FREEDOM OF THE SEAS IS EUROPE BOUND IN 2017

In 2017, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom Of The Seas will return to Europe for her first series of cruises since being delivered from the Turku shipyard in Finland, back in 2006.

The 154,407 ton ship- first of the three Freedom class ships (Her sibling are Liberty Of The Seas and Independence Of the Seas) has stayed in service out of North American ports ever since her debut.

The deployment of the 3,782 passenger ship brings a temporary halt to the deployment of successive Oasis class ships on the seven night ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ circuit out of Barcelona for Royal Caribbean. In succession, Oasis, Allure and currently Harmony Of The Seas have spent summer seasons sailing on the port intensive Mediterranean run out of the Spanish port.

Thus, this first European deployment for Freedom Of The Seas comes as something of a surprise, and definitely a downscaling of Royal Caribbean’s presence in Europe. On the other hand, the deployment of all three Oasis class ships in the year round Caribbean trade gives the company unparalleled dominance in the US domestic market.

Whether this is a one off deployment (a reaction to falling passenger numbers in general, perhaps) remains to be seen. None the less, with sister ship Independence Of The Seas sailing out of Southampton to the Mediterranean as well, the arrival of Freedom Of The Seas on station in Barcelona next summer still gives Royal Caribbean a very formidable presence indeed in the region.

Interesting times, for sure. Stay tuned for further news.

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The ground breaking Freedom Of The Seas.
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FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD- A CRUISING MYTH?

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Fillet steak, sir? Good choice…..

Ah, food on board cruise ships. Perhaps nothing over the years has been so eagerly anticipated by embarking passengers, or so hyped in the pages of glossy travel brochures. Few would dispute that, in terms of booking any cruise, food is right up there as the top priority as most people’s reason for sailing on a particular ship.

Whether we are talking about a basic, three star ship right up to the most uber luxurious six star floating paragon, food is always in abundant supply. And, indeed, for some, it is as much about quantity as quality.

Nowadays, thanks to an almost volcanic explosion in the size and stylings of modern ships, passengers can eat their way around the equivalent of a world wide range of tastes. From Mexican to Mongolian, Polynesian to French and classic Italian, cruise ship owners have found that offering the world on a plate is not only their oyster, but their fattened cash cow, too.

At sea, high end steak houses exist on most of the deluxe lines, and many of the premium ones as well. Further down the line, mainstream dining rooms offer more international fare. Buffets, however extensive, are often criticised as offering up the same food every day, while paradoxically finding a table in some of them seems like Mission; Impossible. Such are some of the dining conundrums of the modern cruise industry.

Of course, this diversity is a product of the cruise boom of recent decades. More people are taking to sea now than ever before, and from right across the social spectrum. In that mix, there will be those who are quite happy to stay in shorts and T-shirts all day, and eat every night from the buffet. Just as there will be others who keenly anticipate an evening of fine, themed dining every evening, and use the occasion as an excuse to put on their best glad rags. The point is, modern cruising can engage and entertain both of these viewpoints, at least by and large.

That said, the great majority of passengers fall somewhere in between these two fixed poles, and it is to the credit of the industry that it can accommodate- and largely satisfy- this teeming mass.

In truth, any line claiming to offer ‘gourmet food’ and ‘the best dining’ is putting itself in potentially stormy water. For nothing is as individually subjective on a cruise ship as taste. One passenger, sitting at a table on any given ship, might rave about their wonderful dinner while another, sat just feet away and ordering the same courses, might be disappointed, if not nigh on apoplectic. Not even the most detail accented, taste sensitive lines are going to please all of the people, all of the time.

So, just how does a prospective passenger plan for the best, food wise?

Look at the price for any cruise that appeals to you. It is obvious that the bargain, three star cruise adventure that you like the look of in the Mediterranean, is going to cost a hell of a lot less than a week of sybaritic slobbing around those same waters on a six star ship. If you pay to sail on the equivalent of a decent Hilton hotel, you just would not expect the upmarket care and personal attention to be found at a Ritz Carlton. Why would it be any different with a ship?

It’s a numbers game in other respects, too. Any ship catering for thousands of passengers at a time simply cannot provide ‘gourmet’ cuisine for the mainstream. There are insufficient staff; the per person per day food budget usually does not permit the chefs to buy the absolute top of the range, best quality ingredients while on the voyage. Practical as they are, they do the best they can within a regime constricted by such economies of scale, and the constant desire of shore side operations to pare down running costs.

It surely also follows that a much smaller ship can cater much more effectively- and edibly- to the far smaller number of passengers on board. These people pay for the best, and they expect to get it. A more high end clientele such as this, used to eating in the best restaurants at home and abroad, will not be fobbed off with second rate food and service. Quite right too, when you consider what they stump up per diem for the privilege.

Even in such a cocoon of rarified refinement, sometimes things do go wrong. Even the most talented and attentive chef can have an ‘off’ day, when all is said than done. In the words of the song, we are all human after all.

How graciously you deal with such a situation- and, indeed, how it is dealt with- well, that truly is a measure of your own, personal good taste, and that of others. Far more than a delicious dinner or an artfully flambed crepes suzette, that is what people will remember.

DINING WITH FRED; FOOD ABOARD THE BLACK WATCH

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Treats abound at The Grill aboard Black Watch
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Sumptuous Fillet Steak with Red Wine sauce at The Grill, Black Watch
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Edible chocolate cup with berries at The Grill

 

 

Fred. Olsen has always been a company that prides itself on the quality of its food and service. My recent return to the company’s Black Watch after something like twelve years provided me with a great opportunity to run the rule once more over the culinary landscape to be explored on this stalwart cruise line, a favourite of British passengers for more than three decades now.

FORMAL DINING The main dining room- the Glentanar- is situated in the middle of the ship, on Deck Six. It spans the full width of the ship, and offers tables for two to eight passengers at a time.Within set times for breakfast and lunch, the Glentanar is an open sitting venue. At night, it reverts to being a formal, two sitting venue- first seating at 6.15, secondseating at 8.30. Most of the passengers still seem to like it that way, and many do enjoy dressing up for the experience.

The food throughout the ship is tailored to the taste buds of the predominantly older, primarily British clientele that is Fred. Olsen’s staple diet, so to speak. There are typically five courses for dinner, with three choices for each dish, plus an ‘always available’ section that offers options such as Caesar Salad, Norwegian Salmon, and steaks. served with a variety of vegetables.

There are some nods towards continental tastes and twists, and also sometimes some Filipino styled options that passengers really do seems to enjoy. Tables are still set with traditional linen cloths, unlike many of the modern place mat style settings on newer ships. There is plenty of room around the tables, and the service in general is deft, attentive, without ever feeling overly intrusive. In terms of formal dining, the company can give any rival a run for its money.

THE ORCHID ROOM BUFFET

The preferred alternative for those who eschew the main dining room, Orchid Café is- most unusually- a completely indoor space, with floor to ceiling windows down one side. Located just behind- and adjacent to- the main dining room, it features many of the menu items offered in the Glentanar for breakfast, dinner and lunch but, being a buffet, the Orchid Room is open sitting for all meals.

There are a surprising number of tables for two here, a very welcome boon on such a relatively small ship. The Maitre’ D sets guests personally- a very nice touch. Again, there is plenty of space between tables. The two centrally sited, hot and cold buffet lines effectively divide the room in two, at least visually. The effect is to make the Orchid Room appear much more intimate than it actually is; a clever sleight of hand.

It has the look and feel of a sunlit French sidewalk café, and it is enormously popular. So much so that some tables in the adjacent Courtyard are sometimes also used for potential spill over passengers, especially in the evening. Because of the proximity to the galley, food comes out piping hot for all main meals. Quality wise, this buffet is far superior to many so called more upmarket lines, and a leisurely breakfast in this setting is one of the most pleasant dining experiences available on the British market cruise ships today.

As well as the three main staples, the Orchid Room/Courtyard area also serves up afternoon tea each day, with scones, sandwiches, and biscuits on offer free of charge. From around eleven each night it offers up late night snacks, including at least one main hot dish. Fish and chips is typical of this fare.

Both Glentanar and the Orchid Room post menus outside in advance of opening times, allowing passengers the option of shaping their evening entertainment and dining choices to suit their mood every night. On such a relatively small, intimate ship as the Black Watch, this works quite beautifully.

THE GRILL (Not available every day)

Situated outside aft on Deck Six, The Grill is something new to Fred. Olsen; their first extra tariff restaurant, which has now been rolled out right across the four ship current fleet.

While the choices are limited compared to many steak houses and a la carte restaurants on bigger ships, the food and ambiance is nothing short of sublime and- for a cover charge of £20 per person- it is one of the best bargains anywhere at sea. Specially commissioned glassware sets the scene, in a sheltered location just behind the superstructure, and adjacent to the swimming pool.

On a beautiful, mellow August night, I feasted (no other word is adequate) on a ten ounce Fillet Steak, complete with Asparagus spears and hand cut chips, served up in a gorgeous red wine sauce. There was a chocolate cup with berries to follow that looked almost too good to eat- I still ate it.

Complemented by a very fine red wine (extra charge) and a fulsome, frothy Cappuccino (included), this collectively constituted the best meal that I have eaten on any ship this year. Out in the open air, garnished with a side order of sea breezes and a stunning sunset as we sailed down Aurlandsfjord, The Grill is, quite simply, a must do when the weather permits. It really is that good.

ELEGANT AFTERNOON TEA (Not offered every day)

I mentioned the free afternoon tea served each day in the Courtyard earlier, but Fred. Olsen now also offers an extra charge (£7.95 pp) ‘elegant’ afternoon tea, served up in the forward facing Observation Lounge, with views out over the ocean. I got to sample this one day, too.

What do you get for your cash? Well, there are three tiers of beautifully presented finger sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and scones, together with all the gooey jams and clotted creams that anyone could ever desire. There are several kinds of teas- and these are refilled as often as you want. I tried a variant called Imperial Gunpowder, and it was love at first taste.

It’s quite Downton Abbey-esque, with a string trio playing genteel melodies as a backdrop. The setting, the stylings of the food offerings, and the deft service combines to offer something that is truly a little bit special, especially for a birthday or anniversary celebration. And all at a price that no London hotel could get anywhere near, either.

In sum, Fred. Olsen continues to punch way above its weight in terms of food offerings, the flair with which that food is prepared, and the finesse with which it is offered up to passengers. There may not be enough variety for some with more exotic tastes, but the range and sheer, well rounded and well thought out variety of the menus on board will leave most people on board more than happy to come back for more.

CELESTYAL CRUISES: GREECE IS THE WORD…..

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Celestyal Olympia at Santorini

Following on from the recent Norway trip on Fred. Olsen, here’s a heads up on the next one in this year’s calendar.

I’ll be joining Celestyal Cruises’ 38,000 ton flagship, the Celestyal Olympia, for a short, four night cruise from Athens to the Greek islands and Turkey, sailing on September 26th and flying home on the 30th. Short, for sure, but awfully sweet as well.

A number of factors influenced my choice. Here’s the breakdown of those;

SHEER INCLUSVITY

The mutual proximity of the Greek islands and Turkish mainland to each other means that you can pack in an almost unimaginable amount of sightseeing in just those four days. Should I really decide to push the boat out- pun wholly intentional- I could see and savour a whole raft of sights, many of them rated as UNESCO World Heritage experiences.

Ftom Kusadasi, I could see the magnificent, swaggering ruins of the preserved city of Ephesus (and on my birthday too, no less). There is the stunning Library of Celsus, the House of the Virgin Mary, the magnificent amphitheatre, and the vast, marbled central axis that Anthony and Cleopatra once strolled. Not bad, eh?

Mere hours later, from Patmos I could visit the Holy Monastery of St. John, where the great man is said to have written the Book of Revelations, as well as visit the Cave of The Apocalypse. For anyone with even a passing interest in either history and/or religion, that would rank as reason enough alone to make this trip.

The next day- a full day in Rhodes- I could take in the stark, isolated splendour of the Acropolis at Lindos, or tour the still formidable Palace of the Grand Masters that dominates the old town of Rhodes. I could stroll the ancient, cobble stone lanes of Rhodes Town, where the Knights Templar once fought and died in their vain attempts to hold on to the island. On an island like Rhodes, the echoes of history are, quite literally, just around every corner.

Crete next and, from the port of Heraklion, I could visit the magnificent, recreated Palace of Knossos, with its links to the fabled Minotaur, the legendary half man- half bull that supposedly roamed the corridors here. Or I could simply take in the harbour itself, with its magnificent Venetian fortress at the entrance. Not a bad morning’s enlightenment on offer there.

The same afternoon, I can take in the view from the legendary caldera of Santorini, where white painted houses look like bits of frosted wedding cake, clinging to the rim of the long extinct volcano. Thought by many to be the sight of the fabled ‘lost city’ of Atlantis, the views down into the lagoon are rightly regarded as some of the most awe inspiring, heart stopping vistas anywhere on the planet.

Not bad in four days, eh?

THE COMFORT FACTOR

Celestyal Oympia is the ideal sized ship for cruising these idyllic waters. Big enough to showcase a variety of bars, lounges and restaurants that offer up local as well as international favourites; yet still small and intimate enough to find her way into the chic, more sedate little places that make cruising these waters such a rewarding experience.

Recently refurbished quite extensively, the ship is freshly primped, with all new menus featuring food for all tastes, from basics such as burgers to bountiful Greek fare. This particular cruise has a wine and cheese theme, as it happens.

Everything on board is handy, easy to reach, and expansive enough to relax in during our short spells at sea between islands. The cabins are comfortable, stylish and more than commodious enough for a short cruise like this one.

And-from 2017- Celestyal Cruises are also featuring fully inclusive fares that cover shore excursions, together with an all inclusive drinks package, as well as food and accommodation on board. This makes perfect sense as it creates a seamless, worry free product. Good forward thinking.

THE TIME OF YEAR

While cruising the Greek Islands is idyllic in high summer, I prefer the slightly cooler days of autumn- and indeed early spring- for my voyages in the region. There are not quite so many tourists, the heat is less intense and-in September/October in particular- the whole atmosphere is a little more mellow and reflective; a truly nice way to end the summer traveling season, without using a lot of valuable holiday time or, indeed, breaking the bank.

THE FEEL GOOD FACTOR

While Greece and Turkey are truly awash with historical lore, few other places on earth offer so many opportunities to just ‘kick back’ and enjoy the indolent, laid back pace that makes these waters so damned compelling. Whether watching a legendary Mykonos sunset from the quay just outside Jackie O’s, or savouring exquisite souvlaki on the Patmos waterfront, there are little moments for self indulgence that just stand out as if writ large in spotlights.

Few things beat an ice cold beer in Rhodes Town after a few hours’ spent strolling the ancient streets and magnificent sights. On Santorini’s almost exalted peak, a glass of wine takes taste to new heights. And that first, early morning coffee at a waterfront café in Heraklion is truly something special to savour, too.

So; these are my reasons. In the fullness of time, no doubt you will find your own. And, believe me, few other parts of the world are worth taking time out for so much as these ancient, seemingly enchanted Aegean idylls.

 

ANOTHER SHIP RECALLED FROM EUROPE FOR 2017

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Holland America’s Oosterdam is giving Europe a wide berth for 2017 in favour of an Alaska season. Photo credit: http://www.shipparade.com

A couple of days ago, Holland America Line announced that it’s popular MS Oosterdam would be withdrawing from European sailings next year. The 2003 built ship will, instead, switch to Alaska and Inside Passage sailings from the west coast of the USA.

Of course, Oosterdam is not the first ship to up anchor and go west, as it were. Recently, the entire Mediterranean programme for the deluxe Crystal Serenity was cancelled, in favour of a series of voyages that would involve sailings from both the east and west coasts of the USA. This will be her second consecutive season in the USA. And it is also the first time that the current Crystal flagship has spent two consecutive seasons away from Europe since her debut in 2003.

Things being what they are on the international scene right now, it seems that Americans in particular are reluctant to travel to Europe. Terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Turkey, in particular, have had an inevitably baleful impact on the plans of the travelling public. And Britain’s shock decision to quit the European Union has only added to a general air of unease and uncertainty.

Ironically, cruise ships have some of the best and most stringent security measures in the entire travel industry. But the seemingly random, mindless natures of atrocities carried out ashore is what has really made people stop and think.

Of course, there has also been the belief in some quarters that the European cruise market has simply been over tonnaged for several years now. In the wake of the 2012 loss of the Costa Concordia, fares plummeted across many of the mainstream lines, and have still to regain the pre-2012 levels of traction overall.

In the current climate, expect to see the curtailment of more European schedules for 2017. But, as everywhere in such circumstances, there are of course some winners.

Primarily, these will be in the US domestic market, where lines such as Carnival and Norwegian in particular, have been very adroit at positioning ships all around the perimeter of the mainland USA. Pacific Mexico cruises, already regaining popularity slowly but steadily, could see a real resurgence over the next couple of years. Increased competition in home waters should help leverage rates right around the continental USA. Bermuda cruises, too, should enjoy a bumper season.

Strange and uncertain times, for sure.

LEGACY; THE SS. NORWAY AND HER EFFECT ON THE CRUISE INDUSTRY

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The SS. Norway in her adopted homeland during her 1984 summer season in Europe. Photo courtesy of Rob O’Brien at http://www.classicliners.net

When Knut Kloster first announced his intention of converting the laid up transatlantic liner SS.France into the world’s first mega cruise ship, the sound of jaws dropping worldwide was almost deafening, It was not long before the ‘experts’ started to offer a whole raft of dissenting opinions.

She was simply too big for profitable, week round cruising. She would consume too much fuel to be viable. She was too large to dock at any of the islands in the Caribbean. She was a twin class ship, a relic of the 1960’s. The list went on and on.

One by one, Kloster deftly demolished all of these splutterances. In April 1980, the reborn SS. Norway emerged from her six month long winter hibernation in Bremerhaven to gasps of awed amazement. Dazzling, shiny and resplendent, the ‘Playground of The Caribbean’ sent the opposition reeling in every direction.

From the start, the Norway was a stunning, triumphant splash; a ship without a peer on the ocean. So radical an update was she that the Norway completely shaped the entire modern cruise industry. Every mega ship in service today owes it’s very existence to Kloster’s bold, brave resurrection of an already legendary ship. Kloster’s $118,000,000 investment in his dream ship would make her a legend for the second time.

How so?

Firstly, the sheer size and scale of the ship allowed him to envisage, and then assemble, an entertainment roster unparalleled in size, quality and scale. It was the Norway that first staged near full scale Broadway musicals on board. She was the first ship to stage full, Vegas style fur and feather boa revues in a vast, two story, eight hundred seat theatre.

Platinum chip headliners featured on every sailing, too. Jack Jones, Phyllis Diller, Petula Clark and Sacha Distel were just a few of the big names to perform for the Norway passengers during her week long circuits of the Caribbean. There were mime artists, portrait painters, and even a resident fifteen piece big band.

That band played out on deck every sailing day, as the Norway sashayed downstream from Miami past the opposition, leaving them figuratively and literally in her wake. After the stunning smorgasbord of entertainment served up aboard the Norway, every company had to look to their laurels.

Secondly, by introducing economy of scale. As the France, the ship’s four propellers fed by two giant engines rooms, pushed her across the Atlantic at thirty knots. The fuel consumption was horrendous; the ship guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine.

All of that would change. Kloster shut down the forward engine room and removed two of the props. The remaining, aft engine room was modified to drive the two remaining ones. As a cruise ship, the reborn Norway would need to sail at around eighteen knots. In fact, she hit twenty five knots on trials that spring without even breaking sweat.

This drastic realignment had the immediate effect of cutting the fuel bill by a full two thirds. That torpedoed the economic argument completely, once and for all time.

And it was the little touches, too. The Norway boasted the first television station- WNCL- of any cruise ship afloat. And the Norway was also the first cruise ship to have colour television in every cabin on board.

Her two giant, twin tenders on the bow- Little Norway I and II- became almost as iconic as the great, winged smokestacks themselves over time. Capable of carrying a full four hundred passengers each, they waddled ashore from the ship each week at St. Thomas and Great Stirrup Cay, disgorging hordes of sunburnt dollar crusaders ashore with almost effortless ease. In one fell swoop, the need to dock alongside at every port was negated almost completely.

And there is no question that the ship felt incredibly lavish. Swathed from bow to stern in Art Deco, her vast interiors had a magical lustre all of their own; one that no other vessel on the ocean could truly match. The Norway looked and felt spectacular in every aspect of her public spaces. Looking along passenger corridors, the ship seemed endless at times.

In short, the Norway was innovative, inspired, almost impossibly dramatic and luxurious. Yet underneath all of that flourish and finery, she was a hard headed, well thought out, extremely workable cruise ship that predated the new generations that would follow her by a full decade.

The Norway quite simply set the gold standard. And even now, she remains an adored, enigmatic legend. Gone for a decade now, for many of her besotted fans she remains, quite simply, a ship apart.

Her immortal reputation deserves nothing less.

CELESTYAL ADDS SHIPS; EXPANDS TO MIDDLE EAST FOR 2017

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The Celestyal Nefeli has had a successful first season cruising in the Greek Islands

Interesting times lie over the horizon for Celestyal Cruises, it seems.

In an interview with Cruise Critic UK (www.cruisecritic.co.uk), Celestyal CEO Kyriakos Anastassiadis confirmed the return to the fleet of both Thomson Spirit and Thomson Majesty at the end of 2017. With new tonnage coming on line, the UK based holiday operator no longer needs these smaller, more intimate ships.

The line plans to add a second ship to the current, year round Celestyal Crystal sailings in the Cuban market out of Havana. This could probably the Thomson Spirit, once rebranded in Celestyal livery. The second ship will offer three and four night sailings on a year round basis, in and around Cuba. My feeling is that the smaller Celestyal Crystal might shift to the shorter sailings, with the bigger second vessel taking over the current, seven night sailings, but time will tell.

As for Thomson Majesty, it has been bruited that she might make off season sailings in the western Mediterranean, where her smaller size would allow her to access the smaller, more intimate ports that the big ships have to pass by.

And-confirmation of an earlier rumour- the Celestyal Olympia will, indeed, go to the Persian Gulf next winter, to operate a season of short, three and four day cruises out of Dubai. Ports of call will for the 1,664 passenger ship will include Bahrain, Doha and Muscat. Sailings will last through until April 2018, when the Celestyal Olympia will return to Piraeus to operate her summer season in the Greek islands.

This gives much needed year round employment to the ship, which traditionally had laid up in Piraeus over winter at the end of each Greek islands season. Traditionally, one of the problems encountered by Celestyal was the need to lay up its whole fleet in Piraeus over the entire winter season. It is good to see this anomaly finally being addressed, and no doubt it will bring a welcome boost to the company’s revenue stream.

On the traditional, port intensive summer Greece and Turkey itineraries, the three, four and seven night cruise programme will be maintained from both Greece and Turkey by both Celestyal Olympia and the recently added ‘baby’ of the fleet, Crystal Nefeli.

But most intriguing of all is that the line does, indeed, intend to build two brand new cruise ships of their own- the first in the history of the company. At around 60,000 tons each and with a passenger capacity of around 1,800, the new ships would feature balconies as standard on all outside cabins. It is anticipated that they will operate-initially at least- on the short, three and four day cruise circuit out of Athens. But it would also make perfect sense to send both ships further afield through the winter as well.

The problem thus far is in finding a shipyard with enough spare capacity to fulfill a building order. Cautious estimates give a launch date of 2021 or 2022 for the first of these new vessels.

A lot of momentum seems to be building here. Certainly, developments here are well worth following.

Stay tuned for updates.