CARNIVAL ORDERS FIRST NEW BUILD FOR P&O CRUISES, AUSTRALIA

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P&O Australia is ploughing full speed a head with a first ever, dedicated new build

Carnival Corporation has announced the construction of a first ever, purpose built cruise ship for it’s P&O Australia brand.

The ship is part of a brand new, four ship order from Italy’s Fincantieri yard for the Carnival portfolio of lines. In addition to the P&O Australia build, there will be two dedicated vessels for Costa’s operation for the Chinese market in Asia, and another ship for Princess Cruises, based on the popular Royal Princess platform.

All four new vessels are expected to be delivered between 2019 and 2020.

But it is the new build for the Australian market that is especially interesting. Thus far, all of the P&O Australia fleet has been reconditioned former tonnage, taken from the likes of Ocean Village, and Holland America Line.

The new, as yet nameless vessel is said to have a passenger capacity of 4,200. Following on from the projected 2017 debut of the Pacific Explorer (currently sailing as the Dawn Princess) the new ship will bring the P&O Australia fleet up to a total of six vessels- a quite remarkable achievement in such a relatively short space of time.

She will also constitute the first, purpose built vessel for the P&O Australia fleet, and her much larger passenger capacity puts her on a par with the 150,000 ton class of cruise ships that seems to be becoming the worldwide industry standard size these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But do they always go well?

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

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

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

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

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

QE2 was already a reality television star in the early righties

QE2 was already a reality television star in the early righties

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

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

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

RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

INTRODUCING BRITANNIA, AND A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM

Southampton's legendary Bargate

Southampton’s legendary Bargate

It was the announcement that surprised almost no one in the end, but it still managed to excite a vast flotilla of cruise fans. Royal Caribbean International will homeport Anthem of the Seas, the second of it’s new Project Sunshine series, in Southampton from 2015.

The arrival of this fabulous ship sets up an interesting potential duel with the rival P&O Cruises, with the 2015 advent of that company’s own Britannia, a very slightly smaller vessel. Built on the same platform as Royal Princess, she will be the largest purpose built ship ever introduced to the UK cruise market.

Anthem of the Seas will replace the longstanding UK stalwart, Independence of the Seas, after near on five years of sailing from the Hampshire port. Britannia, by contrast, merely augments the already formidable P&O line up currently homeported there.

With her new facilities such as the already hotly anticipated North Star capsule, her dodgem cars and virtual balcony cabins, Anthem continues the Royal Caribbean trend for incorporating dazzling, state of the art new amenities into each successive class of newbuild. By contrast, Britannia will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; a continuation of a popular, easily embraced product and palette enshrined on all of her fleetmates still in service. While the Anthem will scream about her superlative new style and facilities, Britannia will not be screaming at all, thank you very much.

Is there room for both? Well, both lines will be naturally bullish about their new builds, and Royal Caribbean are also retaining the popular Adventure of the Seas on the Southampton roster as well. But in a revealing little insight not so long ago, Norwegian head honcho, Kevin Sheehan, said categorically that the company thought it impractical to dedicate a ship to a permanent UK homeport in the near future.

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

Now, whether this is a totally financial decision, or whether it simply reflects the hard fact that Norwegian currently has less tonnage to shuffle around than Royal Caribbean, I honestly do not know. But I do know that, once both Anthem of the Seas and Britannia enter service, it is going to give Southampton a year round roster of superships, unseen even at the highlight of the ocean liner era in the late 1950’s.

What is for sure is that there will never be a better time to embark on a big ship, sailing from what is still the premier UK passenger port. The choice is nothing short of monumental, with the Cunard trio on hand to augment their P&O fleet mates, plus seasonal summer deployments from the likes of Princess and MSC. That company is also debuting the mighty MSC Magnifica in Southampton for a few cruises next year. How long before one of these newer, bigger vessels replaces the current, stalwart MSC Opera on a permanent basis?

Fred. Olsen also maintains a presence with Balmoral, practically the only mid sized ship sailing regularly from Southampton. So far as we know, no one else has plans to homeport smaller ships there, save for the already present, graceful swans of P&O.

The next few seasons should be interesting. Will the new ships result in overkill in a market that has still vastly depressed prices? Will Sheehans’ side swerve look like sound business? Remember that Norwegian had a ship based in Dover each summer for twelve seasons, before withdrawing altogether in 2011. And, of course, Southampton has infrastructure challenges- rail, road and hotel accommodation- to address as well.

For sure, it is a time of giants, one unseen in any British port before. Almost all of these mega ships can accommodate half as many passengers again as such Southampton legends as the Queens, the United States, or even the venerable, beloved old Canberra. A unique convocation of cruising hardware, wrapped in different shades of style and substance.

PETITE PRINCESSES- SHORT CARIBBEAN BREAKS IN A LOVE BOAT STYLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter? Where?

Winter? Where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your escape capsule awaits...

Your escape capsule awaits…

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

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

THE BALCONY BOOM- HAS IT BUST?

Crystal cruises has some of the most generous standard sized balconies afloat

Crystal cruises has some of the most generous standard sized balconies afloat

Cruise ship balconies have been all the rage for the better part of two decades now, but some of the latest ships to enter service have come in for some pointed criticisms in the balcony stakes.

Both the new Norwegian Breakaway and Royal Princess have been slated for cutting back on space on their standard balconies; both do, indeed, look a little on the small side. Photos reveal sitting room to be more than a little tight on both. And the mini suite balconies on the later ship have been slated as positively miniscule.

By contrast, the new Europa 2 of Hapag Lloyd Cruises boasts the largest standard balconies ever seen on any ship; at a whopping seventy five square feet, they are bigger than some of those  turn of the century steerage cabins offered by the same line in the nineteen hundreds.

She is, admittedly a deluxe ship, And yet balconies at sea are not quite as newfangled as you might think.

Italia Line sister ships, Saturnia and Vulcania, had a small suite of upper deck balcony cabins as far back as the 1920’s. These two ships operated on the Italian Line’s ‘sunny southern’ route between Italy and North America. Needless to say, these were attached to only the most very expensive cabins.

Later, in the 1930’s, the record breaking Normandie had a pair of vast, sternward facing terraces attached to her two pre-eminent suites. Ironically, these lacked the one thing essential to all good balcony accommodation; any form of privacy. Anyone walking the aft terraces of the French masterpiece could be party to the platinum chip lounging of the top suite occupants. Interestingly, her great rival, Queen Mary, had none.

Three years after her 1969 debut, Queen Elizabeth 2 had a prefabricated block of penthouses hoisted on board, just aft of her mainmast. These had small balconies, and a big effect on her centre of balance. In the winter of 1986-7, another block was added further aft, extending to just forward of the new funnel.

SS. Norway before the balconies were added around her distinctive funnels

SS. Norway before the balconies were added around her distinctive funnels

Two years later, her great rival, the SS. Norway, had a whole deck and a half of brand new balcony cabins built on her upper decks, around the funnels. And while some purists claimed that the addition ruined her beautiful lines forever, those new decks were instrumental in keeping the ageing former French liner financially afloat for another decade and a half.

Two things emerge from this; balconies are not new, but they are certainly here to stay. It seems doubly ironic that shrinking balcony real estate on seagoing ships is being complemented by increasingly generous balconies on the newest generation of river cruisers.

If this is a new trend in passenger shipping, it will not be a popular one. A balcony at sea should be a space to lounge on, and not merely a ledge to perch on.

SMALL SOLUTIONS- ALTERNATIVES TO THE MEGA SHIPS

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

The debut of new behemoths such as Royal Princess and Norwegian Breakaway has yet again served to affirm the universal supremacy of the mega cruise ship as the prime source of most seagoing travels. But if you don’t like the idea of whooping it up in a small city with more than three thousand fellow revellers, the alternative options at first appear pretty thin on the ground.

There are small, very highly styled ships out there, of course. Companies such as Silversea, Regent and Seabourn offer sublimely beautiful, incredibly lavish and human scaled products that go to some of the most inviting places on earth.

The problem here for many comes with the size of the price tag.

Because while all of those lines represent outstanding value, the fact remains that we live in straitened and uncertain times. Every penny counts these days. And the price tags attached to these lines are simply a bridge too far for many people.

There’s also a definite high end factor, too. Some people find these ships simply too overwhelming as a travel experience. That’s not to degrade either product or potential passenger; it’s just restating an old truth. Incredible as it seems, some people simply find these ships too luxurious.

So, where does that leave those people- and there are a lot more than you might think- that want to try and find some happy medium? High and dry, you might assume. No medium size, mainstream cruise ship has been debuted in the standard market since the early 1990’s, two decades ago. At first glance, the horizon looks foggy indeed.

And yet, look closer, and there are far more options than you might think. Allow me to introduce you to some very personable ‘ladies of the sea’…

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

If you want small scale ships with a real, retro look, you could consider Cruise and Maritime. The flagship is the elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo, joined for this year by the Discovery. This is nothing less than the former Island Princess of Princess Cruises. The trio is rounded out by the Astor, which will be undertaking some quite wonderful cruises ‘down under’ for the Australian market this coming winter. All of these ships are in the 22,000 ton range- a truly sweet size.

Smaller and distinctly cerebral, VTA’s lovely Aegean Odyssey and Swan Hellenic’s cute, deft Minerva serve up history and harmony in equal doses. You might think the price tag is steep, but when you look at the actual, sheer inclusive nature of both lines, the value is undeniable. It’s also worth noting that VTA has a number of single cabins, and very reasonable solo occupancy supplements in addition on most sailings.

Of course, most UK passengers know all about Fred.Olsen. Our American friends might remember the beautiful, seaworthy Black Watch and Boudicca better as the legendary Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky, respectively. These beautiful twins tip the scales at a svelte 28,000 tons each, and each retains the contours, character and sheer charisma of such platinum chip, vintage tonnage.

Rounding out Olsen’s popular quartet of British accented perennials is the 24,000 ton Braemar, and the still elegant, 43,000 ton flagship, Balmoral. The latter ship is still fondly remembered as the legendary Crown Odyssey, the last purpose built ship for the now long defunct Royal Cruise Line.

Common to all of the Olsen ships is a large number of single cabins, very good service, and excellent food. They do tend to attract an older age group if that’s an issue for you, but the itineraries are well thought out, and the ships themselves offer some of the best value of any line afloat.

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Looking for something quick, cheap and really cheerful? Louis Cruises offer three and four night cruises out of Athens and Cyprus this summer on the venerable Orient Queen, once the pioneering Skyward of Norwegian Caribbean Lines, as it then was. These are intense, high density itineraries on a 16,000 ton ship that has no balcony cabins, if that’s a deal breaker for you. As an exhilarating weekend break, these short cruises are very hard to beat.

Portuscale Cruises has emerged from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and four of the original quintet of rebuilt classics should be back in harness next year. The 16,000 ton Athena becomes the Azores, while the 15,000 ton Princess Danae becomes the Lisboa, and the veteran, 6,000 ton Arion is already back in service as the Porto. The legendary, 9,000 ton Funchal is also due back in service this year.

These ships are real floating time capsules; authentic mini liners offering the closest experience to the true classic liner voyage experience available anywhere today. They are often, but not exclusively, put out to charter. Any opportunity to sail one of them should be grabbed with both hands. They cannot last forever.

And you might be surprised to learn that the mega ship colossus that is Costa is hiding a little secret, in the shape of the foxy little 28,000 ton Costa Voyager. She spends winters cruising the Red Sea, and with her intimate size and styling, she is sure to evoke memories of the string of similar sized Costa beauties that once existed, now long since vanished.

At sea on Portuscale...

At sea on Portuscale…

So, hopefully, there’s some food for thought here. Even writing this blog has been a revelation. Some of these ships had slipped from my memory as completely as if swallowed up by Atlantic fog. Finding them again has been a voyage of discovery in its own right. Happy sailing.