CLASSICS TO INFINITY…. AND BEYOND

ImageIn the world of modern cruising, the miraculous salvation of the former Classic International Cruises fleet must rank as the most staggering comeback since Lazarus. OK, well at least since Take That.

When the banks foreclosed on the fleet of classic liners so lovingly maintained by the late, great George Potamianos, scrapyard owners everywhere opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives. And who could really blame them for scenting blood?

ImageHere was what had been a modern cruise accountant’s nightmare. A fleet of low density ships, floating anachronisms that were incredibly expensive to sail and maintain. Labour intensive, with only a handful of balcony cabins across the five ships. A complete lack of modern, time killing attractions and, above all, their sheer age working relentlessly against them. Though I remained outwardly optimistic, in my heart I had also written those lovely, fondly remembered ships off.

I have never been so glad to be proven wrong.

In a move that stunned and surprised everyone, four of the five ships have been bought from the banks by Doctor Rui Alegre, a Portuguese business man. He immediately reinstated the stalled revitalisation of the handsome, 1961 built Funchal. Now, after several years of stop-start work, the ship is scheduled to start sailing again under charter this September. This was originally thought to be in Northern Europe, though another source has the ship going to the Mediterranean.

ImageBaby of the fleet, the 6,000 ton Arion has now been renamed as the Porto. She now sports a smart black hull, and a black and yellow funnel bearing the logo of the newly named Portuscale Cruises. At the time of writing, she is undergoing final refurbishment in Lisbon.

Nearby, the classic, 15,000 ton Princess Danae is being refurbished, and has been renamed the Lisboa, in honour of the Portuguese capital.

Athena, the former Stockholm, is already back at sea, operating charter cruises in the Black Sea for a Russian firm, under her new name, Azores.

It is expected that all the ships will be up and running by 2014, though whether some or all go out on charter is as yet unclear. Portuscale is being quite tight lipped. Indeed, silent.

Also encouraging is the revival of the Classic International Cruises brand itself, with the Potamianos brothers-sons of the original owner- having completed the repurchase of the 15,000 ton Princess Daphne, currently laid up in Crete. Again, details are thin on the ground, but it seems that the brothers have gone to great lengths to buy back the ship so beloved of their late father.

ImageIt remains to be seen how this small, beautifully styled band of survivors can buck the trend of a depressed market that is largely dominated by mega ships. But, having seen these ships come so far, and watch them re-emerge after defying all the odds, it would be a rash man indeed who would bet against them.

I’m not that man. I wish both operations smooth seas, and a rising tide of good fortune.

LOUIS GOES SAMBA- LOUIS AURA TO SOUTH AMERICA FOR THE WINTER

Indoor promenade

Indoor promenade

In a move that has surprised many in the cruise industry, Louis Cruises has announced that it’s 1968-built Orient Queen, formerly the pioneering NCL Starward, will go on charter to South America this year. Itineraries have yet to be made public.

Like her Cuba bound fleet mate, Louis Cristal, the Orient Queen usually goes into warm lay up over the winter after her season of cruises around the Greek islands. The new South American charter marks the first winter deployment of the ship for several years. She will be renamed Louis Aura to coincide with it.

The renamed ship will be a welcome contrast to the mega ships of Costa and MSC which traditionally dominate the winter South America trade. At just under 16,000 tons, she has eight decks, with a lower capacity of 820 passengers accommodated in some 355 staterooms, and served by a crew of 337.

That smaller size should allow the Louis Aura to provide a diverse range of itineraries to smaller ports. The downside for some might be the fact that the ship has no balcony cabins. Insides in particular are quite small, with little storage space but, as the ship is quite informal, dressing up is not a big thing, and packing fairly lightly is the order of the day.

Sitting area of one of two penthouses

Sitting area of one of two penthouses

Louis Aura offers passengers a main dining room that operates in two sittings for dinner, plus an aft facing outdoor buffet that serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Most of the public rooms are set along the length of one deck, from the forward facing show room to a couple of lounges, and the main restaurant at the stern. This has a lovely wall of glass windows looking out over the ship’s wake.

The Mermaid Restaurant

The Mermaid Restaurant

Side view of the solarium

Side view of the solarium

Main pool area

Main pool area

There are shopping facilities, plus hairdressing and styling services. Uniquely, she also features a windowless, two level casino, wrought out of the space that was once the original cinema. There is also a quartet of small elevators.

Solarium seating area

Solarium seating area

There are two pools, one partly covered by a triple-tiered, glass enclosed solarium that doubles up as a late night music venue and disco. An upper deck, Balinese themed spa has an indoor Jacuzzi, available at a small charge.

Pool area at night

Pool area at night

On the European cruises, cabin breakfast is available for a small surcharge. Whether the dining options might be tweaked to suit the tastes of a much more late night, predominantly Latin crowd remains to be seen.

The Louis Aura is scheduled to finish up her current series of Greek Island cruises the second week in November. No one has yet announced whether the transatlantic crossing from Athens to South America will be carrying passengers, but it would certainly make for a fascinating proposition.

Small ship means ease of access to smaller places

Small ship means ease of access to smaller places

Aft deck of the Orient Queen

Aft deck of the Orient Queen

This is definitely one to keep an eye on. I enjoyed a short cruise out of Limassol on the ship last year (see previous blogs), and I think she might be a feisty little contender for the South American trade. Stay tuned for itinerary updates as they become available.

AEGEAN ODYSSEY-A GREAT LITTLE FIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY SMALLER IS SAVVY (Updated)

ImageThe trend towards ever larger cruise ships in the mainstream market has become something of an unstoppable juggernaut over the last decade or so. The idea of combining new, amenity laden ships awash with the ‘wow’ factor has, without doubt, been the engine that has propelled the massive success of cruising. Throw in the economies of scale inherent in building a string of similar sized fleet mates, and the logic is inescapable.

And yet…

For all the gains made in revenue and the availability of good quality, bargain cruises, the trade off has been a slide to near extinct status in ships of the 25- 45,000 ton mark. Except in the deluxe market, no new ships of this size have been put into service at all.

That special, sweet size allowed such ships to glide into the smaller, less developed spots that their larger alternatives have to bypass. And there’s no question that a more intimate, personal style of cruising has largely gone to the wall.

It is not just cruise passengers that are affected. Back in the late nineties, Bermuda’s main ports of Hamilton and St. George’s played host to a minimum of five mid sized cruise ships every week, each week from April through October. Each call lasted between two and three nights minimum. The boon to the island’s tourism was undeniable.

Now, each is lucky to get two calls a year, total. Largely, this is down to the new mega ship docks at Kings Wharf but- more crucially- this is also down to a dearth of mid sized tonnage that can thread its way into those ports, and their equivalents across the Atlantic.

The likes of Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean sold off their mid sized tonnage to new owners such as Pullmantur, Louis and Thomson. All these ships still offer a great, value for money experience but, because they are smaller, in mid age and lacking in balcony cabins and alternative dining venues, they are now widely perceived as second class. Short of frills and rock climbing walls, they are seen as a ‘hard sell’ to a supposedly gimmick obsessed cruising public.

This in itself is a shame. But worse still is the fact that no similar sized replacement tonnage is in the mix. A handful of intimate sized ships, complete with balconies and a few restaurants, would be a welcome, profitable splash of diversity in cruising’s increasingly uniform and pedestrian portfolio.

There are, however, still a few stubborn hold outs. The five, mid sized Statendam class ships of Holland America line still continue to hold their own, as does the elegant Prinsendam.

From the UK, the mid sized ships of Fred. Olsen continue to offer a friendly, more old world kind of experience to a predominantly older age group. Itineraries are superb, and the ships offer excellent food and service at a very good price point, as well as lots of decently priced single cabins.

And… one of the big surprises that slipped right under the radar comes from Costa; a company whose name these days is synonymous with mega ships.

In a nifty little nod to its own past, two seasons ago the line snapped up the spiffy little Costa Voyager, a modern gem of around 28,000 tons. With a good, all round mix of cabins and modern styling, this ship could be the benchmark for ships of this size. She tends to sail in the Mediterranean and Red Sea but, if this is your ideal size of ship, I recommend you give her a look.

Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, smaller is just plain smart and savvy. Cruise lines, please consider: Think big, and build small.

Update: Since this post was originally written, Costa has seen fit to dispose of the Costa Voyager.

CRUISING THE GREEK ISLANDS ON THE ORIENT QUEEN

ImageThere are times in the world of cruising when ‘less’ can most definitely be ‘more’. While the big, brimming new ships can entertain you like never before, they are often pretty restricted when it comes to the places where they can actually dock, especially in a limited amount of time. This is not such a big deal if you are doing the ‘greatest hits’ of the region such as Barcelona, Florence and Rome. But if you are looking to see the smaller, more intimate yacht harbours that make the region so truly darned compelling, then the truth is that you have to go down several layers in terms of size.

That’s largely why I picked the venerable Orient Queen for my recent short cruise from Cyprus to Rhodes and Symi. At just over 15,000 tons, she is a baby beside the modern behemoths, at least in terms of size. Yet in terms of age, she is from an entirely different era completely.

She was originally built as the MS. Starward in 1968, the first brand new ship for the fledgling Norwegian Caribbean Lines (NCL). With her, the company pioneered the concept of the fly /cruise that we now take for granted. For almost three decades, she enjoyed remarkable success, cruising from Miami to the sun splashed Caribbean islands.

As times and tastes changed and ships grew bigger, NCL dispensed with the veteran trooper. She went to the now defunct Festival cruises as the Bolero, and spent a few years with them before going over to Louis Cruises in 2005 to operate short cruises in the Greek Islands, where she gained worldwide fame evacuating civilians from Beirut during the war of 2006.

Now, the Orient Queen cruises more peaceful waters, and a legion of former fans will recognise her instantly. The unchanged silhouette with the central glass dome and the twin, swept back funnels is like something from another age and time. The sharply raked bow and snow white hull are a complete anachronism in terms of modern cruise ship architecture.

Inside, there is one main deck full of public rooms, beginning with the Stars Lounge right forward, the cabaret venue on the ship. This leads aft into the Reflections Lounge, with it’s boulevard effect of floor to ceiling windows. Behind here, the two-sitting Mermaid Restaurant spans the full width of the ship, with a lovely sweep of glass windows overlooking the ship’s wake, an aquarium full of idle, moon eyed fish, and glass ports that look into the illuminated tank of a swimming pool.

Food has a Greek emphasis, and is generally very good for the size and star rating of the ship. Breads in particular were very good, as was fish and pork. The other dining option- at least for breakfast and lunch- is the Horizon Buffet, located one deck above. This indoor/outdoor venue opens out onto the stern deck, and is set around the aft pool.

There is no alternative evening buffet here, although fast food such as pizzas and BLTs can be ordered at extra cost, around the clock. Ditto for cabin service breakfast, a continental affair that comes in at around four euros.

Cabins are small and compact, with toilet and shower, a/c and limited storage space. That said, on destination oriented cruises like these, you’re unlikely to spend much time in them. None come with balconies, but the small and intimate nature of the Orient Queen means the entire ship is your own private balcony in effect. The dress code is pretty casual- you can safely leave the ballgowns and tuxedos at home.

There are good deals on inclusive drinks packages on board, but prices in general are not expensive.Tips run at about four euros a day for a crew composed largely of Filipino and Eastern European service staff. While there might be the odd communication problem, the crew as a whole is happy to help passengers in any way they can.

The whole ship is suffused with a happy, cheerful vibe. The Orient Queen has no pretensions to be a luxury ship. Instead, she is an honest, workmanlike lady that remains extremely comfortable and- just as important in these waters- nimble enough to scoot into the sweet little spots that the bigger vessels have to pass by at a distance.

The signature venue on the Queen is the three level, steel and glass disco, the Venus Lounge, that opens out onto the centre pool. The centre level contains a rectangular, sit up bar surrounded by table groupings that flank the large, floor to ceiling windows. For the brave, a spiral staircase leads to a kind of VIP level that offers fabulous views down to the pool, as well as out over the bow. This almost unique little venue was the late night heart of the ship, and hugely popular with the mostly young local Cypriot crowd on board to enjoy a well known local rock band. Be aware that they smoke a lot, and everywhere at that.

There was also a small, bi level casino indoors, amidships, that did a good trade, and a small, charming little upper deck health spa that offered various treatments at extra cost. These include a sublime, Balinese themed indoor Jacuzzi area that feels like a different world entirely. It was pure bliss wallowing in the tub after a hard day drinking wine ashore, while the rest of the world outside got up to whatever craziness was currently taking its fancy.

The Orient Queen sauntered out into the late afternoon Limassol sunshine with around 680 passengers aboard, just over 100 short of a full load. Though the sun was fierce, a conga line of whitecaps soon began rocking and rolling us to such an extent that our call in Santorini was, wisely, abandoned. Putting tender boats into the sea in such conditions would have been rash indeed.

Now the nifty size of the ship really came into play. We were diverted instead to an early, overnight call in Rhodes, and a short but sweet visit to the delightful little idyll called Symi. As it turned out, this deftly amended short trip turned out to be a real winner.

We were the only cruise ship in Rhodes, with its massive, brooding turrets, towers and walls bleached almost blond by decades of exposure to a pitiless Aegean sun. Here, in the winding, cobbled streets where the Knights Templar once made their doomed last stand, modern tourists sit at over priced cafes that throng the central fountain. These days, their feet are surrounded by nothing more deadly than a rising tide of shopping bags ,their podgy fingers gingerly grasping glasses of the deadly, deceptive local ouzo.

Night time brought out the bright lights, the milling crowds, and the chance to sample some gorgeous local wine while savouring some platinum chip people watching, with just the ghost of a warm breeze rippling in from the ink black Aegean. The sounds of bouzouki and thumping base from nearby bars was overlaid with the constant, rhythmic chirruping of hundreds of tree frogs. The result was the most bizarre and delightful soundtrack I can ever remember. It was not a bad way to spend Saturday night at all.

Back aboard the relative calm of the Orient Queen, there was time to enjoy one last strawberry margarita in the VIP level of the Venus Lounge, looking back over the lights of old Rhodes Town. While I was calling it a night, the Orient Queen stole silently away into the darkness, destination Symi.

I woke in what I thought was the middle of an amazingly vivid dream. Serried tiers of whitewashed houses and restaurants stood almost close enough to touch from the deck, brilliant against an early morning, petrol blue sky studded with almost ethereal wisps of cloud. A gently curving stone pier lay below, with early morning wanderers sauntering in and out of a line of cafes that had been splashed across the quayside, with gently flapping umbrellas in reds, blues and vivid greens. From the windows above, coloured shutters were tethered to stone walls in shades of canary yellow, blue and rich terracotta. The whole place was like an incredible audio visual assault on the senses.

The hills surrounding the port were low, rolling and arid, scattered with random clusters of gaunt, spindly pine trees that stood out sharp against the blue sky. Yachts and trawlers bobbed lethargically at anchor, like an armada of snoozing swans. And yet this dream was very, very real.

Winding alleyways led to small tavernas, with checker cloth topped tables surrounded by rickety, electric blue wooden chairs, suffused with the smell and taste of melt-in-the mouth souvlaki, and fabulous, freshly pressed orange juice. A few hours here was more than enough to make me want to come back for much, much longer.

Back aboard the Queen, the memories of a glorious long weekend drifted idly through my mind as we cantered back to Limassol on a sea of liquid glass. There was fresh fruit and red wine on the table in front of me, shaded from the glare of the sun. Overhead, the famous, angled twin funnels stood like sentinels. I felt quite wonderfully free, totally chilled out. All things considered, it was not a bad way to spend a weekend.