VOYAGE REPORT- CRYSTAL SERENITY

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

I boarded the Crystal Serenity in Venice at the beginning of last month for a week long swing down through the Adriatic, stopping in at Mykonos before transiting the Dardanelles, and finally leaving the ship in Istanbul. It was a frantic, fun fuelled week that neatly balanced magnificent history with a dollop of indolent hedonism, with a couple of welcome sea days in between to allow me to catch my breath,

The cool. marble suffused expanse of the Crystal Atrium was filled with the strains of a violin quartet, swinging lushly through The Blue Danube as I walked back on board. Instead of going straight to the suite, I lingered long enough to grab a maiden glass of glacially chilled champagne. I needed to linger for a minute or so and let it all come back to me.

Since Crystal had come under the auspices of Genting Hong Kong, a series of seismic announcements have unfolded like a string of muffled drum rolls. Crystal is not so much gathering headway, as going to warp drive.New ships, a stunning yacht, a brace of deluxe river ships, and even a pair of opulent air cruises. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of it all.

But a nagging feeling of unease had still gnawed away at me. What would the new regime mean for the actual, current on board experience? How would the Genting hegemony impact on board a pair of ships that I have come to cherish over a decade and a half. Surely change and retrenchment on board were inevitable?

Over the next week, those doubts vanished like sea fret. The on board experience remains as compelling, inclusive and all pervading as ever. Crystal Serenity remains suffused in a patina of care and concern from bow to stern, truck to keel.

Service throughout the ship remains as flawless and timely as ever. The staff are adept at appearing when you need something, yet without falling over the line into being overly intrusive. Of course, the high staff to guest ratio makes this easier, but that very ratio itself is indicative of the mindset originally instilled by Joe Watters from day one. It is heartening indeed to see that Genting understands this. Quite simply, it creates a bond, a contract of sorts between crew and guests that elevates the entire experience into something far more than a ‘mere’ voyage.

Crystal’s cuisine remains peerless; a series of beautifully executed snacks and feasts, running from the simple to the sublime. Whether we are talking about the simply gorgeous chocolate ice cream at Tastes, the dainty little custard tarts at the Bistro, or the succulent, full blown Italian fare at Prego, the Crystal Serenity delivered in spades.

Particularly enjoyable were some amazing, saffron accented lamb skewers served up one night in the Trident Grill. And being able to pick at prawns and lobster while lounging on my balcony as we skirted the coast of summertime Turkey is a level of indolence that is almost stratospheric.

God knows, I looked for signs of slippage in a product- and on a ship- that I know really well. I looked in vain.

The overall vibe on this spacious, supremely comfortable ship remains as upbeat and accommodating as ever. Wonderful live music filled the shimmering Crystal Atrium before and after dinner each night as we surged through some of the most fabled, historic waters on the planet. Banner destinations such as Dubrovnik, Mykonos and Izmir unfolded around us like stunning portals to the turbulent past of one of the most mesmerising regions in the world. And, having been sated and fascinated by these incredible places, we would return to the reassuring welcome of our floating home from home. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what sailing on the Crystal Serenity still feels like.

Over the years, the ship- along with the equally sybaritic Crystal Symphony- has been constantly refined and re-imagined, especially in the public areas. Particularly beautiful is the lounging space under the sliding glass roof of the Trident Grill. Teak decking, liberally sprinkled with plush lounging chairs and sofa groups, is now framed by vibrant climbing walls draped in lush greenery. There is even a small tree draped with twinkling fairy lights that makes for a stunning focal point while enjoying more casual evening fare over dinner.

The classic, on board alchemy achieved by this marriage of space and grace creates a clean, harmonious whole that is, quite simply, without peer. Details delight the eye and lift the spirit. The Crystal experience remains as vibrant and uplifting as ever.

Crystal CEO, Edie Rodriguez, was on board for this voyage. Affable, accessible and hugely capable, she is well aware that the line’s key asset remains the superb Crystal staff that give both ships their heart, soul and personality. From the start, Crystal was a line that hired it’s staff based on their attitude first and foremost. The theory always was that such staff could be trained up to offer the best possible levels of service for the guests then. It was a proven formula, and it remains one that has paid huge dividends for the line itself.

This level of intimately styled excellence, married to superb, quality hardware and a series of carefully thought out, round the world itineraries, is what really marked out the Crystal product of old as a thing apart. Happily, it still does to this day.

In my opinion, Crystal Cruises is the obvious heir to the cherished seagoing traditions of such stellar travel icons as the Royal Viking Line, and even the French Line. And, while it operates in a very different market to those long gone legends, Crystal’s ongoing adherence to those self same, timeless values of care and courtesy garnished with a ‘can do’ attitude, mark it out as a singular, worthy counterpart to both.

As I noted at the start of this piece, one of my concerns was whether or not that vital, all pervasive attitude might have changed under the new regime. After my recent trip on the Crystal Serenity, I can say emphatically say that it has not.

And in a world where hype too often attempts to masquerade as style, that is something that I for one find truly heartening.

VIKING OCEAN CRUISES- ROYAL VIKING LINE MARK TWO?

There is little doubt that the ongoing emergence of Viking Ocean Cruises has absolutely galvanised interest in cruise travel on a scale unseen for many decades. The whole concept has distinctly nostalgic overtones, wrapped in a state of the art modern package, and deliberately marketed to evoke memories of a more exclusive, intimate cruise experience. Simply and unashamedly, the company draws inspiration from an illustrious, very storied predecessor.

in the annals of vanished cruising legends, the Royal Viking Line evokes a level of whimsical nostalgia perhaps equalled only by the equally salubrious French Line. The company was established by Warren Titus in the early 1970’s with one simple aim; to create the most elegant and exclusive cruise experience available to passengers anywhere.

He envisaged, and then delivered, a trio of stunningly elegant sisters, suffused in Scandinavian chic from bow to stern, that would offer spacious accommodation and gracious service at the pinnacle of luxury cruising. Those three sister ships were, of course, the Royal Viking Sea, Royal Viking Star, and Royal Viking Sky.

This tremendous, triumphant trio succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The three sister ships became the collective benchmark for elegant travel, and the first choice of the savvy, sophisticated cruising elite that demanded nothing but the very best. Just as likely to turn up at Tromso as Tahiti, the three sister ships carved out a niche in modern maritime history that every subsequent luxury cruise line- from Crystal to Silversea- has aspired to ever since. They truly were game changers.

The sheer, enduring excellence and elegance of their design is borne out by the fact that all three vessels are still in service for other lines, more than forty years after their original genesis. And, despite no longer being the sybaritic showstoppers that they once were, each of these three wonderful ships is still instantly distinctive as ex-RVL royalty.

Titus emphasised space, splendour, and matchless cuisine and service as the bench marks for his three sisters. And now, like a modern day echo heeding that timeless old call, a new class of vessel is gradually taking shape, echoing those age old standards in a series of new, yet startlingly familiar sister ships.

Viking Ocean Cruises is the long anticipated offshoot of the hugely successful river cruise line. It combines the polished, Scandinavian flair of the original RVL with the best features and attributes of the river cruise experience that Viking has come to dominate to such a large extent.

Again, the company decided on a trio of congenial, compatible sister ships. The first of these- the 48,000 ton Viking Star- entered service last year, to reams of critical acclaim from passengers and travel trade alike.

Just the appearance of the ship drew awed gasps from the not easily impressed. There it was once again- that graceful, sharply raked prow that had been the trademark of the Titus trio, and the single proud funnel, placed just aft of midships. The hull- as brilliantly white as an Arctic glacier- hinted at the cool, pristine perfection of those classically styled Scandinavian interiors. In almost every respect, Viking Star is a graceful, beautifully executed nod to her three predecessors.

Next year will see a pair of sister ships- Viking Sea and Viking Star- that will round out the initial fleet (though there is an option for a fourth vessel in the class). Between them, this trio of vessels will take passengers ‘back to the future’ with a kind of intimate, endearing twist of the old days. In so many ways, this is Royal Viking 2.0.

And yet….

This new trio of ships offers a natural, luxurious progression from those 1970’s built ships that makes them as salubrious and state of the art as can be. Every single cabin- and even the smallest measures in at a capacious 270 square feet- comes with its own private balcony. In the old RVL days, balconies on cruise ships were almost non existent.

The symmetry between Royal Viking of old and Viking Ocean of new is hardly a happy accident. Viking CEO, Torstein Hagen, was actually the CEO of Royal Viking Line between 1980 and 1984.

In a mirror image of their river going siblings, the Viking Ocean trio will also offer a full, complimentary range of shore excursions, and many overnight stays in ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Bergen and Barcelona. This is intended to make them fully competitive with the likes of Azamara Club Voyages and Oceania- lines that Viking Ocean will inevitably be compared to.

Viking Ocean will also offer complimentary beer and wine with both lunch and dinner- just like the river boats and another rival operator, Voyages to Antiquity. This is not quite the fully inclusive largesse of, say, Regent or Seadream and, if the line is to really raise it’s game, then fully all inclusive is a must do. For now, this is not the case.

Viking chairmen, Torstein Hagen, has been smart enough to conceive a trio of classically cool, state of the art vessels that are already garnering a tidal wave of attention in the travel industry. Like their RVL predecessors, they emphasise superb food and personal service in casually spectacular surroundings.

But these ‘new’ Vikings offer a whole range of indoor and alfresco dining options that the old RVL trio never did. This is not so much revolution, more the evolution of a classically elegant kind of style and service.

All things in, Viking Ocean is a very alluring prospect; a kind of ‘less is more’ sense of enhanced elegance, shorn of casinos, rock climbing walls and roller rinks, and instead suffused in a cocoon of expansive style and space, in ships that are large enough to be eminently seaworthy, and yet still remaining intimate enough to make fast in the smaller, more exclusive ports that their larger competitors will be obliged to sail past.

Something old, something new, on an ocean that remains eternally blue. A subtle revival and the ageless thrills of a stylish arrival. Hagen is clearly onto something here.

The question is; will anybody else follow in his wake?

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

WILL FRED. OLSEN BUY ANOTHER SHIP SOON?

Riding high on the obvious success of its big fleet ‘get together’ in Bergen yesterday, the good people at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will enjoy basking in the glow of public acclaim that they have enjoyed from right across the cruising fraternity.

And quite right, too. Because Fred. Olsen- like it’s rival, Cruise and Maritime Voyages- does offer something totally unique; a hugely welcome alternative to the serried ranks of megaships that now form the bulk of fleets such as Cunard and P&O. And, with excellent levels of food and service allied to a warm, intimate scale, I suspect that the allure of both the smaller British operators will grow markedly over the next decade or so.

And, in the case of Fred. Olsen, we are talking about what is, in essence, still very much a family owned firm. Sea minded since day one, the Olsen family takes a keen interest in the handling, development, and even the day to day operation of the fleet. It’s a symbiosis that is rare indeed in an age where balance sheets rule the waves.

Many people were saddened when the pioneering Black Prince, the original, inimitable Fred. Olsen cruise ship, was retired from service in 2009. At the same time, some expressed unease at the acquisition of the 43,000 ton Balmoral- a ship then quite a lot larger than anything that the company had ever owned before. Would the age old Olsen attributes of intimacy and ease of access be lost with this larger vessel, the first in the fleet’s history to boast a passenger capacity in excess of a thousand?

The naysayers were proved wrong. Balmoral has become a very popular and successful ship since entering service, and an ideal foil to the already established, classic trio of Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch. Her bigger capacity allows for enhanced dining options and a bigger entertainment handle that have made her ideal for longer, round the world voyages, while giving away nothing in terms of warmth and spaciousness. I have sailed on her twice- both before and after her purchase by FOCL- and still consider her to be one of the finest and most stylish cruise ships afloat anywhere today.

So, with things looking quite good at the moment, is it the right time for Fred. Olsen to consider a modest fleet expansion and, if so, what kind of ship might they be looking at?

It’s pretty much a given that the line does not ‘do’ new builds. It has made the purchase and prudent conversion of second hand ships into gracefully enhanced, eminently serviceable vessels, into something of an art form over the years.

The great advantage of such a strategy is that the line is not kept waiting three or four years for a purpose built new ship. A vessel bought ‘off the market’ can be upgraded and improved in less than a quarter of that time, and at infinitely less cost. And, having been so successful on the second hand market, I’m guessing that this is the road that FOCL will take again. The only real question is; what ship would they buy, given the chance?

It is no secret that the line has long been interested in the Prinsendam of Holland America Line for quite a few years. Originally built as the Royal Viking Sun for the legendary Royal Viking Line back in 1989, she was- and still is- one of the most exclusive and opulent de luxe ships at sea; one so totally individual in style and character that Holland America advertises her as their ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In the past, Holland America have always declined to part with her. But, in the last few years, the company has been slowly divesting itself of smaller ships in favour of larger, more diverse vessels such as Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, and the forthcoming new flagship, the Koningsdam, which is due to debut next year. What seemed unlikely three or four years ago may well be more of a possibility now.

Certainly, the Prinsendam would be a perfect fit for Fred. Olsen. At just under 39,000 tons and with a current capacity for some 740 passengers, the ship is roughly in line, size wise, with Balmoral, though I expect FOCL would probably increase her passenger capacity by around 100-150. Probably, the line would like to add more balcony cabins- a popular facility that the line no longer swims against the tide on.

And it would also make for a happy reunion with two of her former Royal Viking Line fleetmates- Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) and Black Watch (once the Royal Viking Star). And, no doubt, the Olsen family would enjoy the chance to preserve and enhance this classic piece of traditional Norwegian cruising excellence.

This would certainly be a transition that would make sense for both lines, if the price was right. Obviously, the Prinsendam would need a certain amount of cosmetic surgery to bring her in line with her quartet of prospective sisters, but nothing too radical. The Prinsendam is a very finely styled lady as she is.

A fascinating prospect, and a possible future Fred. Olsen project? Stay tuned…..

is it time for Fred to become five?

is it time for Fred to become five?

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

VIKING STAR HANDED OVER AT FINCANTIERI

In a low key but none the less auspicious ceremony, the brand new 47,800 ton. 930 passenger Viking Star was handed over to her owners, Viking Ocean Cruises, by the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy on Saturday, March 28th.

The yard- itself said to be on the verge of taking over the rival STX yard at Saint Nazaire- delivered the first of three confirmed orders for the premium grade company that has come to dominate European river cruising. Two sister ships of the same size and class- Viking Sky and Viking Sea- are due to debut in 2016, and the company also has an option for a fourth ship in the same class.

The ship- very much aimed at a classic style of cruising that emphasises in depth destination visits and on board hospitality rather than gimmicks and glitz- will make a series of shakedown cruises before being finally named in Oslo, Norway, on May 17th- Norwegian Constitution Day.

The advent of Viking Star is hugely symbolic, and redolent with memories of the old Royal Viking Line of the 1970’s and 80’s. Firmly ensconced in the intimate, small ship category, Viking Star will offer free beer and wine with dinner, making the product wholly compatible in terms of value with the river cruise fleet.

I’ll be looking in depth at this new, very special ship as more details become available. As always, stay tuned.

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.

 

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.

IT’S OFFICIAL: NORWEGIAN TO PURCHASE OCEANIA AND REGENT FOR $3.025 BILLION

Will Regent and Oceania soon join the Norwegian fold?

Will Regent and Oceania soon join the Norwegian fold?

Reports began to surface last night that Norwegian Cruise Line has submitted a three billion dollar bid to buy Prestige Cruises International. Prestige is a very upscale operator, having both upper premium Oceania Cruises and ultra deluxe Regent Seven Seas Cruises in its current portfolio. The talks are stated to be at an ‘advanced stage’.

The hugely ambitious move comes at a time when both of the Prestige flag bearers were on the cusp of far reaching changes in any event. Oceania is said to be on the verge of confirming an order for a second pair of sister ships for its first, highly successful dedicated new builds, Marina and Riviera. Meanwhile, Regent is eagerly awaiting the arrival in 2016 of the new, 700 guest all suite Seven Seas Explorer, its first dedicated new ship since the Seven Seas Voyager back in 2003.

As things stand, the eight ships that comprise the joint Oceania/Regent portfolio will complement the current, thirteen ships (with four more on order) in the Norwegian fleet. This combination will give the seagoing operation an extensive presence right across the mainstream, premium and deluxe cruise brands.

Cynics will no doubt recall how NCL  (as Norwegian then was) underwent a similar, massive expansion in the mid to late 1980’s. Then, the line absorbed both the very upscale Royal Viking Line, immediately followed by the premium grade Royal Cruise Line. 

 

That was soon followed by the acquisition of Orient Lines in 1998.

Then, the company hoped that many mainstream passengers might be persuaded to move up to the more elegant, patrician brands. It ultimately failed, and almost took NCL down with it. The company was on the maritime equivalent of life support for years afterwards.

However, following a hugely successful IPO in January of 2013, Norwegian is in a far better position than it was back in the late eighties. The two newest ships in the fleet- Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway- have been hugely successful, and the recipients of much critical acclaim.

Likely future consort, Oceania, is doing so well that it looks to expand to a seven ship operation within a couple of years, as mentioned above. Meanwhile, Regent Seven Seas continues to be one of the most consistently fully booked of the deluxe cruise lines, partly as a result of having the most truly all inclusive fares in the luxury segment of the market. And Regent is also the only line anywhere that can field a pair of all balcony accommodation sister ships- Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager. Over the last year or so, both of these ships underwent extensive, multi million pound enhancements that put them at a pinnacle of the cruising firmament.

For sure, interesting days are ahead for all of the protagonists in this menage a trois. As ever, stay tuned.

 

TIMESLIP: QE2 AND THE SS. NORWAY IN SOUTHAMPTON, JULY 26TH 1984; A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.

In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.

In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.

At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.

A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.

Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.

Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.

By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.

Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.

And then, it was our turn.

With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.

Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.

Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.

Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.

IT WASN’T ALL BAD: MY MARITIME HIGHLIGHTS OF 2013

The classics are back, courtesy of Portuscale Cruises

The classics are back, courtesy of Portuscale Cruises

In my previous post, I wrote about the string of maritime casualties that have begun piling up like so many car wrecks over 2013, from the plain sad to the simply absurd. Thankfully, that has not been the whole picture for the cruise industry during the course of the year. There have indeed been a number of outstanding events, and some cracking new ships have arrived. Here’s some of my personal highlights.

Firstly, the Lazarus style resurrection of Portuscale Cruises from the wreckage of Classic International Cruises will have warmed the hearts of anyone that appreciates the simple pleasures of classical, well run ships. There has been no more resolute-or miraculous-statement of intent than the return to service of the flagship, the doughty, dignified little Funchal. And, with the rest of the fleet on course for a 2014 relaunch, the outlook is very promising.

Big ship of the year was unquestionably the stunning new Norwegian Breakaway, the Peter Max mentored floating tribute to New York style that debuted at the end of April. Brimming with life, and beautifully styled by Tillberg Design’s Fredrik Johansson throughout, Breakaway brings a whole host of outdoor eateries and bars to the balmy Bermuda run. With cutting edge entertainment and an easy, freewheeling vibe, this ship ups the ante for the contemporary mega ship experience by a long mile.

Stylish Regent has something new coming soon

Stylish Regent has something new coming soon

The announcement of a new ship for Regent Seven Seas is very exciting, and way overdue, too. Seven Seas Explorer will build on the obvious success and sumptuous style of her well established trio of upmarket siblings. And I had a delightful preview of the new ship, with some of her soon-to-be signature elements showcased aboard Seven Seas Voyager after a $25 million, bow to stern refurbishment. The whole look is more open and vibrant, with fresh carpeting and new artwork everywhere, while the new, cushioned comfy chairs on the balconies make them sublimely relaxing little enclaves.

The start up of new, traditionally styled Viking Ocean Cruises is a real, refreshing example of a new cruise line, actually listening to, and acting on, the ideas of potential passengers. With an identical quartet of traditionally styled , 47,000 ton siblings coming on line from 2015 onwards, there’s a firm emphasis on elegance rather than excess, and more than just an echo of those sybaritic Royal Viking Line stalwarts of the past. Certainly one that bears watching, for sure.

But, without doubt, the highlight of 2013 has been the debut of the sensational, stand alone Europa 2. With balconies for every single room- and even the smallest of those half as large again as on her nearest rival- this brilliant, uber-elegant new ship is designed to appeal to families of all ages, with many inter- connecting suites. Internally, the decor is sharp, linear and bright; a true ‘grand hotel’ on the ocean that offers no less than eight sumptuous, open seating restaurants for a maximum of 516 guests.

Pool area on the Europa 2

Pool area on the Europa 2

Owners Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines have created what is, quite simply, the most diverse and dramatic luxury ship afloat. From her indoor/outdoor nightclub to her central pool with its sliding glass dome, the Europa 2 feels like as much of a clean break with traditional maritime luxe as did the Normandie back in the thirties. Time and tide might prove her to be every bit as epochal.

So, no, it’s not all doom and gloom out there. While there’s not yet as much diversity across the cruising spectrum as there once was, those ships that are emerging are more chock full of delightful innovations than anything that has preceded them before. At the same time, a slowly growing realisation is gathering pace that the industry per se is not a one size fits all shop. Lines are responding to demand, and that can only be good for all concerned.

As ever, stay tuned.