PULLMANTUR’S EMPRESS TO ABDICATE

Pullmantur's Monarch will be visiting ports such as Helsinki for the first time  in 2016.

Pullmantur’s Monarch will be visiting ports such as Helsinki for the first time in 2016.

Following continued weak performances in the winter South American market, some serious retrenchment is afoot at Pullmantur Cruises.

The Spanish offshoot of Royal Caribbean is bringing the 74,000 ton Monarch to Europe to operate Baltic cruises next year. This marks the first ever deployment of one of the three, original Sovereign class vessels in the region since the first of the trio- Sovereign Of The Seas- made her debut back in 1988.

By contrast, the 1990 built Empress is leaving the Pullmantur fleet completely next year. In a compete about face, she will return instead to Royal Caribbean under her former name- Empress Of The Seas- and resume sailings for that line.

As yet, no itineraries have been announced for the 48,000 ton vessel, originally built in France as the Nordic Empress. For a few years, she was a popular staple on the seven night, summer New York to Bermuda sailings, where her shallow draft enabled her to dock in the old capital of St. Georges.

The vessel was well remembered for her beautiful interiors, in particular her striking, aft facing dining room. Pullmantur left her interiors largely unaltered after acquiring the ship from Royal Caribbean in March of 2008.

There have been straws in the wind regarding Pullmantur for some time now. Last year, the intended 2016 transfer of Majesty Of The Seas from Royal Caribbean to Pullmantur was abruptly cancelled. Instead, the popular three and four day Bahamas cruise ship will undergo an extensive refit, before resuming service from a new home port at Port Canaveral.

Interesting developments here. As ever, stay tuned.

THOMSON DISCOVERY TO CARIBBEAN FOR WINTER 2016-17

Thomson Discovery will be sailing from next year

Thomson Discovery will be sailing from next year

As predicted in this blog a few months back, Thomson Discovery- still currently sailing as the Splendour Of The Seas for Royal Caribbean- will indeed be heading to Barbados to run the line’s premium, round trip Barbados winter cruises in her first season.

The 70,000 ton ship will sail three different, seven night itineraries- including one called Seven Shores, that features no sea days at all.

There will be a free, all inclusive upgrade on all winter sailings, including those of the popular Thomson Dream from Montego Bay in Jamaica.

In related news, the Thomson Celebration will be swapping winter in the Caribbean for a brace of new, seven night itineraries out of Dubai for next winter.

Built for Royal Caribbean in 1996, the Thomson Discovery will be by far the largest and most spacious ship ever to sail under the Thomson portfolio. Over the next couple of years, she will be joined by a pair of similar sized, ex Celebrity vessels.

Due to be delivered to the line in the spring of 2016, Thomson Discovery will spend her inaugural season sailing on a series of seven night itineraries from Palma, Majorca, to the highlights of the Western Mediterranean.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

CHINA GIRLS- NORWEGIAN AND PRINCESS NEW BUILDS BOUND FOR THE ORIENT (Updated)

Norwegian Cruise Line is China bound, and in a big way, too.

Norwegian Cruise Line is China bound, and in a big way, too.

With the newly wrought Norwegian Escape set to launch later this month, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that her forthcoming sister ship, Norwegian Bliss, will be adapted for the Chinese market upon her completion in 2017.

Norwegian Bliss is the second of the so called ‘improved Breakaway class’ vessels and, alongside the Norwegian Escape, she will be the largest vessel ever to be purpose built for the line when she emerges in 2017.

The move comes right in the wake of an announcement from Princess Cruises that that their third in line Royal Princess class ship will also be going straight out from Italy to the Chinese market. Given the name of Majestic Princess, she will carry her name on the bow in both English and Chinese lettering.

While the Chinese market has been booming for some time, nothing gives the truth to it’s strength as the imminent assignment of these new, platinum chip vessels. They will join new builds from the likes of Royal Caribbean to create a series of very tempting first time cruise adventures for the local Chinese market.

What remains to be seen is just how buoyant that market remains in the long term, with the significant slow down of the Chinese economy that is becoming more and more evident.

Beyond these two significant new company ‘flag wavers’ bound for the East, it should be interesting indeed to watch the deployment patterns of other upcoming new vessels coming on stream for the likes of Costa and MSC.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

As of this afternoon, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that the ship will not be named Norwegian Bliss after all. A new name, as yet unannounced, will be given to the vessel in the near future.

WINTER CRUISING AROUND THE UAE-SHOULD YOU CONSIDER IT?

Over the last decade or so, there is no denying the spectacular growth of winter cruising in the waters around the United Arab Emirates. Each year, it seems that more cruise lines are sending some of their principal ships to ply these waters, usually from November through until March or April.

If this is something that is on your radar, there might be a few pointers in this blog for you to consider.

Firstly, the area presents a welcome, far less crowded alternative to winter cruising hot spots such as the Canaries, and even the Caribbean. Though the market is getting bigger, it has nowhere near the same volume of ships and peoples as the Caribbean in particular does.

From the UK, most flights tend to be with Emirates; an airline that-by and large- has achieved something of a stellar reputation over the years. No changing at hub airports en route. And, with a flying time of around eight hours on average between the UK and the main embarkation port of Dubai, these flights are not as time consuming as the long haul runs out to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. And you won’t have anything like the same knock on effects from jet lag, either.

Bear in mind that most of the ships operating in the region are the mega ships of companies such as Costa, MSC and Royal Caribbean. They will typically carry several different nationalities, so if what you’re expecting is a typical, dyed in the wool, English style cruise experience- well, you’re not going to get it. Announcements-all of them- will be made in every single language. Needless to say, this can drive some people mad after a while. It all depends on your personal tolerance levels in the end.

Even if you’re not really enamoured of the idea of touring around the places en route, the wonderful winter temperatures will still make for what should be a pretty exhilarating adventure, with a sun tan all but guaranteed. And, of course the huge, modern ships now feature so many diversions, amenities and dining options that you could just stay on board for the entire week, and still have the time of your life.

Not that I am advocating such an approach; but it is a delightfully different option if all you want is to be pampered and entertained, while still savouring some warm winter sunshine, in an environment that lets you make the most of an entirely different pace of life.

A sweet option, if only for a little while. However you take your UAE cruise, just enjoy it.

Perhaps it's time to set course for somewhere slightly different this coming winter.....

Perhaps it’s time to set course for somewhere slightly different this coming winter…..

GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

THOMSON CRUISES ADDS SPLENDID DISCOVERY

Thomson |Cruises has announced that it’s new acquisition, to be renamed Thomson Discovery, will be based in the Mediterranean in June, 2016,  following a refurbishment and corporate rebranding.

The ship, currently sailing as Royal Caribbean’s 1996-built Splendour Of The Seas, is twice as large as any other ship in the current Thomson fleet, and comes in at around 70,000 tons. And- in a first for the UK side of the company- Thomson will own a ship with around 40 per cent of cabins that have private balconies.

As previously predicted on this blog, the ship will be based in Palma De Mallorca for a first season, sailing on four alternating seven day itineraries. Ports of call will feature all of the front rank ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ favourite destinations such as Rome, Florence, Villefranche, Barcelona and Cadiz.

With a capacity of 1,830 passengers accommodated in some 915 cabins, the addition of Thomson Discovery to the Thomson portfolio allows the line considerable options to shuffle what will now be a five ship fleet pack. The ship will replace the ageing island Escape- ironically, another ex Royal Caribbean ship which has been routinely laid up for the last few winter seasons.

While the company has yet to announce plans for any winter deployment of this prime new product, I would bet on her going out to the Caribbean to sail out of Barbados. This would allow Thomson to offer a significantly upgraded product to compete with the big P&O vessels that sail winter round from the Caribbean port.

Naturally, time and tide will tell. As ever, stay tuned.

Thomson Discovery will be offering passengers such wonderful sighs as Pisa from June, 2016

Thomson Discovery will be offering passengers such wonderful sights as Pisa from June, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ly looking as regal as ever.

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

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

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

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

 

HARMONY, PERFECT HARMONY; THREE FOR ROYAL CARIBBEAN

Royal Caribbean International has finally announced that it’s third Oasis class behemoth, Harmony Of The Seas, will deploy on year round Caribbean cruises when she enters service in 2016.

Many people assumed that the 227,000 ton ship would head out to Asia as the trump card in RCCL’s voracious empire building pack. But other counsels have decreed that the huge ship will go to the Caribbean instead.

She will replace first of class Oasis Of The Seas on the lucrative, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean sailings out of Fort Lauderdale, joining twin sister ship, Allure Of The Seas, on alternating week long circuits. Oasis Of The Seas herself will move a few miles north to Port Canaveral to inaugurate a series of similar sailings.

Though it seems a foregone conclusion that one of these monster ships will now sail the Mediterranean each summer, winters will still see this formidable trio running the seven day circuits from Florida. And, whatever your feelings on mega ships in general, there is no disputing the monumental scale and sheer, organisatioanl wizardry involved in such a programme.

Consider this; three ships, totalling over three quarters of a million tons collectively, discharging and embarking some thirty-six thousand passengers, week in and out, over a six month season. On any level, this is an operation thought out- and carried through- with almost miltary precision, as the precisely co-ordinated sailings of both Oasis and Allure from Fort Lauderdale can testify.

Having invested a fortune in infrastructure over the last few years, the burghers of Port Canaveral must be clapping their hands with glee at at an eagerly anticipated footfall of some twelve thousand cruise passengers a week from the Oasis Of The Seas, not to mention the knock on effect for local shops, hotels, transportation and entertainment venues.

Of course, may wil simply roll their eyes and say that this is just one more mega ship feeding more fuel to an already overcrowded winter Caribbean season. For sure, there is not much in the way of real variety in thr destination offerings of any of the three ships.

But that misses the point, because these three ships- the largest sister ships ever built- are destinations in their own right; enormous floating theme parks, small islands that combine the best of Vegas with all the comfort, ease and spectacular dining and accommodation that you could possibly want.

Not very ‘adventurous’ for sure; but package all that up and dangle it in front of some denizen of New York, Boston or Toronto in the depths of a freezing winter, and the lure is magnetic. Not to mention the allure- pardon the pun- that those vast, sun drenched hulls, carousing around the Caribbean in winter- hold for a whole armada of sun deprived Europeans.

One thing is for sure; Royal Caribbean know exactly what they are doing by sending this third huge, enormous floating city to the sunshine of the sultry Caribbean.

Harmony Of The Seas is Caribbean bound in 2016

Harmony Of The Seas is Caribbean bound in 2016

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ROYAL CARIBBEAN; ROAMING AND ROLLING…..

As all eyes await the imminent arrival of Anthem Of The Seas in Southampton, and the first full season deployment of an Oasis class ship in the Med is about to be ushered in by Allure Of The Seas, other bits and pieces are going on at Royal Caribbean that seem to have largely slipped under the radar.

With two such genuine, headline grabbing acts, this is hardly surprising. Yet these other comings and goings are, in their own ways, no less news worthy than the shenanigans involving their bigger offspring. So, let’s look at two of them.

Firstly, Splendour Of The Seas will be leaving the fleet in 2016 to join Thomson Cruises (Thomson Splendour, anyone?) The 69,000 ton ship, delivered in March of 1996, was the second of the so-called ‘Vision’ class ships. Like her earlier sibling- Legend Of The Seas- she boasted a vast amount of glass walls all around the ship and, for the first time, larger than average cabins compared the the previous Sovereign class.

Make no mistake; the sale of the first of the Vision class marks a true watershed for RCCL. For Thomson, the ship is a tremendous acquisition. Twice as large as anything else they have ever owned, and with a larger number of good balcony cabins, the ship will replace the Island Escape- ironically, another one time ex-RCCL ship- in the Mediterranean, at least initially. Itineraries are due to be announced next month.

Also next April, Majesty Of The Seas will finally leave the fleet. The last of the original Sovereign class trio will enjoy a happy reunion with her two previously departed sisters over at Pullmantur. The question is, what will replace her on the lucrative, three and four night Bahamas and Key West runs out of Miami.

It is possible that Legend Of The Seas could step into this role. In any event, I fully expect it to be one of the remaining five ships of the Vision class. It seems as yet unlikely that one of the newer, shinier Radiance class vessels would be relegated to such a short, port intensive run.

Finishing the ‘Royal Round Up’, the line has announced that the third of the Oasis class vessels- Harmony Of The Seas- will debut in the Caribbean next year, alongside her two sisters. And- one that is already proving popular news here in the UK- the ever popular Independence Of The Seas will be returning to Southampton to resume year round sailings.

As ever, stay tuned.

MASSIVE MEDITERRANEAN; SOME BIG, BIG ARRIVALS FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Barcelona bound in 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Barcelona bound in 2015

If a seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ cruise is on your cruising horizon in 2015, then you are going to be in line for a string of exciting mega ship options, and how. With the ‘big guns’ of Norwegian, MSC Cruises, Costa and Royal Caribbean all bringing in prime tonnage to augment their respective offerings, the choices have never been more extensive.

For the sake of argument, this blog is assuming that you are drawn to a certain kind of ship; the vast, family friendly floating resort vessels that come absolutely chock full with every leisure amenity that you could imagine, and then some. With a huge range of inclusive, across the board accommodations on offer, these vessels have proved enormously popular- and profitable- in recent years.

And they have grown bigger, too. From next spring, Norwegian will home port its ground breaking, 150,000 plus ton Norwegian Epic in Barcelona on a year round basis. The 2010 built Epic is the permanent replacement for the 78,000 ton Norwegian Spirit, which is returning to the Caribbean next October.

Costa will also have its new flagship, the 130,000 ton, state of the art Costa Diadema on the Mediterranean circuit. This fabulous new ship- built on the same platform as the hugely successful Carnival Dream class trio- will actually debut in November 2014, and is slated to be a year round presence in the region.

MSC Cruises meanwhile always retains at least one of it’s mega ships on the seven day circuit on the ‘Meddy-Go-Round’; for next year, this will be the very family friendly MSC Splendida.

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

But the real splash will, inevitably, be the arrival of the mighty, 220,000 Allure Of The Seas for a maiden, full season of seven night cruises out of Barcelona. With 6,200 berths to fill on a weekly basis and the most complete range of facilities of any resort ship in the region, the deployment of this monster ship to the region is a huge act of faith in the future from owners, Royal Caribbean.

Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see just how this massive ship fares next year. A current short, first season by twin sister ship, Oasis Of The Seas, will help as a marker to iron out any potential kinks in operating ships of such vast, unparalleled scale and capacity.

With Barcelona as their main embarkation port, these massive ships typically make landfall on the ‘greatest hits’ ports of Rome, Florence, Naples, Palma De Mallorca and Monte Carlo over the course of a week. Of course, their huge size precludes them entering the smaller ports, but that is not their raison d’etre.

These ships are all about resort life at sea; each one contains a mind boggling array of alternative restaurants, bars, and increasingly exotic entertainment. Sailing relatively short distances through the night, their revenue stream becomes more akin to a torrent when sales of shore excursions are factored in.

While the Mediterranean cruise market is said to be slowly recovering from the effects of the recession triggered in 2008/9, that recovery is still sluggish. And the unprecedented number of new berths arriving with these huge ships means that there will always be a line of potentially great bargains, especially if you can be a little flexible, time wise. That said, it is also possible- likely, even- that uncertainty in other regions might boost bookings as well.

Naples is a staple of the 'Meddy Go Round'

Naples is a staple of the ‘Meddy Go Round’

Whenever you go, or for whatever reason, the seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ has never offered so much potential diversity as you’re going to find in 2015. The only minor down side remains the seething, human train wreck that is Barcelona’s aptly named El Prat airport.  I would definitely advise anyone to spend at least one extra day in the city- no great hardship, that- both pre and post cruise, in order to avoid the worst of the airport crowds.

Why not- you’re worth it. Happy travelling!