actions came before words. And there lies perhaps the crucial difference.

After years of being allowed to gradually gather dirt beneath that pitiless sun, QE2 was gradually cleaned the other week. on the exterior from bow to stern. This was done quietly, and without any fuss. There was no immediate word from Dubai as to the reason for this much needed TLC. No, I don’t know what prompted the change of heart, either, though I do of course welcome it. It was almost as if the old girl flashed us a wry smile after years of grimacing in quiet, dignified agony.

What I do know is that any potential scrappers would not care if the ship appeared unkempt or not. Rust streaked, unsightly steel is no less valuable than the pristine equivalent. This gives me the first, vague hope that the great lady is not being smartened up simply for a final stroll to the scaffold. More seems to be going on here.

After the PR disasters of the supposed initial refit, then the bruited stint in South Africa, and finally the intended voyage to the Far East, I am still more than a little wary of any pronouncements on the future of QE2. Once again, talk is cheap.

‘A new plan’ is, of course, about as vague and unspecific an announcement as can be made. Thinner in substance than a snow carpet in Satan’s living room, it hints, but does not deliver anything of substance. And, until we see flesh on bones, none of us that treasure QE2 will wholly believe it.

But that was then, and this is now.

Don’t get me wrong; we are entitled to be cynical, and lacking in either faith or trust in light of the past. But- against my better judgement and all logic- I cannot help but feel the first, faint stirrings of hope for the ship since November of 2008.

QE2 is a big, feisty lady, and getting her moving- either actually or in another sense- will be a long, ponderous job. And, as ever, it will all come down to mindset. The current mindset in Dubai remains an unknown, inscrutable thing.

But some of us can sense the first, tentative tremors of life beginning to run through her again, something like a flower that slowly opens and blooms after a long, suffocating winter, Any recovery will be slow, stubborn, controversial and, of course, never to everyone’s liking.

There may very well be tears, stubbornness, miscommunication and sheer intransigence to come in the months ahead. But, like the Queen that she has always been, QE2 herself will continue to rise serenely above it all.

I, for one. owe her nothing less than the same courtesy. So, Dubai- it’s over to you. Work with us to help restore, preserve and promote the lady. I’m game if you are.

The ball is firmly in your court.

WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.

Why?

Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.

MAIDEN VOYAGE MISHAPS AND OTHER SEAGOING SNAFUS

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her 'maiden' crossing to New York in May of 1980

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her ‘maiden’ crossing to New York in May of 1980

Back in the day, the idea of going on the maiden voyage of any new ship had an aura of prestige and glamour that appealed right across the travelling community. Especially in the pre and post war heyday of the transatlantic run, the first sailing of any new ship invariably attracted banner headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

Passengers, in turn, were intrigued by the idea of being part of a piece of history; a headline grabbing maiden crossing was, quite literally, a true rite of passage that participants could dine out on for years. Many did just that.

But the pace and poise of the Atlantic run has largely given way to the indolent largesse of the contemporary cruise circuit. With an ever increasing conga line of new ships emerging each new year, does the ‘maiden voyage’ of today still have the cachet of old?

In many ways, a maiden voyage-especially for a first of class ship- is a bit of a leap in the dark. Shipyard delays are a fact of life in some cases. The crew- all of them new to the ship and most of them even newer to each other- have not really had time to perfect that subtle ballet of interaction with their new surroundings, their crew mates and, indeed, their passengers. Simple fact; anyone expecting flawless perfection and serenity should avoid any maiden voyage like the plague.

Conversely, a second of class ship is- in theory- something of a safer bet. The company will have gained practical experience with the prototype ship, and the new ship will invariably have been tweaked to make her more passenger friendly. In addition, a core cadre of experienced crew members will be transferred to the new ship to make sure that the transition from shipyard to passenger service flows more easily.This is simple common sense.

Many things can also go wrong after an existing ship is extensively refurbished. Public areas and some cabins might still be unfinished, and potential passengers should be aware of that. Sometimes shipyards sign up to completely unrealistic work time tables, simply to gain the work for themselves and/or prevent it going to a rival.

When this occurs, a perfect storm ensues. The line bears the brunt of negative headlines, hugely disgruntled passengers and a harassed, overly stressed crew that simply cannot deliver the experience promised in all the glossy, pre launch literature. Nobody wins in situations like this.

In my mind, a ship generally takes a minimum of four months to ‘bed down’ properly into commercial service. And yet…..

There is still nothing like the glitter, drama and sheer, adrenaline pumping surge of being part of a maiden voyage. Everything is new, with that ‘just unwrapped’ feel that creates a compelling, totally electric atmosphere. The sheer sense of occasion is palpable and, of course, all eyes will be on you. The cachet of being among the first to experience a stunning, sprawling new maritime masterpiece is one that is as timeless and irresistible as ever.

All of these factors are things to bear in mind. The bottom line is that you cannot realistically expect perfection on any maiden voyage. It is far more about the sense of occasion than subtle service and polished opulence.

But would I do a maiden voyage myself? Absolutely. But my expectations would be realistic, and not blinded by hyperbole and glitter. Temper your expectations and just savour the occasion.

And it is always worth bearing in mind that the one and only ship that seemed to approach near perfection on her maiden voyage proceeded to ruin it all when she made an all too perfect approach on a half submerged iceberg.

And those, my friends, are headlines that nobody wants to be part of, however exciting and dramatic it all seems in retrospect.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: CUNARD’S UNLOVED SISTER?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeventy years ago today, Cunard’s reconditioned Queen Elizabeth began her much delayed maiden voyage to New York. At exactly the same time, many of the main henchmen of the late Adolf Hitler were waiting for a final appointment with an American hangman in their cells in the Place of Justice at Nuremberg.

That latter, epochal event in world history had the effect of relegating the much delayed maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth to the inside pages of much of the world press. And, in a way, it had always been thus for the storied Cunard liner.

The Queen Elizabeth was launched on September 27th, 1938, into a world already twitching ever more nervously at the sabre rattling antics of both Hitler and his Italian vassal, Benito Mussolini. Just one month earlier, her companion ship- Queen Mary- had finally wrested back the Blue Riband from her great French rival, the Normandie. Even from the start, these events conspired to put the launch of the new ship very much on the back burner of world news.

Of course, the Queen Elizabeth never ran for the speed record. One record holder was enough for the line, and of course, that honour was left with the Queen Mary. Even after the barnstorming debut of the United States in 1952, the younger, seemingly more subdued of the Queens was never let off the leash to see what she could really do.

There was always something kind of melancholy, almost hang dog, about the Queen Elizabeth in the post war years when compared to the Queen Mary. And the real tragedy here is that, in almost every way, the Queen Elizabeth was the better ship of the two, both from a technical and passenger standpoint.

The Queen Elizabeth was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the Queen Mary, with a brace of fully formed, free standing funnels and a sharply raked prow. Her upper decks were largely free of the forest of vents and guy wires that mushroomed everywhere about the older ship’s trio of smokestacks. In every aesthetic respect, she was an obviously more modern ship than the earlier liner and, from the point of view of both crew and passenger comfort, a far better ship.

And yet she never really endeared herself to either passengers or crew in the same way that the Queen Mary did, both before and after the war. A war in which she played every bit as vital and heroic a role as the earlier ship, lest we forget.

Why? There will never be a definitive answer to that question, simply because it is so hard to be rational about vessels that essentially draw a purely emotive, largely illogical, response from those that live in them and sail them. But my guess is that the public- both at home and the travelling kind- had three full years before the war to get used to the ideal of the Queen Mary, and what she actually represented. The Queen Elizabeth- the actual, truly named ‘Grey Ghost’- seemed to appear, not quite fully formed, from the fog of war, performed magnificently, only to emerge into the new, peacetime era as an unknown, largely unheralded debutante. She never had time to create her own pre war legend, that bond with both crew and travelling public, that is the foundation on which any successful commercial career is built.

Of course, she did phenomenally well on the hugely lucrative Atlantic crossing right up until 1960. And it was the Queen Elizabeth that was so expensively converted for part time cruising in the mid Sixties, at a time when both the ageing dowagers were sailing on a rising tide of red accountants’ ink. Cunard obviously saw more potential and adaptive ability in their second, prodigal child, even after almost two decades of service.

Her end- tragic and almost certainly preventable- was a kind of mirror image of her life; sensational and dramatic, but soon forgotten by those not directly affected by it. By then, she was an idea and a concept whose time was obviously gone.

As ocean liners go, the Queen Elizabeth and her service record were largely eclipsed by that of a truly beloved, yet quite inferior companion ship which, against all the odds, still somehow contrives to exist in Long Beach, California, to this day. One whose very name has come to symbolise all that is enduring and immortal about ocean liner travel.

Who knows? Perhaps ocean liner history is not deep and expansive enough to allow for the burnishing and preservation of two such gigantic legends at the same time.

CELEBRITY DE-SCALE; INFINITY AND SUMMIT TO LOSE LINER THEMED RESTAURANTS

Celebrity Cruises has just announced some major refurbishments and enhancements to two of it’s popular Millennium class vessels- Celebrity Infinity and Celebrity Summit- to be implemented between October 2015 and March, 2016.

The overall aim- and a perfectly laudable one- is to enhance the range of leisure features and dining areas available to the premier suite class passengers on both ships.

In line with this enhanced dining philosophy is a plan to eliminate both ‘themed’ ocean liner restaurants in each ship, and replace them with a specially crafted new Tuscan Grille, the line’s signature Mediterranean themed steakhouse.

In the case of Celebrity Infinity, this will involve stripping out the decor taken from the legendary SS. United States- herself tottering on the edge of the scrapper’s scaffold right now.

For Celebrity Summit, it will mean the stripping of the gorgeous Normandie restaurant, and the removal of all the fantastic, original, 1930’s Art Deco luxe from the ship.

Two things worry me here.

Where will these beautiful, evocative fittings- currently available to the travelling public- end up?

Secondly, will these moves also presage the removal of the similar, themed restaurants from siblings, Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Summit? Sadly, it seems inevitable.

On Celebrity Millennium, the themed ocean liner restaurant features the original wood panelling and fixtures from the RMS Olympic- the twin sister ship of the Titanic.

Again, what will happen to these fittings?

In creating these themed restaurants aboard ship in the first place, Celebrity established a totally unique, nostalgic dining experience at sea; a tour de force that was at once both elegant and, more importantly, accessible to the travelling public. It was something of a masterstroke at the time, and an enviable coup for the premium, highly regarded line.

Now, it seems, all four are to be thrown away for the sake of creating some quasi-Italian themed dining experience.

I have no objection to the idea of a Tuscan Grille, but at the expense of some of the most poignant and alluring real estate at sea? It seems to me that this is not a fair trade.

Within that eminently capacious quartet of 91,000 ton hulls, surely there must be some area that can be used- or built on to- to create an additional fine dining experience?

But the idea of removing those idyllic, themed dining rooms, with their all too obvious links to the hushed, illustrious dining experiences savoured aboard liners long since gone, seems too high a price to pay in my opinion.

Dear Celebrity Cruises; please think again.

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity's elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants....

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity’s elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants….

SS UNITED STATES- IS THIS THE END?

The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that the SS. United States could be sold for scrap by the end of the month.

Despite valiant efforts that have verged on the herculean over several years, the SS. United States Conservancy has been thus far unable to raise funds to continue keeping the former Blue Ribband holder at her Philadelphia pier beyond the end of this month.

The legendary liner- shackled to her berth since the mid nineties- costs some $60,000 per month to maintain in her current state. While externally quite dilapidated, the hull and superstructure of the liner are actually in quite sound condition.

For all that, time finally seems to be running out for the fabled ‘Yankee Flyer’. The next instalment of her monthly fee is due for payment by this October 31st.

It has always been a mystery to me that America- a country wonderfully capable of preserving it’s maritime heritage of fighting ships- has proven so unwilling to preserve the most stunningly successful and iconic merchant ship in the entire seafaring history of the nation.

This is by no means a fallen axe as of yet, but there is a pressing urgency for awareness of the true plight of this mighty, monumental engineering triumph to be raised masthead high, and kept there.

Those of us on this side of the Atlantic are watching this with heavy hearts and anxious eyes.

As ever, stay tuned.

FROM STOCKHOLM TO ASTORIA- A BRIEF HISTORY OF A CLASSIC LADY

At a stately sixty seven years old at the time of writing, Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ veteran Azores- soon to be renamed Astoria- can now claim the rightful title as the oldest post war passenger ship still to be in service anywhere. Her story- and her history- is one of the most amazing in the annals of ocean liner travel.

Originally built as the Stockholm in 1948 for the Swedish American line, the 12,000 ton ship was a diminutive minnow when compared to, say, the colossal Cunard Queens. The United States was barely more than a gleam in the eyes of the brilliant William Francis Gibbs. And some, more prescient folk were already eyeing the new generation of propeller driven long haul flights with a certain amount of uneasiness.

It seemed sensible to the ever practical Swedes to introduce this first, modest post war build to the Atlantic trade. The Stockholm carried around 548 passengers in smart surroundings, on modestly luxurious crossings between Gothenburg and New York.

She was not really overly successful in this role, and soon gained a reputation for being a less than stellar sea boat on the Atlantic. And, with a second generation of giant Atlantic superliners now appearing in the forms of the United States and the Liberte, it soon became obvious that she was, indeed, too small to be really competitive.

But she was a pretty little ship, with a graceful, ice strengthened bow and a staunch, single funnel. The Stockholm was not a ship that sought to break records or seek the headlines.

But soon the headlines would seek her.

On the night of July 25th, 1956, the ice strengthened bow of the Stockholm slammed into the port flank of the Italian liner, Andrea Doria, off the coast of Nantucket.

Both ships had been groping their way through a thick fog when the accident happened. The bow of the Stockholm crumpled like so much wet cardboard, killing five of her crew. But, crucially, the bulkhead behind it remained intact. Though her bow was a shambolic, mangled mess of torn steel, the little Swedish liner was never in any danger of sinking.

The Andrea Doria was not so fortunate. With her port side sliced open over the length of several decks, the graceful Italian liner was doomed. She lingered for something like twelve hours before finally plunging under the Atlantic ocean.

The story made headlines around the world. It took a full three months to repair the bow of the Stockholm, but her reputation was tainted forever in many eyes. And, with the successful advent of commercial jet air travel from 1958 onwards, it came as no real surprise when the Swedes decided to sell her on the quiet to East German interests.

Renamed as Volkerfreundschaft, she would sail on as a cruise ship, essentially unchanged, for the next twenty five years. I once saw her in Southampton back in 1986, from the decks of the inbound QE2, and was amazed that she still existed even then.

There then followed a period of use as an accommodation ship for refugees in Norway, under the name of Fridtjof Nansen that last through until 1989. And then, to the amazement of many, the ship- already forty one years old- found a new buyer that was intent on returning her to passenger service.

She was towed round to Genoa- ironically, the former home port of the Andrea Doria- and rebuilt from the waterline upwards as a contemporary style of cruise ship, albeit one with a far more boxy configuration. A vast stern sponson was added to improve her still problematic seakeeping qualities. Her indoor public rooms were redone in a kind of late art deco styling, and she was put back into service, cruising around Cuba and the Caribbean. It was a role that was to continue until 2005.

During this time, she would sail under various names such as Italia Prima, Valtur Prima and, most, memorably, as the Caribe.

Then, in 2005, she was purchased by the Lisbon based Classic International Cruises. Renamed the Athena, she set out on a series of sailings that would take her as far out as Australia and the Antipodes. In the summer, she was often chartered out to German and French groups, for voyages down to the Norwegian Fjords, and down to Croatia.

It was in that latter guise that I got to spend an incredible, truly memorable week aboard her in September, 2010, cruising down to Croatia and Montenegro out of Venice. The ship (see earlier blogs) was a delightful, beautifully styled little time capsule, smartly sailed and immaculately maintained.

When Classic International Cruises imploded after the death of founding father and guiding light, George Potamianos, the ship got yet another life extension when she was bought by a successor company, Portuscale cruises. One of the first things that Portuscale did- and every fortunately, as it turns out- was to charter out the ship to the British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

The charter ensured that the ship- by now called the Azores- survived the dissolution of Portuscale. she received an extensive renovation and, her with her hull painted black, the Azores now caters to the British market as a small, highly styled cruise ship, a uniquely appealing vessel in an age where ever larger ships seem to be the norm.

At the age of sixty seven, her stout old hull is as sound as ever, and many of her cabins are incredibly roomy. After all, she was built as a transatlantic liner, and cabin space was a hugely important consideration.

If you are lucky enough to sail on her, check out the original, double height rows of portholes in the original main dining room. And, if you look carefully, you might even find one of the original, Swedish American line champagne buckets on board as well.

Quite recently, the original bell of the Stockholm was retrieved from its watery grave, where it had got lost amid the mangled remains of the luckless Andrea Doria. After more than five decades beneath the icy Atlantic, it was briefly returned to the ship that it had left so abruptly on a foggy summer’s night back in 1956.

Happily, no final bell has tolled for the Azores, due for yet another renaming next year as the Astoria. She will be sailing on charter to a French company next year, but there is a handful of sailings available in the UK market on her next spring. And, of course, she still has a very full calendar of cruises to operate for Cruise and Maritime Voyages themselves throughout the remainder of this year.

It is often said that cats have nine lives, but this surely is an instance of at least one ship that can claim the same. At sixty seven not out, this amazing vessel is a ship well worth sailing while she is still around.

MV Azores, seen in her Athena livery in 2010, is going French in 2016

MV Azores, seen in her Athena livery in 2010, is going French in 2016