The famous Cunard Countess was one of a pair of very popular twin sisters. By 2007, renamed as the Ocean Countess, the cruise ship was sailing on a brief lived charter to Louis Cruises as a replacement for the Sea Diamond, which had foundered after striking uncharted rocks in the caldera of Santorini the previous April.
For the purposes of the charter, the ship was renamed as Ruby. I found her sitting alongside the terminal at Piraeus on a warm July morning in 2007, her trim, tidy little silhouette at once instantly recognisable from her former days.
Along with her twin sister, Cunard Princess, she had been built in the mid seventies to offer a series of fun, frivolous cruises in the Caribbean, primarily from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Both ships were wildly popular for many years but, inevitably, successive generations of newer, more amenity laden ships put them on borrowed time.
With her name changed from Cunard Countess to Ocean Countess, the doughty little ship carved out a new niche for herself, operating short, port intensive cruises from Athens to the Greek islands and Turkey. In this role, she would find a whole new lease of life.
At 17,000 tons, the ship that I encountered as Ruby was a perfect size for meandering around the pretty little harbours and yacht havens that dot the Aegean. With expansive, open terrace decks at the stern that included a quite memorable, almost one-of-a-kind indoor/outdoor nightclub, she was so obviously made for fun in the sun.
The single, swept back funnel was unchanged from her Cunard days, and it gave her a jaunty kind of grace and balance that defined her as very much a 1970’s baby. Up forward, the famous Observation Lounge still offered a fine, intimately styled venue for watching those flaring Aegean sunsets. And I was ridiculously tickled pink to find that the original Cunard lions were still there, etched into the glass doors as if frozen in time.
Indeed, there were very few changes at all from her Cunard heyday that were readily obvious. A central lido complex contained a small, oval shaped pool and a pair of hot tubs, set in a sun bowl just forward of the funnel. I would spend a few happy hours sun worshipping up here over the course of our three day weekend cruise.
These great little trips sailed from Piraeus, the port for Athens, just before noon on a Friday. Hugely port intensive, they allowed for short runs ashore in exotic chic spots such as Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Crete and Santorini over the course of four days.
In between all of this, there were buffet lunches on deck and Margaritas in the hot tubs, and warm, wonderful evenings under the stars at the aft deck club. Because she was so small and compact, most of the main public rooms were on one deck, which made strolling and rolling a pleasant, gentle evening affair. Even in 2007, the Ruby was still a captivating little classic; solid, unpretentious and welcoming. No wonder so many people fell in love with her during her Cunard days.
The cabins? Ah yes, the cabins… They were indeed about as large as the average pygmy’s postage stamp, and the wall insulation was thinner than Donald Trump’s wig. But somehow, you made it work; in any event, dressing up was not a priority on this carefree little weekend jaunt. Tuxes and tiaras were in very short supply indeed.
She was a slightly faded little gem, obviously past her best by 2007, but still game; and extraordinary good value for money. The food was plentiful and often very good, with an expected emphasis on Greek staples. And, because we visited some ports on the evening, eating ashore on such wonderful waterfronts as Mykonos and Patmos presented a really delightful alternative- or supplement in many cases.
I am glad that I got the chance to sail on the Ruby when I did. Had she stayed in the Aegean, I would certainly have gone back and done it again, but fate decreed otherwise.
Ruby. Ocean Countess. Cunard Countess. Really just three different bits of stage wear for the same, essentially unchanged ship. One with a heart and a soul so big as to totally belie her actual, relatively diminutive size. She was a lovely little girl and, despite the very real sadness of what ultimately befell her, I still cannot help but smile when I remember her.