Category Archives: charter cruises

THE WORLD CRUISE, AND THE LOGISTICS THAT GO INTO PLANNING IT

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Cunard’s QE2 was for many years the doyen of the World Cruise circuit

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?

 

 

 

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CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART ONE; THE JOURNEY TO PIRAEUS

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Celestyal Crystal

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 SELLS MAJESTY

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Going, going, gone…..

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.

WHAT NEXT FOR CELESTYAL CRUISES?

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The Celestyal Crystal has been operating seven day cruises from Piraeus since her return from Cuba this spring

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?

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL COMMENCES 2018 ‘IDYLLIC AEGEAN’ SEASON

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Celestyal Crystal

In her first summer season back in the Aegean after several years out in Cuba, Celestyal Cruises’ popular 24,000 ton, 1,200 passenger Celestyal Crystal has embarked on a series of seven night sailings- known as the Idyllic Aegean itineraries- out of her home port of Piraeus, Athens.

These are very different from the normal Celestyal offerings on a number of fronts. Firstly, the vessel sails at 2100 in the evening, thus actually allowing passengers from Europe to fly in on embarkation day itself. The normal, 1130 in the morning sailings so typical of the three and four night itineraries usually mandate an overnight stay in either Piraeus or Athens itself.

Central to this new itinerary is a pair of overnight stops at both Mykonos and Santorini, allowing passengers ample time to sample both the famous Mykonos beach and nightlife scene, as well as the sublime experience of enjoying the summer sunset from atop Santorini’s lofty cliff top town of Oia.

Other ports along the way include a new, first time call into Milos, as well as full day stays at both Heraklion, with it’s fabulous Palace of Knossos and nearby resort life at Aghios Nikolaios, and also at Turkey’s beautiful, breezy seaside port of Kusadasi, an easy access point for the nearby ruins of once mighty Ephesus.

Uniquely among niche Greek Island operators, Celestyal includes complimentary shore excursions at many of the banner ports en route, as well as tips and an all inclusive drinks package.

All things considered, this longer cruise allows for more interaction and immersion with some of the most seductive, sought after destinations in the Aegean when they are at their most popular, at the height of summer. And the pretty little Celestyal Crystal offers a more intimate, truly immersive, Greek style experience and ambience that the big, international cruise ships simply cannot replicate.

LOUIS AURA CHARTERED TO ESTUR FOR 2017 SEASON

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Louis Aura

According to the well respected Cruise Industry News website (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) the laid up, 1968 built Louis Aura will begin a season of three and four night cruises for the Turkish operator, Estur, this summer.

The much loved ship, originally famous as Norwegian Caribbean’s Starward, will operate from the Turkish port of Cesme on a series of three and four night cruises to the Greek Islands. The cruises begin effective June 24th this year, with prices beginning at 199 euros per person.

If true, the news represents an astonishing, albeit very welcome reprieve for one of the cruise industry’s original pioneers; a much loved ship that has introduced many people to cruising over five successful decades.

For a few years, the Louis Aura was chartered out to a French operator called Rivages du Monde. This author can remember seeing her in the unlikely setting of Saint Petersburg in the summer of 2015. But, once that final charter finished, the ship was laid up and Celestyal Cruises, the offshoot of original owners Louis Group, showed no interest in reviving the ship. Most people took this as a sign that the Louis Aura had, indeed, come to the end of her days.

So the news that this lovely ship looks like having at least one last season in the sun will be welcomed by ship lovers all over the world. Let’s hope that Estur make this a yearly event.

For any updates, stay tuned.