CRYSTAL SYMPHONY AND SERENITY TO GET NEW PENTHOUSE SUITES, DINING OPTIONS

CRYSTAL SERENITY
Crystal Serenity; sailing into a new era of excellence. Photo credit: http://www.cruisemapper.com

As part of a massive refurbishment project that will also include several new dining options, both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity will be dry docked to allow for considerable enhancements to their current passenger accommodation.

Some existing rooms will be replaced with an entirely new class of room, designated as Seabreeze Penthouse suites. They will be pretty much the same size as the current penthouse suites aboard both ships, but will come with an entirely new design.

Approximately forty to fifty suites will be added to each ship and, as well as featuring new touches, some will offer use of the first ever washer/dryers ever seen in rooms of this size, the new, expanded suites will also have the effect of lowering the current guest capacity on each ship, thereby increasing the already generous on board space ratio.

In the case of Crystal Symphony, the count on board will revert from a current 922 down to 848. For Crystal Serenity, the figures go from the current 1070 guest down to a svelte 980- just over half of the 1800 routinely carried on the similar sized former Cunard flagship, QE2.

In addition, Crystal will introduce unlimited, free internet across both ships, 24/, for the duration of each cruise.

In stealing an edge on the competition, Crystal will enhance and revitalise the dining options available aboard both ships with a whole range of new eateries. These will include:

The Crystal Dining Room on both ships will be rebranded as the Waterside Restaurant, offering open seating dining and featuring a range of classic dishes and modern, contemporary favourites.

Tastes will morph into Silk, a venue that offers casual breakfasts, lunches, and family styled dinners that will showcase many Chinese style favourites.

The Lido on both ships will be restyled and reorganised as The Marketplace, offering buffet style tapas and ceviche during the day, along with other casual fare. At night, one part of the venue will become a Brazilian styled steak house- a churascaria- where succulent cuts of meat will be served up on skewers.

Silk Road will go on both ships, but will be replaced by a new Nobu venue entitled Umi Uma. In a nice nod to Crystal’s twenty seven years’ heritage, the phrase actually translates to ‘Seahorse’, the company logo. Suite guests will be entitled to unlimited dining in here, with other guests being offered one free dinner per voyage.

Popular Crystal stalwart, Prego, will remain and, once again, suite guests will be able to avail themselves of unlimited dining here. The Vintage Room will also remain, but with a modified menu that will also feature a ‘lunch and lecture’ programme on sea days, featuring fewer courses than the evening menu, and all paired with appropriate wines and beers.

With both the Crystal siblings going to open seating for dinner, entertainment options throughout will be redefined to enhance the roster of evening choices, under the supervision of former Norwegian and Costa entertainment guru, Keith Cox.

Overall, this programme of retrenchment and refinement to both of these fabled ships must be regarded as the most comprehensive in their history, and something of a leap of faith for Crystal Cruises itself. With expanded dining, accommodation and entertainment options, plus free internet and a higher guest/crew space ration than ever, these ships- like fine wine and good music- just seem to get better with age.

WHERE TO FOR THOMAS COOK CRUISES?

FANTASY CLASS
Could one- or more- of the Carnival Fantasy class vessels be chartered to Thomas Cook in late 2017?

It isn’t so very long since the venerable tour operator, Thomas Cook, announced that it would be starting up a cruise line of its own at the end of 2017, initially with a pair of second hand ships. As soon as that statement was made, a tidal wave of speculation began to break as to what the identities of those two ships might be.

The first, and most obvious options, seemed to be the two ships that would be leaving the Thomson Cruises fleet at the end of the year to return to parent company, Celestyal Cruises. That line has a long record of chartering vessels out to other UK holiday operators, so it seemed that the two vessels in question- Thomson Majesty and Thomson Spirit- might be the prime candidates for a Thomas Cook start up.

However, we now know that the Thomson Majesty, soon to be Celestyal Majesty is going out to Cuba for week long cruises in the Caribbean. And, with Spirit said to be set for a deployment out of Malaga, just where will Thomas Cook go looking for that vital start up tonnage?

One option might actually be Carnival Cruises. Carnival Chairman, Arnold Donald, is on record as saying that arriving new builds will lead to older ships being phased out of the ‘Fun Ship’ fleet. And, with Carnival Vista a reality and Carnival Horizon on the, erm, horizon, it might well be the case that one or more of the 1990’s built, 70,000 ton Fantasy class vessels might become suddenly available. These would be nice sized ships for a start up, too.

Or could it be that Pullmantur, the Spanish operator, might charter the 45,000 ton twin sisters, Horizon and Zenith, out to Thomas Cook? That would still leave the troubled Spanish operator with the larger Sovereign and Monarch to handle South America and the Caribbean, respectively. Plus, it might also finally pave the way for the long awaited, already once cancelled transfer of the third of the original Sovereign class vessels- Majesty of the Seas- from former parent company, Royal Caribbean, over to Pullmantur.

If you think about it logically, there really isn’t much else out there that is available to TC- just possibly the two remaining Statendam class ships over at Holland America. After the sale of two of their siblings, everyone knows that Maasdam and Veendam are now on borrowed time as part of the HAL portfolio. But is the veteran Dutch company ready to part with them before it’s own new tonnage comes on line? I personally doubt it, but stranger things have happened for sure.

Interesting times. Stay tuned as details begin to be firmed out.

VILLEFRANCHE REVISITED- AN ONGOING LOVE AFFAIR

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The waterfront of Villefranche. Photo by Anthony Nicholas

Anyone who knows me even vaguely will tell you how much I love Villefranche Sur Mer. The small French fishing port is the pearl of the French Riviera; a jump off point for cruise passengers to visit the heady delights of Nice, Monaco, or even Cannes. As Villefranche has no pier, passengers come ashore via local tenders, and are then taken on tour by coach.

Their absence is fine by me; it leaves me free to just soak up the atmosphere and sheer, jaw dropping beauty of what is, quite simply, the most stunningly beautiful harbour in all of southern Europe. Villefranche, while not a cheap date, does not have the stratospheric prices and brittle glamour of nearby Monte Carlo. It’s always been about style here, rather than hype.

As our ship-Pullmantur’s stately, legendary Sovereign– hugged the coastline of the French Riviera, the expected springtime weather decided not to play ball. Presumably, it had not read the memo regarding blue skies and sunny weather.

Instead, a slate grey sea roiled and slammed against the sides of the ship. Grey clouds scudded like malign, ghostly galleons across a leaden sky that threatened rain at any moment. But none of that was going to dampen my enthusiasm; I was going back to Villefranche, setting foot once more on what, to me, amounts to hallowed ground.

I stood mesmerised on the windswept upper deck as the Sovereign loomed past Cap Ferrat. Before I knew it, the enormous ship swung to port, and came swaggering into the stunning bay of Villefranche. Jaws dropped by the dozen at that first view.

A vast, natural ampitheatre of low, rolling greenery is studded with hillside villas, peeping out from among the foliage. On the quay, a ring of beautiful Italianate architecture, clad in shades of ochre, terracotta and pale cream, crouched along the waterfront, their window shutters garbed in shades of electric green and petrol blue. A handful of unsteady fishing boats huddled against the quayside, as if seeking refuge from the rain clouds.

An hour later, I was on a tender to shore, bumbling across the slate grey briny. Whitecaps licked greedily at our flanks and, even as I watched, the gorgeous panorama of Villefranche opened like a flower, bursting into bloom. Oddly, I still felt the same sensations of awed reverence as when I first came here, way back in 1998.

I stepped ashore on the old stone quay, and took in that still peerless panorama. Truth be told, Villefranche seemed surprised to see us; some of the houses had paint peeling from their usually immaculate facades, and most of the cafes were still closed against the just gone winter weather. Rows of chairs and tables were stacked up against the front of these, as if seeking refuge from the elements. The normally pristine beauty resembled nothing so much as a drowsy supermodel, woken suddenly from her sleep, that had not yet had time to put on her make up properly.

There were very few people about on a waterfront that is normally sun splashed and awash with happy visitors in the long summer days and nights. The two small, perfectly formed beaches were empty, the twin bars that adjoined them still shuttered and silent. But the wisteria and the oleander were beginning to bloom again on the old stone parapets below the railway viaduct; a sure sign that much better weather was on the way. Alas, just not today.

Sovereign was the first cruise ship to arrive in Villefranche for the 2017 season, and she will be followed by literally hundreds more. In very short order indeed, Sleeping Beauty will awaken and greet these visitors with her usual flair and finesse.

Some of the old stalwarts were open, however. It was nice to enjoy a glass of wine and some sporadic people watching at Les Palmiers, a cafe bar set just back above the quay. I walked along the windswept beach and then came back for another glass of wine in the Wine Pier, the seaward facing conservatory of the waterfront Welcome Hotel, with its beautiful Art Deco interiors. Warm against the outside cold, that wine- a beautiful drop of Sancerre- was truly something to savour.

Later, as our tender purred back across the darkening sea towards the spectacularly floodlit Sovereign, I gazed longingly back at the waterfront of Villefranche. Pools of light danced and shimmered along the edge of the bay, casting a subtle, seductive glow on the water. I felt cheered, almost elated at the sight.

Spring might not yet truly have sprung on the pearl of the French Riviera, but I felt warmed, charmed and, once again, hopelessly in thrall to this singular piece of rare earth. Needless to say, a return visit is already in the planning.

CRUISING WITH PULLMANTUR- THE PROS AND THE CONS

SOVEREIGN
Photo credit for this great shot goes to Daniel Capella

In writing this blog, please bear in mind that these are the words of an Englishman, writing about what is essentially a Spanish oriented cruise experience. That has to be borne in mind at all times when considering the points I’m about to make.

Pullmantur is a cruise experience that offers fantastic value for money, with all inclusive food and drink folded into the fare. Unlike some cruise lines, the ‘all inclusive’ does not suddenly become ‘extra charge’ after two in the morning. The value is undeniable.

Food wise, we’re not talking gourmet quality here. The food- whether in the dining rooms, the buffet and the upper deck outdoor grill- was tasty, plentiful and wholesome, with more than enough variety for sure. It seemed to me that the chefs used a fair bit of salt in both meat and chicken dishes, but it was not over the top. Perhaps this is just a Spanish thing.

Idiosyncrasies exist; while butter is provided at the breakfast buffet service, it is absent at lunch and dinner. You have to ask for it, and it is then promptly supplied.

Drinks wise, it was normal waiter service everywhere, except in the late night disco. Here, waiters simply clear tables, while passengers line up, pub style, to be served at the bar. However, there are usually at least five drinks servers working at any given time, and wait times for service are actually short. For the busy, crowded disco, I actually think that this kind of service works better than normal waiting service.

One nice thing that Pullmatur does is that each table- in both bars and restaurants alike- comes complete with a little card, featuring the name and picture of your designated server. It’s a lovely little touch, and one that I have never seen on any other cruise line. As new servers come on rota to work, the cards are changed to match.

Now, to some of the cons. The great bulk of Pullmantur’s guests are Spanish and, while menus, literature and most announcements also come in English, the Spanish dominate these cruises. Individually they are lovely people, and they certainly know how to party. Even the older folk are still going strong in the small hours of the morning. Their sense of fun is both infectious and vibrant at once.

They also tend to travel in large, extended groups that expand as they make new friends. It is not unusual for them to take over two or three tables at a time in a public room, and then strip other tables, locust like, of all the chairs so that their friends can join them.

Naturally, this creates issues for couples or individuals looking for somewhere to sit. And these extended groups create a bewildering cacophony of sound that can drown out the quality entertainment- and it was quality- that you might be trying to listen to. Impromptu breaking into song by large groups is not at all unusual.

And the few foreigners on board sometimes do get forgotten. For instance, the staff members announcing tender debarkation in Villefranche did so only in Spanish. This was an accidental oversight rather than deliberate discourtesy, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Stage show are audio visual spectaculars, where little dialogue is required to follow along. As such, they are quite enjoyable, though the cruise director’s ten minute pre- show spiel was done, again, entirely in Spanish alone. Sometimes, I lost the will to live just trying to listen to it.

In summary, Pullmantur offers a sassy, stylish product at a superb price point. Service across the board is good, and often excellent. The on board vibe is bubbly, exuberant, and always loud. If you want peace and quiet on your cruise holiday, I’d suggest that you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Would I go back? Absolutely. And- knowing what I do now- I’d be better prepared to enjoy what I consider would be an even more rewarding experience than the one I have just related these snippets from. Happy sailing.

SOVEREIGN- STILL MAGNIFICENT

SOVEREIGN
Sovereign as she now appears. Photo credit: Daniel Capella

I recently spent a weekend on the Sovereign, formerly RCCL’s ground breaking 1988 build, the Sovereign of the Seas. That game changing ship- the first ever purpose built mega cruise liner- created a sensation at the time, and would later be followed by a pair of almost identical sisters, the Monarch and Majesty of the Seas.

It’s a testament to their original, sound design that all three ships are still sailing today. Sovereign herself left the RCCL fleet in 2009, being seconded to Royal’s Spanish offshoot, Pullmantur Cruises. The Madrid based operator still runs the legendary ship to this day.

I boarded the Sovereign in Barcelona, to where she had just returned from her winter season of three and four day cruises in Brazil. Ours was a short, three night ‘filler’ cruise to Villefranche and Toulon, before the ship began her summer season of seven day, round trip Mediterranean cruises. This coming November, the 74,000 ton ship will be dry docked for a refit before she returns to Brazil for another season of short, sultry, samba fuelled runs to the highlights of east coast Brazil.

So how does the Sovereign stack up now? With a royal blue hull, flaring prow and elegant, knuckled counter stern, the Sovereign is still dominated by the enormous Viking Crown lounge that circles the funnel, a full fourteen levels above the water. Known these days as the 360 bar, it still remains one of the most amazing vantage points ever put into any ship at sea. Overall, this amazing vessel still has a proud, swaggering stance that puts most modern cruise ships firmly in the shade.

The famous, five story atrium lobby- known back then as the Centrum- still divides the ship almost vertically right down the middle. Instantly memorable, it contains the first pair of panoramic glass elevators that were ever put into a cruise ship. Swathed in brass, marble and shimmering glass, the grand staircases descend past window walled vistas that still flood the entire, elegant expanse with natural sunlight. This has the effect of making the Centrum seem bigger than it actually is- a neat little trick that was not lost on legions of ship designers as a future inspiration.

While this neat, maritime crossroads remains in a kind of Eighties time warp, it still divides the ship as nicely as ever. Forward of it are the cabins and suites, stepped up from low down to the upper deck in a kind of vertical layer cake. Aft of the Atrium, a string of lounges, shops, bars and restaurants rise through deck after deck, many of them with stunning outdoor vistas.

The cabins are still tiny by modern standards, with insides and outsides alike measuring a paltry 122 square feet. They all have en suite shower and toilet, a small television, twin beds that convert to a very comfortable double, and just about enough storage space to stow the smart casual wardrobe that is all you’ll need to fetch these days. They are functional places rather than lingering spaces.

By contrast, a series of retro fitted suites and balcony cabins run from fore to aft at the top of the ship, and offer a more secluded, expansive range of accommodations at a great value point. Considering how noisy the ship can get, I would definitely recommend considering one of these.

Aft of the Centrum, the public rooms remain almost in a kind of Royal Caribbean Eighties time warp. The Spinnaker bar is still there; a long, narrow room flanked by floor to ceiling windows, with an adjacent, long sit up bar and decorative steering wheel, mast and sails. It always was the most popular public room on the ship and, with great quality live music each night, it remains so to this day.

The Spinnaker is flanked by the casino, which now also has its own bar. One deck up, the large Rendez-Vous lounge opens up to the full, wrap around promenade deck to both port and starboard. On both sides, this centrally located room features raised levels that look directly out over the sea. With it’s large dance floor and bar set at the back of the room, it remains a focal point for activities of all kinds by day and night.

Deck eight showcases the aft facing, hugely popular Zoom disco. Forward on the Centrum, a newly created Alhambra bar features a limited range of extra charge food and drink options, irregular opening hours, and stark white, sit up and beg style tables and chairs which are something of an oddity on this otherwise dated, but still tasteful lady of the seas.

Bar 360, accessed by outdoor stair cases and a single, solitary elevator, remains the crown jewel of the ship. With magnificent views from an encircling wall of floor to ceiling glass windows, it offers a plush, expansive, peaceful idyll from which to enjoy a sunset with your favourite drink, though some live music (there is a piano up here) would add a lot to it’s barely burnished lustre.

In terms of dining, the two main restaurants retain their original positions on decks three and four respectively. I’ll get into the food and service aspects of the ship in another blog to come, but the two single story rooms are still expansive, spacious and impressive; each forms a fitting backdrop for the panorama of the dinner ritual each night.

Up top, the original Windjammer Buffet remains pretty much as was, with expansive floor to ceiling windows, and thoughtfully well sited food stations. Needless to say, it can be busy at any time of day and night. Nearby, the former Johnny Rockets has been converted into the upper level Wu bar and Fusion restaurant; a kind of club class venue that offers a selection of Thai, Japanese and Asian menu options at a fixed price. Outside, the original chrome shell of the Johnny Rockets Fifties’ diner remains in place; an at once recognisable and evocative memory.

The pool deck, with it’s two large pools, twin Jacuzzis and forward bar, is largely unchanged. The aft bar is still there, but was not open during our cruise. Above the forward bar, a grill located under the top mast serves up chicken, pizza and other fast food items from mid afternoon until around sunset.

I hope this blog goes some way towards giving those who loved this legendary ship some idea as to how she looks and feels now. Twenty nine years after her stunning debut in January of 1988, the Sovereign is still a wonderful ship; an elegant, enigmatic wonder littered with quirky, evocative works of art. Her royal blue hull gives her a grace and stance that nicely echoes that of her one time great rival, the long gone SS. Norway. Ironically, those two ships were built in the same French shipyard at St. Nazaire, the self same yard that also built both the Monarch, Majesty and, of course, both the Ile De France and the Normandie.

Curious about how she is now? In the age old words of Royal Caribbean itself; ‘Get out there’……

BALMORAL MOVING TO EDINBURGH FOR 2018 CRUISES

Upping the ante for 2018 in the Scottish cruise market, Fred. Olsen is sending it’s flagship, the 43,000 ton Balmoral, north to Edinburgh in 2018.

The ship, originally built in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey for the long defunct Royal Cruise Line, will operate a series of nine cruises from Edinburgh’s port of Rosyth between May and July. With a passenger capacity in excess of 1300 plus, each sailing thus offers some five hundred more berths than the current FOCL Scottish stalwart, the popular Black Watch.

Sample itineraries include a five night Norwegian Fjords cruise departing on May 28th, calling at both Bergen and Eidfjord at the height of the apple blossom season, as well as a fourteen night Scandinavian Capitals sailing, covering the ‘greatest hits’ ports of the summertime Baltic, departing on June 9th- right at the heart of the summer season.

Another particularly attractive option is a seven night ‘Diamonds, Chocolates and Canals’ cruise departing on June 30th. This one serves up an especially tasty platter of ports including Amsterdam, Ghent, and an overnight stay in cosmopolitan Antwerp.

All these itineraries are on sale now, and Fred. Olsen- enjoying a record wave of bookings this season- is sweetening the deal by offering three cruises for the price of two, or free tips for guests booking on board prior to May 3rd.

Some nice options in play here on a spacious, intimate ship that offers a generally very relaxing, value oriented cruise experience in very tasteful surroundings.

BALMORAL

CELESTYAL MAJESTY IS OFF TO CUBA IN 2018

THOMSON MAJESTY
The Thomson, soon to be Celestyal Majesty. Photo credit: Thomson Cruises

Long standing rumours that the forthcoming Celestyal Majesty might go out to Cuba have finally been confirmed by Celestyal Cruises.

The 40,876 ton, 1460 passenger ship is still currently sailing under charter to Thomson Cruises as the Thomson Majesty, but she will return to the Celestyal fold in November of 2017. Initial reports suggested that, after a refit, the ship- restyled as the Celestyal Majesty- would re-enter service on a series of three, four and seven night round trip cruises from Malaga, Spain.

However, after rumours that Celestyal would add a second ship to it’s nascent, highly successful Cuba operation, it was thought by some- this blog included- that the rejoined Celestyal Majesty might become that second, Cuba based ship.

Truth is, Celestyal is replacing, rather than augmenting. Current Cuba stalwart, the 1200 passenger Celestyal Crystal, will return to Greece in 2018, to operate the three and four night cruises from Piraeus to the Greek Islands that she was once so familiar for.

Celestyal Majesty ups the passenger capacity for each seven night Cuba sailing by around some 200 plus passengers. The ship will offer embarkation both from Havana (where the vessel will stay overnight) and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sailings will begin in January 2018, and thence continue year round.

This move marks the welcome redeployment of a once very popular Caribbean stalwart back towards her former cruising zones. Built in 1992, the ship sailed for both Majesty Cruise Line and, later, Norwegian Cruise Line. The latter had her dry docked in Bremerhaven and stretched in an ambitious refurbishment in 1999.

For both lines, the pretty little ship sailed from Boston to Bermuda each spring, before moving to Miami each winter for longer Caribbean runs. Later, Norwegian Cruise Line also sailed her out of Charleston, where she was very popular with the South Carolina market.

The ship was sold to as- was Louis Cruises in 2008, though she remained on charter to Norwegian Cruise Line until late 2009. Since acquisition by Louis, and then under subsequent charter to Thomson, the ship has operated exclusively around the Canary Islands, Mediterranean and Aegean, mainly on seven night cruises.

A handful of balcony cabins were added to the Thomson Majesty during a recent refit, and it will be interesting to see if Celestyal add more before her bruited move to Cuba, or even whether such a move is practical.

The Celestyal Majesty is a busy, pretty ship with very beautiful interior decor, though the entry grade inside and outside cabins are quite small. Wardrobe space is not great, but you won’t really be needing a huge amount of formal clothing on these informal, sun splashed cruise itineraries in any event.

Stay tuned for further updates.