Israeli cruise operator, Mano Cruises, has announced that it will operate it’s recently purchased Crown Iris-formerly the Royal, Norwegian, and Thomson Majesty-on a series of Eastern Mediterranean itineraries next year.
The 40,900 ton, 1500 passenger ship will supplant the Golden Iris (originally the Cunard Princess) on a series of two to fourteen night itineraries, sailing from the port of Haifa. The ship will be targeted mainly at the local Israeli passenger market.
The two night cruises will call on the Cypriot port of Limassol while the longer, two week sailings will focus on port calls in Greece, as well as Black Sea destinations in both Bulgaria and Romania.
Prior to inaugurating this programme, the 1992 built ship will receive an extensive refurbishment that will cover all cabins. Some five restaurants will be available to passengers sailing on the ship.
It is possible that the 17,000 ton, 1977 built Golden Iris may go out on short term charter to another company, possibly for Greek islands cruises. At present, Mano Cruises is staying tight lipped on the subject but, only a few months ago, it did announce an intent to charter one of the two ships out during 2019.
The company purchased the ship from long term owners, Celestyal Cruises, after a long term charter to Thomson Cruises came to an end.
In an era where big, flashy new ships such as the Celebrity Edge and Nieuw Statendam are-not unsurprisingly- garnering the lion’s share of cruise news headlines, something very different is quietly blooming down South America way…..
Next January will witness the arrival of South America’s first ever, start up year round cruise line, as the Argentine based Pampa Cruises begins service with the Arrecife, a 16,330 ton vessel that was once a staple of the UK cruise charter market under the name of Van Gogh.
Originally built in Russia as the Gruziya back in 1975, the 800 passenger ship has spent much of the last ten years operating in the short, Greek islands cruise market, sailing out of Cyprus under the name of Samos Filoxenia. Recently dry docked and refurbished in Piraeus, the ship is expected to arrive in the northern Brazilian port of Recife later this month.
From there, the restyled Arrecife will sail on January 23rd next year, on the first of a series of some thirty-three, three to six day cruises that will take the vessel to ports such as Maceio, Natal, Cabeldelo, and Fernando de Noronha.
Collectively, these constitute a run of fresh, relatively unknown ports that are far to the north of the stream of winter cruising mainstays such as Rio, Ilhabella and Montevideo. If this operation prospers- and it’s a big ‘if’- then this region could be a future magnet to lure other, more mainstream cruise lines over time.
Come June, the Arrecife will reposition, from Recife via Santos, to operate an as yet unspecified season of cruises from Buenos Aires.
So, what sort of ship can prospective passengers look forward to?
This kind of cruising is clearly aimed mainly at a local, South American market where English is unlikely to be the first language spoken on board. The ship was originally built as a partial car ferry, though the original car decks were long ago converted into decent sized, though quite utilitarian cabins during her Russian cruise days.
There’s the usual mix of inside and outside cabins, built over several decks, and mostly of a consistent, uniform size. There are some deluxe cabins on Seven Deck, but no cabins of any size have a balcony.
You can forget rock climbing walls, ice rinks, flow riders, and floor shows held in auditoriums as large as the average zeppelin hangar. The Arrecife will be primarily a destination oriented product, with a reasonable level of comfort, service and accommodation that is married to a potentially outstanding set of itineraries.
And it’s not as if the ship herself is lacking in facilities. The Arrecife has (at present) some five bars and lounges, a night club, cinema, and a main restaurant. There’s also a self service buffet venue, plus a combination bar and casino. There is a circular swimming pool, sited on an aft facing lido deck, and a quite decent amount of deck space for sunning.
You’re getting comfort rather than luxury here, and at a yet as to be disclosed price, from what is, essentially, a start up operator. All of these factors need to be borne in mind by prospective travellers. For those contemplating taking flights from Europe, it’s also worth mentioning that budget operator, Norwegian Air has a direct flight service from London’s Gatwick Airport, to Recife in Brazil.
As a start up operation, this is definitely one to watch. It could stumble and fall, or it could just as easily soar like a bird. But in an industry that is desperately crying out for new destinations like never before, there is no doubt that there is some real, innovative thinking at work here. I admire them for the sheer sense of someone doing something totally different from the norm.
This is one to watch, methinks. Stay tuned for updates.
By their very nature, repositioning cruises represent some of the best value travel options in the entire cruising firmament. As cruise lines confront the inevitable fact that they must move ships from one part of the world to another once, and sometimes twice a year, the question of how to fill them becomes paramount.
The lines, from deluxe to mass market, are all hampered in their efforts by several factors. One is the odd length that such a trip usually entails-often in excess of two full weeks. That alone can play havoc with the holiday entitlement of many potential travellers.
Another handicap is the inescapable fact that there will be several days spent at sea- typically between four and eight, but sometimes more-without any landfall whatsoever. For many prospective passengers, that’s the kiss of death, right there.
Then you have to consider that passengers fly into, and then home from, different airports that are located on two different continents. The air fare alone on such trips can easily be between two and three times the cost of the actual cruise itself. And the singular act of having to fly anywhere-anywhere at all-is a potential turn off for many travellers these days.
Small wonder, then, that many of these trips sail at nowhere near full capacity, and quite often are only around half full. Prices are, therefore, pitched at relatively low rates to reflect this. Imagine trying to fill some 4,000 passenger mega ship on a westbound crossing in November. It would hardly be the first choice for many leisure travellers, and quite understandably so.
And yet… for those who do enjoy sea days, with their endless scope for relaxation, pampering and serial self indulgence, a ‘repo’ trip can seem like the very antechamber to Heaven itself. At once evocative of the classy old days of true, ocean liner travel, they have space for everyone, and a complete lack of pace that is truly cathartic. Despite the potential pitfalls of a long ocean crossing as outlined above, this writer in particular remains an avowed fan of just such crossings. I make just such voyages at every single opportunity that arises. Up to now, I have made well over a dozen.
With that in mind, here are some of my very favourite ships on which to make an ocean crossing. Please note that this list does not include the year round sailings of the Queen Mary 2 on her regular, scheduled services to and from New York.
MARCO POLO; CRUISE AND MARITIME VOYAGES
Imagine a cruise shop as a Faberge Egg, or a small, beautifully crafted jewel box, and you’ve got the Marco Polo in one. Built in 1965 with an ice strengthened hull, her sharp, raked bow and relatively broad waist make her an ideal, inherently stable ship on which to cross large tracts of ocean. At 22,000 tons and carrying just 800 passengers, the ship is intimate, and her carefully preserved Art Deco interiors give her that true, authentic ‘ocean liner’ feel and vibe. There are no balcony cabins, but you’re unlikely to miss them on the often changeable Atlantic, in any event.
CRYSTAL SERENITY: CRYSTAL CRUISES
70,000 tons of artfully crafted, deliciously deluxe indulgence, with a maximum capacity of just 1,000 guests, this beautiful ship boasts a stellar entertainment handle- a huge boon on long sea crossings. Themed crossings, including Big Band, Film, and Food Festivals are a staple feature of Crystal’s typical ‘repo’ voyages. Spectacular amounts of private space-both in cabins and public areas- is allied to outstanding, open sitting cuisine in all dining venues. Exemplary on board service sets the tone for the rest of the deluxe cruise industry. A crossing spent cosseted aboard this ship somehow never seems long enough.
SOVEREIGN; PULLMANTUR CRUISES
This 78,000 ton, 2,250 passenger ship is far more likely to be filled with Spanish and Brazilian passengers as she sails to and from Brazil each autumn and spring. Outstanding, all inclusive value becomes even more so when you consider that these crossings do not always sell out. With passenger accommodation located mostly forward and the public rooms stacked up in the aft half of the vessel. this big ship is surprisingly easy to navigate, and the central, five story Atrium Lobby- the first of it’s kind ever to be installed on any large cruise ship- is still one of the finest people watching spots on any ship afloat today. And, her original role as the world’s first, purpose built mega cruise ship- the Sovereign of The Seas- still gifts her a sassy, retrospective kind of cachet that makes her a true delight to sail.
BLACK WATCH;FRED. OLSEN CRUISE LINES
With a sharply raked prow and a deep hull, this 28,000 ton, 800 passenger ship is elegant, intimate, and eminently seaworthy. A series of broad, aft facing terrace decks are sublime lounging spots for lazy, languid crossings on the famous ‘Sunny Southern’ route, and there are nice terrace balcony cabins down on Seven Deck that offer the best of all worlds. Excellent food and inspired, unobtrusive service raises making a crossing on this ship to the level of an art form. And the ship also has a large number of cabins dedicated to single passengers, too. A true seagoing treat.
As voyages go, the World Cruise is still the Mount Everest of ocean travel; a kind of Holy Grail that towers head and shoulder above every other voyage, both in terms of aspiration and expectation. Many people will only ever get a crack at it once and, quite naturally, their expectations are as stratospheric as if they were about to embark upon an actual moon landing. Thus, each year, the cruise lines are expected to deliver on a truly global scale.
The actual hurdles involved in planning and then executing, a full circuit of the globe are mind blowing. Think of it as a chess game, where one protagonist intends to deliver a match winning epic in terms of style, experiences and service. On the other side of the same board, a whole amalgam of opponents, from changing weather patterns to political upheaval, via logistical snafus and resupply issues, combines to perform a potentially very formidable opponent, one whose whimsical nature can impose potentially drastic changes in what everyone fondly anticipates will be the adventure of a lifetime.
There are so many kinds of ship embarking on the full world cruise these days, from deluxe boutique ships carrying around three hundred guests, to some truly spectacular floating resorts that carry more than ten times that number. As always, passenger choice comes down to personal taste, affordability and, of course, the itinerary. But-whatever kind of ship people choose-their expectations are huge.
No one should be surprised at the latter, given the way that cruise lines of all types and shades ramp up the ante of expectation. Just the idea of a three-maybe even four month-grand odyssey around the entire globe is enough to fuel the adrenaline for sure, but adding further fuel to those same flames by promising the earth (quite literally) is all par for the course. The problem then is that you have to deliver, all potential obstacles be damned.
Some people save for literally all of their working lives to make a once only, life defining voyage such as this. It’s the crowning peak of their time on earth in so many cases. Others, blessed with a a glut of disposable income, might do a different world cruise every second year or so. In both instances they expect the best and, to be fair, why shouldn’t they?
Accessibility to the main banner ports around the globe is key, and getting people to and from the main sites on shore excursions is huge, not least in terms of on board revenue spend. The typical full world cruise passenger is of a demographic not usually given to late night drinks parties or on board gambling. So a huge amount of the on board revenue take has to come from the sale-and en masse at that- of often expensive shore excursions.
It’s a fact that smaller ships usually get berths far closer to the city centre in places like, say, Saigon, but all ships coming into Laem Chebang-the main port for Bangkok-have to transfer their passengers into the city via a coach journey that takes anything up to two hours in each direction. That’s a full, near on four hour journey before people even begin to see the sights and, obviously, it’s easier to provide a few coaches for, say, three hundred passengers as opposed to a flotilla of them for three thousand plus potential explorers. In those respects, the smaller ships really do get the best of all worlds.
In between the excitement of seeing far flung foreign ports from Colombo to Curacao, there will inevitably be times when every ship has to spend several days in a row at sea. And it’s then that a curious transition takes place with every shipload of passengers, and on every kind of ship.
For the first time in many days, their collective attention terns totally inward. Deprived of shore side diversion, they begin to analyse every single aspect of how their ship runs, and the people that make her run. From lounge singers to salon crimpers, speciality chefs to the quality of the free coffee on board, no-one and nothing is exempt, and no amount of piston rings on a uniform renders any on board department head as sacrosanct. Passengers become naturally more observant and, as days pass by, sometimes they become more inherently critical of the smallest things. And oh, boy, do the crew ever know it as well. These people are not at all shy in voicing their opinions, and often at quite some volume.
It’s a process that is as natural as daylight. Typically, full world cruise passengers are of an older generation; after all, you need both the free time and the free flowing collateral to invest in such an epic adventure. And, as we get older, many people (including this writer) become naturally more grumpy, and somewhat less forgiving. Factor into that the surreal, ever expectant environment that the world cruise creates, and it is really scant surprise that the slightest hiccup causes the most mild mannered person to mutate into a kind of maritime version of Hyacinth Bucket.
Which is why it is absolutely vital for the morale of the crew on board to be kept up in as many ways as possible. Deck parties once a week, free time ashore when practical, and just general thoughtfulness on the part of the key heads of department on board, are all absolutely essential in helping to ensure that the crew stays keen. After all, without great service and the genuine sense of welcome that only a well motivated crew can offer to expectant passengers, then even the finest ship is simply an empty vessel. Often, quite literally.
After a few weeks on board, the sheer richness and lustre of the on board catering could become passe for many passengers, and executive chefs need to be constantly on their toes when it comes to creating new, imaginative dishes. Being able to pick up fresh, local produce at ports en route is key to any chef wanting to relight the taste buds of his shipload of pampered passengers. Obviously again, this is easier to do for a small complement of passengers than with one of the larger ships. It’s always a question of scale and economics, as well as quality and diversity.
The same goes for the on board entertainment. Like food, this is very much subjective for each individual. One man’s James Brown might be another’s Joe Dolce (Google him, if you must); keeping up a constant roster of newly arriving acts to entertain potentially jaded passengers- not to mention the provision of intriguing, high quality guest speakers- is an important part of ensuring that people stay engaged with the ship’s social side at night, as well as during sea days.
Weather is not something that anybody can make, and most-but not all-people will take it well when adverse weather conditions mean that things do not always go to plan. However, should a major storm make it necessary to avoid one, or even maybe two really popular, much anticipated ports of call, then that is where the captain and the logistic department ashore really need to pull out all the stops to lay on one, and possibly more, options that will at least attempt to appease an obviously disappointed passenger load.
And this is easier said than done, as any given ship has an over reaching route and course to maintain. Any resultant diversion means figuring how to get from the substituted port to the next scheduled one. What speeds need to be made, and what about allowances for tides? Will there even be a local pilot available for a possibly revised arrival time? At the substitute port (s), new and interesting shore excursions have to be conjured up quickly, and from nothing, and then suitable transport (plus guides) found to cater for those people taking up the revised options. As a logistical exercise, this can be an absolute nightmare for the staff of any ship, from the smallest to the largest.
So yes, the world cruise is awesome, both in scope and for the potential for things to go wrong. Weather and world events are no respecters of even the grandest, most long cherished dreams and, of course, we all travel in a fickle, whimsical environment in any event. And, while this is also true of even the shortest cruise, think how much more so it applies on a full, flung, multi-week round the world roustabout.
Mind you, I’d still do it. But then, I mean, who wouldn’t?
To say that I had been looking forward to this seven night trip on the Celestyal Crystal was something of an understatement. For, while I’m an avowed fan of Celestyal Cruises’ intimate, Greek accented product, this was going to be a completely different experience to anything that I’d ever had with them before.
The line is known mainly for it’s short, port intensive three and four night sailings around the Greek Islands and Turkey. Typically, these allow for a few hours each in a whole raft of ports, gifting you short but delicious snapshots of each. Like a kind of floating tapas menu, the line lets you opt in and out of each one. But, of course, time is at a premium, so you always have to try and use it wisely.
But not on this itinerary. Oh, no….
On this seven night run, we would be gifted a full twenty-four hours on Mykonos, almost forty-eight hours on Santorini, a full fifteen hours on new itinerary addition, Milos (about which a lot more later) and even a full twelve hours in Heraklion. In short, a vast amount of leisure time that cried out to be exploited to the full, and most definitely not just another whistle stop tour around those gorgeous Aegean Island gems.
But first, I had to get to Athens. And, for the first time ever, I was going to use the scheduled services of Aegean Airlines, from London Heathrow’s Terminal Two. I had read a lot of good reviews about Aegean, and so was quite keen to try them out for myself.
The airline flies trim, tidy Airbus A321’s on the three and a half hour journey from London to Athens. Economy Class seating was three across down two sides, bisected by a service aisle in the middle. A handful of Club Class seats up front had about the same legroom, but with the middle seat removed in each row,
Legroom was fine for me (I’m about 5′ 6″ by the way) though the blue leather seat itself felt a bit uncomfortable at first. But, where Aegean Airlines really scores is in the on board product and, even in economy, it sets a benchmark that most other European flg carriers don’t even begin to approach these days.
How so? Well, when was the last time that you were offered sweets before take off? Free beer and wine complete with serviettes (remember what any of those things are, BA?). And it goes on.
Aegean Airlines serves a full hot, three course meal to all passengers. Choice? Well, you can either take it or leave it. But it is the mere fact that the airline offers you a choice at all that elevates it well above any competitor. And the food, like the wines, is Greek accented. It gives you an authentic taste of the host country before you even get there; a sweet little appetiser to the real thing. It’s well thought out stuff, and you really do feel as if you are being indulged, rather than nickled and dimed yet again.
Flight wise, we landed in Athens about ten minutes late, at around 1805 hours Greek time. But the airport staff, though busy, was brisk. I was through customs and immigration in minutes and, as I got to the carousel, my luggage was already there.
Outside, and the August early evening heat smacked me like a sucker punch, but my driver was already waiting and, within minutes, we were barrelling along toward the port of Piraeus. Auto repair shops and arid mountain peaks flashed by at a frantic rate of knots, until the looming suburbs of Piraeus obliged us to slow down a bit.
Before I knew it, I was in the shadow of the ship. The Celestyal Crystal sat perfectly poised on a slowly reddening seascape. The sound of traffic horns and braying, honking tug boats filled the evening haze, but the ship herself was as still and serene as a landscape painting. I was on board within ten minutes of getting out of the car.
Two hours later, and I’m sitting in a wicker chair on the aft facing Thalassa Terrace, nursing some glacially cold Greek wine as darkness rolls across the sky like some slowly unfurling carpet. There’s that sudden, first delightful shudder of the engines that always takes everybody by surprise, for some reason. And, suddenly, floodlit buildings ashore are falling astern as we swing loose, and head out into the midstream.
I can hear tree frogs chirping in the bushes ashore, and then there’s the tinny, self important whistle of a small, fussy local ferry as she tries to barge past us like some startled cat. Like the lady of a certain age that she is, the Celestyal Crystal does not deign to reply; and, after all, real ladies never like to be seen in fast company.
Now the port of Piraeus is falling astern like some slowly sagging, brilliantly lit birthday cake. I’m beyond tired by now, but the sheer, age old exhilaration of departure helps carry me over the bar.
When I do hit my bed, I go out like a light. But tomorrow will bring Mykonos into close, intimate focus and, asleep or awake, I’m already dreaming of the rest of this week, and all the fun it will bring.
Louis Group, the parent company of Celestyal Cruises, has formally announced the sale of the Celestyal Majesty to an as yet undisclosed buyer.
The ship was built at Turku in Finland as the Royal Majesty back in 1992, for the start up Majesty Cruise Line. In 1997, she was sold to Norwegian Cruise Line and renamed Norwegian Majesty. In 1999 the ship went to a German shipyard to have a new mid section inserted, before resuming the popular, seven day Boston to Bermuda run each summer, with longer Caribbean cruises in the winter.
The ship sailed for NCL (as was) until 2008 when, in a joint deal with fleet mate Norwegian Dream, she was sold to the then Louis Cruise Lines. Though the purchase of the Norwegian Dream ultimately foundered, the Norwegian Majesty was restyled as the Louis Majesty. She sailed some Western Mediterranean itineraries for Louis Cruises (I did one of them), based out of Genoa, as well as some short cruises out of Piraeus to the Greek Islands.
In 2012 the ship was chartered by Thomson Cruises, and renamed as the Thomson Majesty. The new charterers added some balconies to upper deck suites and cabins- the first on the ship- and enclosed the aft facing, open air Piazza San Marco buffet to accommodate larger numbers of alfresco diners in greater comfort.
In service for Thomson, she usually sailed the Mediterranean in summer, on alternating eastern and western Mediterranean itineraries out of Palma de Mallorca and Corfu. In winter, the ship typically shifted to seven night, Canary Island runs, sailing out of both Tenerife and Gran Canaria. I caught up with her out there for a week back in 2014.
With new ships coming on line, Thomson Cruises rebranded itself; firstly as TUI Cruises, and then quickly again as Marella Cruises. And, with the new ships, it was a case of ‘out with the old’, and the subsequent return of the Thomson Majesty back to Celestyal in November of 2017.
Celestyal had initially hoped to charter her out again, but nothing transpired. In March and April of this year the ship, renamed as the Celestyal Majesty, operated a two month stint on the classic, three and four day Greek Isles and Turkey circuit out of Piraeus.
I joined her on her last, four day run, and she had never looked or felt better. But, after just one more cruise, she was again laid up in Greece at the height of the lucrative main season. Clearly, something was in the offing. And now we have at least half an idea of what that is.
As things stand, rumours are that the 40, 876 ton, 1460 passenger ship will be sold to the Chinese market although, as I stressed at the start of this blog, nothing has yet been formally announced.
Personally, I’m hoping that this svelte, pretty little ship can be kept in the European market but, alas, I’m none too optimistic.
The Greek specialist line’s current itineraries are sound, well thought out, and perennially popular. And Celestyal is cautiously expanding it’s Eastern Mediterranean programme, with a new, Egypt accented itinerary that will run through until November, with the short, three and four day Aegean cruises resuming as early as February. Both have the hallmarks of being a considerable success.
In terms of overall quality, the Celestyal product has improved, year on year. The choice of on board food, together with its variety and taste, has go markedly better. service, too, has improved to a good level of standard for a four star product. And, with the Cuba market now abandoned for the foreseeable future, both the Celestyal Crystal and the larger Celestyal Olympia have been refocused on the short, lucrative three, four and seven day cruise runs out of Piraeus. The use of nearby Lavrion as an embarkation port seems to have been abandoned, at least for the moment.
By all accounts, both ships are sailing at or very near full capacity on a weekly basis. The current brace of ships present an alluring, totally authentic, Greek accented experience for those who prefer not to sail those fabled waters on one of the larger mega ships, where the accent is on the on board attractions, and the gorgeous landscape sprinkled around them is so often an afterthought.
value, too, is a premium selling point. Each Celestyal sailing comes as an all inclusive package, with most drinks and some selected shore excursions folded into the fare. Coupled with the ease with which these ships can access sites that those other, larger ships must bypass, all of this combines to give Celestyal Cruises- always a destination oriented product-a distinct edge in terms of these short Aegean cruises.
But Celestyal is also currently sitting on another ship that really merits gainful employment soon-the Majesty. For want of either a charter or a dedicated itinerary, this beautiful ship is currently spending the summer in lay up. As situations go, it’s quite incredible.
The ship ran a programme of short, three and four day cruises from March through April. I was on the last, four night cruise in April, and the ship-and her crew- was performing beautifully. Yet now, in peak season, she sits wining at anchor, while her two siblings continue to garner big passenger loads on the lucrative Aegean circuit.
Next year, the line will also welcome the return of the Spirit, when that ship finishes her final charter to Marella Cruises this coming November. So, Celestyal has to find itineraries and/or charterers for both her and the Majesty for next year. What to do?
Obviously, markets have to be sourced and developed with care, and especially so when you are a smaller, more intimate, niche cruise line. So the time for planning and promoting these two welcome, potentially very profitable returnees to the Celestyal stable is clearly at hand.
Possibly, one of the ships could be based on Marseilles, where the ability to tap the potentially quite large French market is obvious. A new, port intensive seven night itinerary that parallels the current, seven night Celestyal Crystal sailings out of Piraeus could well be a potential winner.
Imagine being able to overnight in, say, Sorrento, Ajaccio, or even Ibiza? Tie in another couple of ports- maybe Villefranche and Cannes, for instance-and the appeal of a smaller, more intimate style of cruising (and cruise ship) becomes obvious.
The other ship could, perhaps, be home ported in Malaga, and offer a series of three and four night cruise departures that showcase such glorious regional locales as Cadiz, Valencia, Cartagena, and the seldom visited island of Menorca.
We’re not talking about filing 4000 passenger plus mega ships on a weekly basis here.; those Celestyal ships typically carry around 1400 passengers each at most. And, were the company to start offering complete fly/cruise packages, including transfers and even an overnight hotel stay where necessary, then the global reach of these short, totally alluring cruise options becomes readily apparent. It’s also an option that Celestyal cruises should consider for the Greek Islands and Turkey cruise options as well.
Food for thought? I certainly think so. What about you?
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