FRED’S FAB FOUR- A BIG DAY OUT FOR FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES

Today’s first, historic rendezvous of all four Fred. Olsen cruise ships in Bergen is ample cause to celebrate the more intimate style of voyaging that the company is famous for. But, way beyond even that, it is the celebration of a Norwegian company, long imbued with deep and historic links to Great Britain, that enjoys a unique travelling relationship with the British public.

As such, I thought it might be worth a quick look back at each of the ‘Fab Four’ as they line up for their big day out in what remains one of the most beautiful and popular ports of call on the company’s cruising roster.

BLACK WATCH was originally built in 1972 as the Royal Viking Star, the first of three nearly identical new sister ships commissioned by the then fledgling Royal Viking Line. She sailed with that legendary company through until 1991, when she was transferred to Norwegian Cruise Line, sailing first as the Westward and then as the Star Odyssey.

She was bought by Fred Olsen, entering service for them in November, 1996 as the heavily refurbished Black Watch. Ever since, the ship has enjoyed consistent, popular success as an elegant, highly styled cruise ship, offering itineraries ranging from two night mini cruises, to full, three month round the world voyages. At a svelte 28,000 tons, the Black Watch carries some 820 passengers in total.

BRAEMAR was originally ordered as the Crown Dynasty for the now defunct Crown Cruise Lines, and entered service in 1993. After a long spell as the Norwegian Dynasty of NCL, the ship was laid up at Aruba, where she was purchased by Fred. Olsen, and then extensively updated in Germany.

She entered service for Fred. Olsen in August, 2001 as the Braemar, and she soon became very popular indeed with her yearly season of winter Caribbean fly cruises, based out of Barbados, for which her intimate size was perfect. In the autumn, she also cruises from the Canary Islands, sometimes as far south as West Africa, and the recent winter resumption of her Caribbean itineraries after an absence of a few years, has been very well received.

Coming in at around 24,000 tons, Braemar currently has a capacity of around 929 passengers.

BALMORAL is currently the company’s flagship, and the largest passenger vessel ever to fly the Fred. Olsen flag. The 43,000 ton Balmoral was originally built in Germany as the Crown Odyssey in 1988, for the now sadly vanished Royal Cruise Line. In the late nineties, one of her fleet mates was the Star Odyssey, now also sailing for Fred. Olsen as the Black Watch.

She was an elegant and luxurious ship from the start, famed for her beautiful art deco interiors. After stints with both Orient Lines and NCL, for whom she sailed as the Norwegian Crown, she came over to Fred. Olsen in 2008.

After a thorough and very comprehensive refit, the ship entered service as Balmoral in 2008. Ever since, she has operated on longer, globe spanning voyages each January, and offered a full season of cruises to Norway, the Baltic, the Adriatic and Iberia during the rest of the season.

Updated for British tastes, this wonderful ship still has much of her original striking features and styling intact. She continues to be very popular with passengers wanting to cruise on an elegant, eminently seaworthy vessel that still offers an intimate, more personalised style of cruise experience. She has a passenger capacity of around 1,778 in total.

BOUDICCA is the near identical twin sister ship of the Black Watch. She, too, began life for Royal Viking Line as the Royal Viking Sky back in 1973, as one of the most exclusive and luxurious vessels anywhere at sea. She sailed with that company for eighteen full years, until 1991.

There was then a period where she was briefly used by Birka Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Iberocruises, and even Star Cruises out in Asia. But this period of rapid change came to an end with her purchase by Fred. Olsen.

She entered service in February, 2006, after a massive refurbishment and with new engines, as the Boudicca, named for the legendary queen of the former Iceni tribe. In this new role, the ship has been very popular, offering itineraries as diverse as two night party cruises, right through to full, thirty two day round trips, out to the Caribbean and back.

Boudicca has also been something of a trail blazer for the fleet, sailing on cruises form ports as diverse as Belfast, Tilbury, Greenock, and Port of Tyne. With a tonnage of 28,000, the Boudicca can accommodate some 900 passengers in all.

DID YOU KNOW??

* All four of the ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet have been cut in half and lengthened in the course of their careers.

* All four of them have sailed for Norwegian Cruise Line at some stage in their history.

* The entire number of berths offered across the entire fleet is still less than those aboard the monolithic Oasis of The Seas.

*  Next year, Balmoral will replace Boudicca on her summer season of cruises from Port of Tyne, the cruise port for Newcastle.

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

Art Deco lobby staircase on the Balmoral

BALMORAL COMES TO THE TYNE FOR 2016

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has just announced that it’s flagship, the 1,350 passenger, 43,000 ton Balmoral, will come north to operate a series of eleven cruises from Newcastle between May and August of 2016.

The ship, originally built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg as the Crown Odyssey back in 1988, is the largest vessel in the current, four ship FOCL fleet, and will take the place currently occupied by fleet mate Boudicca, originally the fabled Royal Viking Sky.

The addition of the ship will increase the seasonal summer numbers sailing from Newcastle by an estimated forty five per cent. Ironically, it might also see Balmoral reunited from time to time with her former Orient Lines’ fleetmate, Marco Polo, which now sails for the rival Cruise And Maritime Voyages from the Tyne in summer.

The programme for Balmoral commences on May 21st, with a five night Norwegian fjords cruise. Standing out among the mostly Scandinavian itineraries is a rather attractive, eleven night cruise that showcases the best of Spain, Portugal and Guernsey.

Rightly famed for her beautiful, Art Deco styling and wide amount of open outdoor decks, Balmoral is an elegant, supremely comfortable vessel, decorated with great style, and features the excellent levels of service and cuisine for which the Fred. Olsen brand is well known in the cruising fraternity.

Her arrival in northern parts definintely ratchets up the increasing high profile of Newcastle/Port of Tyne as an ideal departure point, especially for the highlights of Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland.

An interesting development, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

Balmoral is Tyneside bound for summer 2016

Balmoral is Tyneside bound for summer 2016

THE MARCO POLO THROUGH SIGHTLESS EYES

Norway always makes 'Rudy' dance for joy...

Norway always makes ‘Rudy’ dance for joy…

Few people anywhere would dispute that the Marco Polo is one of the most singular and distinctive cruise ships afloat anywhere today. Tiny by comparison with the increasingly huge flotilla of hulking theme parks that have sailed in her wake ever since, she is gigantic in terms of stature, reputation and sheer stage presence. When she sails into a port, heads turn and jaws drop. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn walking into a room full of anodyne, contemporary supermodels.

Since her amazing transformation came into full effect at the end of 1993, the Marco Polo has literally gone where few ships can follow. From the steaming jungles of the Amazon to the the icy, rose tinted splendour of Antarctica, the Marco Polo had showcased them all. From the imperial splendour of Saint Petersburg to the pretty, indolent dolce vita lifestyle of fabled Portofino, the Marco Polo has been there, back, and done it all again.

She has sailed literally millions of miles and carried almost as many passengers. And each individual one is a person on their own, very personal voyage. All with different expectations- and, indeed, perceptions- of what lies ahead and, in time, memories of what now lies astern. Like human fingerprints, no two impressions are ever the same. This is a ship that has generated a million stories across a myriad of oceans.

Naturally, to see, document and understand even a fraction of those stories would be impossible. But there is one whimsical, permanent presence that has, indeed, actually seen the lot. Since 1993, he has done it all and, like any good and patient observer, he has maintained his silence all these years.

Of course, I’m talking about the statue of Rudolf Nureyev that graces the small plinth just behind the aft facing, lido deck pool. Human sized, lithe and reaching for the heavens, ‘Rudy’ has always been a focal talking point on the ship. A presence as distinctive as the funnel, or that gracefully raked bow, and the subject of a million photographs, from the reverent to the downright ribald.

What tales he could tell, if he were not mute. What views his sightless eyes could replay. Monumental, pine shrouded Norwegian fjords in the endless mid summer nights. Pristine, sun splashed Caribbean beaches studded with languid, swaying palm trees. Pretty, yacht studded little harbours like Honfleur in Normandy, and the surreal, lush. mangroves of the wondrous, winding Amazon river.

And if Rudy is a little recitent these days on the subject of his amazing past, then perhaps that is not so truly surprising. After all, a true gentleman never tells. And, as any crew member of any ship will tell you; what happens on the ship, stays on the ship.

Keep up the good work, Mister Nureyev; you’re doing a damned fine job.

THE SURVIVORS; NORWEGIAN NOMADS STILL AT SEA

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

In the mid eighties, in what ultimately proved to be a case of ‘too much, too soon’, NCL went on what amounted to a buying spree straight out of the Carnival play book. Over fourteen years- from 1984 to 1998- the Caribbean cruise line originally founded by Knut Kloster absorbed a trio of famous cruise brands.

After suffering the maritime equivalent of acute indigestion, the restructured company aborted these same brands, and either sold their ships to other lines, or ultimately watched them go for scrap.

But many of those same names are still sailing, often easily recognised as their former selves. For lovers of cruise ships and ocean liners, there are few things more poignant than the sudden sighting of an instantly familiar ship, years later and half a world away. Familiar and wistful at the same time. It’s like seeing an old flame with a new hairstyle, often as not knowing that she’s now with another love. Bittersweet, indeed.

So let’s look at what is still out there these days, and just where they ended up….

ROYAL VIKING LINE

That company originally flaunted a trio of sleek, bridal white show stoppers- the Royal Viking Sea, Star and Sky. They emerged in 1972-73 and, despite each ship being lengthened in 1981, all remained tremendously popular and upmarket; in fact, they were the benchmark for the likes of later, sybaritic show stoppers from Crystal to Silversea.

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

Happily, all three of these classic ladies are still sailing. The Royal Viking Sea today sails for the German company, Phoenix Seereisen, as the Albatross. The other two sisters were to enjoy a reunion, and are now both running in tandem for the Norwegian owned Fred. Olsen Cruise Line.

For Fred. Olsen, the Royal Viking Star now sails as the Black Watch, while the Royal Viking Sky is now the Boudicca.

In 1989, in an attempt to regain past glories,  Royal Viking Line built a new flagship, the Royal Viking Sun. After a shaky period with Cunard/Seabourn, she also happily still sails on as the Prinsendam of the venerable Holland America Line, the company’s self-styled ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In 1990, the line took delivery of a small, 10,000 ton ultra deluxe cruise ship, the Royal Viking Queen. After a brief spell with Royal Cruise Line in 1996, she was sold to Seabourn Cruise Line, where she rejoined her two original sister ships under her current name of Seabourn Legend. She is currently slated to join the fleet of Windstar Cruises next spring.

ROYAL CRUISE LINE

The first major eighties pre- Kloster new build for this company was the glorious, 1988 built Crown Odyssey, a ship that soon gained a reputation for elegance and on board excellence rivalled by few.  After Royal Cruise Line was wound up, this lovely ship spent four years being employed like a ping pong ball between NCL and its last acquisition, Orient Lines.

Sold to Fred. Olsen in 2008, the ship was taken to Germany, and enhanced with the addition of a new mid section. Now sailing as Balmoral, she is the flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet, as well as the largest ship. Cruising mainly out of Southampton, she remains a tremendously popular ship to this day.

Some of you will also remember the funky little Golden Odyssey, the diminutive little start up ship for this line. The 1974 built little beauty is still sailing today, though only as a casino ship out of Hong Kong. A far cry from her one time glory days.

ORIENT LINES

Gerry Herrod’s legendary, as -was one ship line was bought by NCL in 1998, but the Orient Lines brand was struck from the company portfolio of offerings in 2008. Happily, the 1965 built Marco Polo continues to sail on for UK company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages. Still popular and beautifully styled, the veteran former transatlantic liner celebrates her fiftieth anniversary in 2015.

Long may all of these great, highly regarded and affectionately remembered ‘ladies of the sea’ continue to grace the oceans they still sail with such proud, singular style. Each and every one of them is an important, intrinsic link to our maritime past. And for the current, massively resurgent Norwegian, these are still the self same ships that proudly ‘flew the flag’ and enabled the brilliant, world class fleet of today to come to fruition.

FRED. OLSEN’S BALMORAL

Balmoral

Balmoral

Since she joined the Fred. Olsen fleet in 2008, the 43,000 ton Balmoral has enjoyed the distinction of being the largest passenger ship in the fleet, and also the line’s flagship. As such, she is one of the most popular ships sailing in the UK market today.

She was built by Meyer Werft in Germany for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey, and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most luxurious and elegant cruise ships in service anywhere. Sailing on a series of world wide itineraries, the new ship quickly attracted a hard core of loyal passengers, drawn back time and time again by superb food and service, as well as by her elegant Art Deco interiors, and spacious cabins. In a few short years, she became something of a legend in the cruising firmament.

When Royal Cruise Line was absorbed into NCL (as it was then) the ship was renamed Norwegian Crown, and placed on the summertime New York to Bermuda run, with longer Caribbean cruises in the winter. A brief spell with Orient Lines, another NCL satellite, saw her revert to her original name, and she once again assumed far more of a world wide, globe trotting role.

When Orient Lines was wound up, she returned once more to NCL, and picked up the Norwegian Crown name for the second time. In this guise, she was often seen in South American waters during the winter. But, with the parent company intent on seriously big new builds, it was obvious that she would soon be surplus to requirements.

What came as the big surprise was the actual buyer.

Model of Balmoral in the main lobby

Model of Balmoral in the main lobby

Fred. Olsen had been looking for another ship to join their fleet, especially with the imminent, impending demise of the beloved Black Prince. They purchased the ship from NCL, renamed her Balmoral, and then sent her to a German shipyard for major cosmetic surgery.

This involved slicing the vessel in half, and the addition of a whole new mid section. This contained two new restaurants, several balcony cabins, a new pub and, outside, a new pool and hot tubs on the highest passenger deck. Though a substantial interior refurbishment was carried through to give her the classic Fred. Olsen ‘feel’, the company very sensibly retained much of her original elegant, highly lauded Art Deco styling. The ship was then put back into service.

As Balmoral, this still beautiful ship operates everything from three night, weekend party cruises to full world cruises in January. The Balmoral is just as likely to be found in the Norwegian Fjords or New York these days.

Steady, luxurious, and as intimate and well fed as the Fred. Olsen tradition has always dictated, the Balmoral has become one of the most popular and consistently successful cruise ships in the UK market today. With a large number of affordable single cabins, as well as some of the most commodious and expansive balcony suites found on any ship of her size, the Balmoral is one of the best buys in the cruise industry today.

The pictures in this collection were taken on board by me during a cruise to Norway in the summer of 2012. Enjoy!

Balmoral flank shot

Balmoral flank shot

Seven Continents main restaurant

Seven Continents main restaurant

Elegant table settings

Elegant table settings

Aft lido panorama

Aft lido panorama

Forward show room

Forward show room

Gangway shot in Bergen, Norway

Gangway shot in Bergen, Norway

Art Deco lobby staircase

Art Deco lobby staircase

Broad Balmoral passageway

Broad Balmoral passageway

The aft facing Lido Lounge

The aft facing Lido Lounge

This is the new part of the ship

This is the new part of the ship

The Morning Light pub

The Morning Light pub

Observation Lounge overlooking the bow

Observation Lounge overlooking the bow

Another shot of the same room

Another shot of the same room

The funnel, looking forward

The funnel, looking forward

Gorgeous, curved aft terraces

Gorgeous, curved aft terraces

The original aft pool deck

The original aft pool deck

Port side promenade deck

Port side promenade deck

The 'Fred' logo on Balmoral's funnel

The ‘Fred’ logo on Balmoral’s funnel

Dolphin sculpture on upper deck pool wall

Dolphin sculpture on upper deck pool wall

Long bar in the show lounge

Long bar in the show lounge

THE MARCO POLO; THE GREAT SURVIVOR

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

Ocean liner and cruise ship fans are a notoriously sentimental lot. They can- and often do- become extraordinarily attached to all manner of different ships, from the palatial to the downright pokey. And yet, right across the board, few ships evoke such a tidal wave of awe, sentiment, and even reverence quite like the Marco Polo.

This might seem strange to some. At 22,000 tons, the Marco Polo is only a tenth of the gross tonnage of the Oasis Of The Seas, There is not a single cabin balcony to be found on board her anywhere. And she has lines that clearly identify her as the product of another age, time and mindset.

And, of course, therein lies her charm.

The old girl was originally built in 1965 as the Alexsandr Pushkin, one of a quintet of sisters built for the then Soviet merchant marine. Staunch and graceful but internally austere, she was a steady, workmanlike ship with a specially ice strengthened hull. And it was this fact that led directly to her second, amazing life as the Marco Polo.

When he decided to form the legendary Orient Lines in 1991, founder Gerry Herrod wanted a ship that could operate anywhere with equal ease, comfort and impunity, from the waters off Amalfi to the ice strewn wastes of Antarctica. For him, the moribund Pushkin was the ideal ship.

Cocktail Bar, Marco Polo

Cocktail Bar, Marco Polo

Over the next two years, the brusque, outmoded Russian matriach would be gradually transformed into the gorgeous, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo. Except for the engines, the entire interior was, in Herrod’s own, succint phrase, ‘scooped out like an avocado’. From truck to keel and stem to stern, an entire new ship took shape, carefully crafted within the confines of the original graceful, still eminently seaworthy hull.

The reborn Marco Polo came back into service in October 1993 and, after a few initial hiccups, quickly settled into a popular, profitable cruise service. With a trio of aft facing, upper deck Jacuzzis and a set of elegant, cascading tiered decks at the stern, the Marco Polo became a byword for style, glamour and elegant adventure cruising. With superb food and flawless service, she set the benchmark for luxury exploration. That proud silhouette, with its gorgeous sheer, gracefully raked prow and jaunty single funnel, would become just as familiar a sight at the top of the North Cape, or lying at anchor off pristine Portofino.

When Orient Lines was bought by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1999, the company became part of a much larger operation. A period of retrenchment at Norwegian resulted in the winding down of Orient Lines, and a period of Marco Polo sailing on charter for the German tour operator, Transocean Cruises. The venerable ship seemed lost to the British market forever.

Marco Polo entrance lobby

Marco Polo entrance lobby

Happily, the establishment of the British owned and run Cruise And Maritime Voyages (CMV) resulted in the return of the Marco Polo to the UK cruise market. Now based mainly in Tilbury (but also offering seasonal sailings from Newcastle and sometimes Rosyth, Scotland), the still elegant ship is today a warm, welcoming cocoon of intimate, expansive civility.

I sailed on her a year or so ago, after an absence of fourteen years, and it was like falling in love all over again. Those still sinuous, gracefully curved aft terraces, and the trio of bubbling, upper deck hot tubs, were as welcoming as ever. Inside, the Art Deco interiors and opulent, Balinese accented art work assembled with such care and effort by Gerry Herrod, remain gloriously intact. There was definitely a very welcome feeling of ‘falling through the looking glass’ here.

With a passenger capacity of 800, the Marco Polo is an adults only ship these days. The cabins have real keys and, while they lack balconies, they are cosy little retreats, handy for almost everything. The casino of the Orient Lines era has been replaced by the centrally located Columbus Club but, other than that, the Marco Polo was almost exactly as I remember her.

Today, the still majestic vessel makes voyages ranging from long weekend cruises to Amsterdam and Antwerp, to epic, forty two day grand sweeps out to the highlights of the Caribbean and Amazon. Sleek, diminutive in size but vast in terms of welcome, the Marco Polo turns heads wherever she goes; a floating time capsule that sails on in the here and now.

There are no rock climbing walls, flow riders, Vegas-style floor shows; no glut of speciality restaurants aboard the Marco Polo. This is a ship that has a raison d’etre rather than a theme.

Those gorgeous aft terraces.....

Those gorgeous aft terraces…..

Here you have a gracious, beautifully appointed, slightly quirky grand dame that has a heart, a soul, and a charisma all of her own. A subtle, seductive vibe exists aboard the Marco Polo that simply cannot be replicated, cloned, or enhanced in any maritime architect’s renderings, however talented.

I hope she sails forever, personally. But my advice is, if this style of ship does make your adrenaline flow that bit quicker, then get out there. Enjoy!

A NORWEGIAN ‘WHERE ARE THEY NOW’- SHIPS YOU LOVED AND THOUGHT YOU’D LOST (Updated)

Louis Aura is still instantly recognisable as the old Starward

Louis Aura is still instantly recognisable as the old Starward

In the legion of seemingly lost and vanished ships, few companies can equal the turnover of Norwegian Cruise Line. And yet, again, you would be surprised how many of their smaller, mid sized ships still survive to this day, and exactly what they are up to now.

So, here we go; a Norwegian edition of ‘where are they now’. If an old particular favourite isn’t listed, then apologies in advance, but the likelihood is that the ship in question has been scrapped. Sorry.

When Knut Kloster started his barnstorming, revolutionary Caribbean cruise line in 1968, it was known simply as Norwegian Caribbean Line, or NCL. Kloster fired the starting gun with a quartet of white hulled, racy little dream boats that were space age at the time. And, incredibly, some of these are still doing the rounds today.

His funky little Sunward II actually began life sailing for Cunard, as the Cunard Adventurer. Bought by Norwegian in 1977, the Sunward II spent many years on the short, three and four day cruise runs from Miami to Nassau, and the company’s private island of Great Stirrup Cay.

She’s still in service with Louis Cruises, as the Coral, but will be renamed as Louis Rhea next year for a full programme of Mediterranean cruises. Externally, she’s almost as she was in her Norwegian days.

Louis Cristal is the former Leeward

Louis Cristal is the former Leeward

Several of her fleet mates have made the trek over to Louis Cruises, to such an extent that the Louis fleet is almost an NCL Part Two. The Starward, built in 1968, is still sailing as the Orient Queen. Shortly due to be renamed Louis Aura, the veteran ship is off to Brazil over the winter to operate a series of three to seven night cruises for a local tour operator.

Louis also has the Louis Cristal, at one time the Leeward. She was the successor to the Sunward II on the short cruises from Miami and now, by a supreme irony, she is part of the same fleet. This winter, she is off to operate a series of ground breaking Caribbean cruises from Havana, in Cuba, under charter to a Canadian tour operator.

Last for now in the Louis beauty pageant is the Thomson Majesty, chartered by the UK based Thomson Cruises, but still owned by Louis. The ship, fondly remembered by many as the Norwegian Majesty, sailed for many years on the Boston to Bermuda run, and she also offered winter cruises out of Charleston. Like her fleet mates, she is essentially unchanged from her Norwegian days.

The other great beneficiary of old Norwegian Cruise Line tonnage has been parent company, Star Cruises. Back in the early nineties, Norwegian built a pair of more or less identical sisters, the Dreamward and the Windward (they were nicknamed ‘Forward’ and ‘Backward’ by industry wags). Later, after being lengthened, these two ships were restyled as Norwegian Dream and Norwegian Wind, respectively.

Thomson Majesty still betrays her Norwegian Cruise Line interiors

Thomson Majesty still betrays her Norwegian Cruise Line interiors

Norwegian Wind was transferred to Star Cruises and renamed Superstar Aquarius. Slated to go to Louis, Norwegian Dream was declined, and spent five years in warm lay up, before finally re-entering service for Star Cruises this year as the Superstar Gemini.

Another Norwegian stalwart found her way to an unlikely new life with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. Their feisty little Braemar actually spent a long period as the Norwegian Dynasty, a ship that sailed summer itineraries in Alaska, and winter Caribbean cruises.

And the current flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet is yet another ex-Norwegian stalwart. Although originally built in 1988 for Royal Cruise Line as the stunning Crown Odyssey, Balmoral spent two full decades as part of the extended Norwegian ‘family’, including two spells with the now defunct Orient Lines. Stretched during the course of her 2008 conversion, many of her interiors are still instantly recognisable from her early days.

So, there you go. And if some of your fondly remembered favourites are in this list, now you know where they are. And if you’re hankering to renew old acquaintances, now you have what amounts to an absolutely perfect excuse. Have fun, and happy sailing.

LINERS TO AUSTRALIA- BACK TO THE FUTURE

STX were responsible for such legendary ships as the France, seen here as the SS. Norway

STX were responsible for such legendary ships as the France, seen here as the SS. Norway

In what can only be described as a ‘back to the future’ move, a new start up company is finalising ambitious plans to construct a pair of 70,000 ton ocean liners, with the avowed intention of running the ships on month long liner style voyages from Britain to Australia and back.

Codenamed Project Orient, and working with the experienced STX Saint Nazaire shipyard in France, the two sisters are the brainchild of a group of British businessmen, said to have extensive experience of the cruise industry. Director of sales and planning is the experienced and well respected Nigel Lingard, who fulfilled a similar role with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines for many years.

First artist’s renderings reveal a design with a long, flaring hull and a traditional curved prow. A single, centrally sited funnel gives the design a profile not unlike the Marco Polo on steroids. Initial figures call for a passenger capacity of 1,600 on each ship, looked after by a crew of 800 Each should be capable of making the voyage from Britain to Australia in just under a month.

It is envisaged that the two ships will operate via the Far East, as well as South Africa. Sector voyages will be offered, with the option of allowing passengers to tie in one way airfare.

Each of the two ships is conservatively costed at around $450 million, and the operation is now actively sourcing the finance to get the project moving.

Nothing like this has been seen since the demise of the joint P&O/Orient Lines service operated by Canberra and Oriana through until the mid- 1970’s. The new ships can take advantage of far greater fuel and technical efficiencies than their predecessors ever could, and also have the additional advantage of being able to configure these entirely new designs to modern tastes and styles.

Fares for the month long passage to or from Australia will be fully competitive with business class air fares and, for families migrating to or from the Antipodes, there is also the huge advantage of being able to bring all the luggage and personal effects you need.

All things considered, Project Orient is a brilliant, brave piece of bravado. Add in the technical nous and expertise of STX- the builders of such iconic ocean legends as Normandie, France and, more recently, Queen Mary 2, and you have a proven pedigree that is hard to argue with.

It’s a fascinating premise; one that I will be watching with great interest over the next few months. As details become available and the steel begins to grow around the skeleton of this remarkable ocean renaissance, I will be providing you with updates as practical.

As ever- stay tuned.

AEGEAN ODYSSEY-A GREAT LITTLE FIND

CNV00029Gerry Herrod’s latest small ship creation is something of a finely polished jewel. At only 12,000 tons, the Aegean Odyssey is the perfect ship for summer cruises in the Mediterranean, as well as an excellent winter season spent out in the Far East.

A big, big advantage for history lovers is that all tours are included in the price. Each passenger has their own ‘quiet box’ that lets them hear their tour guide quite clearly, no matter how far away he or she may actually be. It’s a smart bit of thinking; indicative of the thought and effort that has gone into the whole project.

Most cruises encapsulate one or more overnight stays in port; perfect for a little late night people watching in Mykonos, Sorrento or Kusadasi. This allows you to get a little more ‘under the skin’ of a destination, rather than just seeing the fabled sights and relics. It’s also a definite plus when compared to the conventional, seven day ‘Meddy-go-rounds’ of the usual mega ships. These usually only stay in port until tea time and, often as not, can’t get into the kind of small, sweet places that the nimble little Aegean Odyssey can snuggle up to.

This was shown to stunning effect when we docked in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, for a three day stay last December. Sailing a full sixty miles up the meandering Irrawaddy, the Aegean Odyssey pirouetted as neatly as a swan to dock right on the front street of the capital. The ease of access was incredible; no big ship could ever have made that same berth.

Better still, each cruise includes a two night pre or post cruise hotel stay. Our Mediterranean cruise finished with two nights at the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Istanbul, and this really rounded out  a super journey. With two full days to peruse one of the most fabulous cities in the world, this is a real winner and, indeed, could be a true deal breaker for some. I could have spent the entire time in the hotel spa. Maybe next time…

CNV00018To top it all, the Aegean Odyssey herself is exquisite. There is free wine, beer and soft drinks included at dinner each night. The cabins were greatly expanded by deleting every third one of the originals, and then knocking down the walls to create much larger, more commodious spaces.

My cabin on both trips had excellent quality bedding, and a gorgeous little cove balcony worked into the hull, complete with canvas chairs and a small table. It was a sweet little spot to return to after a day’s touring the stunted magnificence of Ephesus, or the soaring limestone escarpments that litter the waters off the coast of Phuket. Sunsets were mellow viewed from here, and sometimes the opportunity to enjoy a late night cap under a blanket of stars was just too good to resist.

Food on both cruises was very good to excellent. The Aegean Odyssey offers open seating, with many passengers opting for the stunning, outdoor ‘Tapas on The Terrace’ with its side orders of warm sea breezes and mellow moonlight. Quality and presentation was of a very high standard and, as on all of Herrod’s previous ships, great emphasis is placed on the style and the quality of service. No complaints at all in that department.

That service was always deft, gracious and heartwarming. A superb Filipino staff combines with a low number of passengers- usually a maximum of three hundred and seventy- to provide a consummate, quite personalised experience. Other lines could learn a lot from this approach.

Physically, the ship is muted and tasteful; shorn of screaming colours and the trappings of the modern mega ships. Aegean Odyssey is  a quiet ship at night- you’re unlikely to find anybody up and around after midnight- but that’s so obviously not the kind of market that they aim for here.

CNV00052In short, the Aegean Odyssey is a small diamond. Beautifully styled and handsomely served, she wafts passengers effortlessly from one jaw dropping vista to another without fuss, but always with considerable style and charm.

As an in depth cruise experience goes, I can’t recommend this charming little lady highly enough.