Category Archives: cruising

COLUMBUS LAUNCH; SOME IMPRESSIONS

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Columbus. Photo impression courtesy of Cruise and Maritime Voyages

I was lucky enough to be a guest at the launch party for CMV’s newest addition last week. Columbus ups the ante for the British accented cruise line on a number of fronts for sure, but nowhere more so in terms of style and space.

Consider that the last addition to the fleet- the 45,000 ton Magellan- can accommodate around 1400 guests, and then understand that the near 64,000 ton Columbus can accommodate the same number of passengers. The spatial difference becomes obvious.

That translates into three principal, critical areas; larger cabins, a larger and more diverse string of public rooms, spread across more of the ship, and a larger, far more expansive amount of open deck space. And, while Columbus has been sympathetically updated and lovingly- nay, lavishly- refurbished across most public areas- it is the cabins that really come to the fore here.

For the first time, a CMV ship has quite a substantial number of balcony cabins, suites and mini suites. While these are not vital for the regular CMV acolytes, it is a big step forward for those who might not have considered sailing with the line before. In addition, the presence of some one hundred and fifty cabins dedicated and sold as singles will not hurt the company’s bottom line, either.

Food and service on board during our overnight stay was top notch. There were many familiar faces on board, recruited from both Marco Polo and Magellan, with the obvious, sensible intention to get the newest member of the fleet up and running in fine style.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the company’s original selling point of creating a unique, intimately styled cruise experience has been forsaken. Columbus feels more extensive than expansive, open rather than overpowering. Fittings and fixtures throughout are fine quality, and nowhere more so than in the oval shaped, three story atrium lobby. Suffused with the sounds of live, late night jazz, it was sheer bliss to just chill out in one of the supremely comfortable armchairs here. I can see this becoming very much the focal point of the ship during the evenings.

What else? Well, there’s a large, upper level open lido area, with two pools- one of which includes a dedicated, in pool sit up bar, plus a new speciality coffee venue located forward. The circular, upper deck dome offers 360 degree views over the ship, and doubles as the late night disco.

My favourite public room has to be the upper deck, mid ship sited Connexions Lounge. Flooded with light from the floor to ceiling windows that flank each side, it is full of raffish wicker furniture that helps to give it a really light, airy feel. Because of it’s location, it acts as one part winter garden, one part public thoroughfare for the ship. On the overnight stay we enjoyed on board, it was hugely popular.

Unlike the other ships in the fleet which sail from a series of ports around the coast of the United Kingdom, the Columbus will remain a year round, Tilbury based ship. This in itself is quite a coup for the Essex port, and the London International Terminal in particular. Transfers across from the capital to Tilbury are brisk, easy and relatively hassle free.

So, fair seas and sunny skies to Columbus; with a range of cruises lasting from three night continental samplers to a mind boggling, full three month circumnavigation of the globe next January, she offers a wealth of travel opportunities for all types of people with different tastes. The ship should be particularly popular in the Canary Islands, where some of her cruises will be sold as family friendly- another step forward from the lines’ previous, adult only sailings.

PULLMANTUR CONFIRMS DEPLOYMENT OF SOVEREIGN TO SOUTH AMERICA FOR WINTER 2017-18

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The Sovereign. Photo credit: Daniel Capella

Though actual itineraries have yet to be finalised, Spanish cruise operator Pullmantur has confirmed that the 74,000 ton Sovereign will be deployed on a series of mainly four night cruises along the coast of South America over the winter of 2017-18.

The 1988 built ship– formerly Royal Caribbean’s highly acclaimed Sovereign of the Seas– is currently operating a series of seven night Mediterranean cruises, embarking in both Barcelona and Rome. She is scheduled for an annual dry docking, most likely in Cadiz, at the end of the season in early November.

On conclusion of this, the ship is due to sail on a twelve night transatlantic crossing in late November from Cadiz to Recife, Brazil. The ship will sail via Lisbon (where embarkation is also available), Gran Canaria and Lanzarote, to the port of Recife on Brazil’s east coast, where she is scheduled to arrive on December 9th.

From here, the Sovereign will sail on  a series of winter long, four night cruises that allow passengers to embark both in Santos, the port for Sao Paolo, and Rio De Janeiro. Typically, these round trip cruises have also called at the beach resort of Ilhabella in the past.

In addition, the ship will also sail a trio of special, seven night cruises that will cover Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the famous Rio Carnival respectively. The ship is then due to recross the Atlantic to Europe, commencing her 2018 European season with a first sailing from Barcelona on March 26th.

In the UK, Fred. Holidays typically operates as sales agents for Pullmantur. The Spanish accented cruise operator offers an all inclusive on board product and, though Spanish is the primary language used on board, English is also widely spoken. The company can package these cruises with flights, hotels and transfers to create a completely all inclusive package, or you can of course make your own arrangements separately.

Stay tuned for further details as and when they become available.

OOSTERDAM DOUBLES UP HOLLAND AMERICA’S MEXICO ROSTER

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Holland America Line’s Oosterdam

In a move that has come as a further sign in the revival of the Mexican Riviera market, Holland America Line has announced that the 1,920 passenger Oosterdam will join her sister ship, Westerdam, on cruises to the region this coming autumn.

Both of the ships- members of Holland America’s Vista class ships- will sail from the port of San Diego on a series of seven night, round trip cruises to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta. Oosterdam will undertake her first cruise on September 30th, with Westerdam joining her in service from the California port on November 24th.

San Diego offers the easiest city to port access of any west coast American port in the region and, with direct flights now available on British Airways from Heathrow, the cultured, sophisticated city on the bay makes for a wonderful pre or post departure stay in it’s own right.

The arrival of Oosterdam marks an act of faith on the part of Holland America in the steadily resurgent Mexican Riviera market. For years, the trade was decimated because of adverse press reports on the levels of crime in Mexican ports, and at Mazatlan in particular. But in the last few years, local authorities have gone to great lengths to restore a sense of safety and security in all of the ports.

The season typically operates between November and March, though Carnival does sail the same route year round from Long Beach, and Norwegian Cruise Line also has the Norwegian Jewel sailing to the Riviera through this coming winter, also from Los Angeles.

Interesting developments in this part of the world, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.

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.

CRUISE AND MARITIME VOYAGES TO SAIL FROM FOURTEEN UK PORTS IN 2018

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The veteran Marco Polo, a mainstay of the 2018 Cruise and Maritime Voyages programme. Photo by Anthony Nicholas

In what amounts to the most ambitious programme of regional cruises ever offered by a mainland British cruise operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages will offer departures from no less than fourteen UK departure ports aboard five different ships for the 2018 season.

Line voyages to and from South Africa and Australia for the premium range Astor begin and end in Tilbury, as does the entire  2018 season of cruises offered by new flagship, Columbus, currently on line for a scheduled UK debut in June of 2017.

New to the 2018 programme is a series of seven cruises, departing from both Portsmouth and Poole aboard the retained Astoria. This series of cruises extends the programme for the former, 1948 built Stockholm right through until almost the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, fleet mainstays, Magellan and the veteran Marco Polo will offer a series of regional departures from around the UK on itineraries ranging from two to fifteen nights, plus the occasional overnight, repositioning mini cruise.

The full list of UK departure ports is: Belfast, Bristol (both from the port and Avonmouth), Cardiff, Dundee, Greenock for Glasgow, Harwich, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle Port of Tyne, Newport, Poole, Portsmouth, Rosyth for Edinburgh, and London Tilbury.

It is also worth noting that the company provides many coach links that coincide with sailings from their various ports around the United Kingdom, making for easy connections with all the different cruises on offer.

In the main, Cruise and Maritime Voyages sail to Norway, the Baltic, Greenland and Spitzbergen, plus the Canary Islands in peak season. Shoulder season sees some attractive, short European coastal and city cruises, with winter heralding a series of short Christmas market jaunts. There is also a handful of cruises that take in the stunning, winter time Norwegian Lights.

The CMV fleet is, for the most part intimate, adult’s only ships, though some high season sailings aboard the new flagship Columbus will offer some child friendly sailings for 2017.

Early year sailings now include a mammoth, round the world circuit from Tilbury, an exotic Caribbean round trip, and an extensive itinerary that embraces the highlights of the Amazon.

FLASHBACK TO MY FIRST TRIP; CARIBBEAN FLY CRUISING ON THE SS NORWAY IN 1981

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The Norway as she appeared in 1981. Credit for this photo goes to the excellent http://www.classicliners.net

The purpose of this blog is not to provide readers with some glassy eyed, nostalgic trip back in time to recount how marvellous this first ever fly/cruise was. Yes, it was a life changing event, and it set my feet firmly on a path that they have never wavered from since, though that was far from being my intention at the time.

But what I want to revisit here are the actual logistics of that trip, and what was included in the fare. The time was October/November 1981 and, for those of you who do not know me personally, I live in the North East of England, several hundred miles north of London. So, without any further adieu, here we go….

My flights were booked on British Airways, round trip from London Heathrow to Miami International. If an option existed for a regional connection flight from Newcastle back then, I was never offered it by my very good local travel agent, so I suspect it might not have been in with the price package. Mind you, back then the take up for people going on Caribbean fly cruises was just a sliver of the massive market we know today. Also, factor in that I was 22 years old, literally on my ‘maiden voyage’ and, in terms of travelling savvy, as green as grass. I had never even been on a plane before that day.

I remember travelling down to London overnight on a National Express coach. It was October 31st, the coach was a full hour late, and snow began to fall quite steadily. Ominous portents, all.

There was no sleep on the long haul down to London Victoria, nor on the 45 minute long underground journey to Heathrow Airport. But I quickly learned that lugging suitcases up and down train station steps and escalators, plus shoe horning myself in and out of crowded underground trains, was a form of urban guerilla warfare that I had no wish to repeat.

Even back in 1981, Heathrow was a train wreck; an airport with all the warmth and welcome of a Dalek’s convention. It was hate at first sight.

I was on a BA 747 to Miami and, viewed from the boarding gate windows, the plane seemed immense. Of that first flight, I recall the euphoria of take off, and the fact that drinks on board had to be paid for in cash. The rest of that just under ten hour transatlantic flight is long since forgotten, but I don’t think I slept. By this stage of the trip, I was running on a mixture of fumes and sheer adrenaline.

Once at Miami and through the even then tortuous immigration process, I was met on the land side by a private transfer to the Miami Marriott Airport hotel. This was smooth and easy and, within an hour or so, I was in my (seemingly) high rise hotel room. I recall showering, ordering some room service, and then watching Star Trek; The Motion Picture on the in room television. Then sleep stole up on me and slugged me like a burglar, and I slept like a log until early on the Sunday morning.

Sunday, November 1st, 1981; breakfast outside in the sunshine- and a huge American buffet spread at that- made me suddenly realise that I really was in a different universe. There was a shared limousine van at noon that picked the small UK contingent up from the hotel lobby, transferring us from the Marriott to Dodge island, where the Norway sat waiting; a proud, pristine colossus etched in blue and white, standing calm and poised against a duck egg blue sky.

We saw Royal Caribbean’s Sun Viking first, an exhilarating sight in the brilliant sunshine. But that proud ship literally disappeared in the shadow of the vast Norway.

I was aboard before I even knew it. In those days, the Norway was so huge that she occupied both Piers One and Two on Dodge Island. I have no recollection of lifeboat drill, but do remember the Sun Viking edging downstream past the Norway, her passengers waving and cheering at us- and vice versa. Then the ropes came off, and it was our turn…..

That week- wow. It simply changed everything. We visited only St. Thomas in the Caribbean, and Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas- this was before Nassau was added to the itinerary the next year. My cabin- A080- was an inside, only slightly bigger than the average pygmy’s postage stamp. It mattered not a jot. This was the Norway, up close and for real. It was like being awake in a stunning, vivid dream for a week.

At the inevitable journey’s end the following Sunday, there was another limo pick up waiting to take me to a nearby airport hotel. In those days, Norwegian Caribbean Line (as was) included the cost of a hotel day room in the fare, just prior to the evening overnight flight home. This was hugely welcome as it gave you the chance to freshen up, grab some food, and enjoy your own private space before the flight home.

Cruise lines mostly no longer offer this, knowing full well that they can now sell you day tours to the Everglades and/or Ocean Drive before dropping you and your luggage at MIA. It’s a double win for them revenue wise, of course. Otherwise, it now means that you could end up deposited at the airport many, many hours before your flight home.

I think they put me up in the Howard Johnson Airport hotel. It wasn’t exactly the Ritz, but it was clean, comfortable, and had a bed soft enough to give me a few hours’ sleep, before the last shuttle transfer arrived to take me to the airport at about 1800.

Another BA 747 flight- this time overnight- deposited me smartly into the warm, welcoming embrace of Deathrow- oops, I mean Heathrow- at some appallingly uncivilised hour of the day. Scratch that- it felt appallingly uncivilised. I had just come off the Norway after all. At Heathrow, my pretty balloon suddenly burst with one almighty bang.

There then followed more urban warfare, getting back across to King’s Cross to connect with a surprisingly pain free, cathartic journey on a British Rail 125 that whisked me back to Durham in around three hours. The first sight of that fabulous cathedral was more welcome than I can describe. It has dominated the city skyline since it’s completion in the late eleventh century. I felt that I had been away a lifetime, but those ancient stone ramparts just gave my naivety a kind of benign smile.

So- that’s how it was. Now things are different, less inclusive, and I’m older. Victor Meldrew syndrome has begun to kick in, I fear.

And, of course, we no longer have the Norway. She is long since gone though, of course, she will never be forgotten.

For those who sailed her, loved her and cherished her, the Norway remains a permanent, imperious vision. Lit up like a Christmas tree from stem to stern, those great, winged stacks standing like ramparts against the flaring purple Caribbean twilight, she stands out into a sea of memories that she will always dominate, come what may.

How young I was. How little I knew. How much I learned in a short space of time. And, of course, how far it all led me. This is the stuff of dreams, ones that came true, and do not disappoint. Rare magic, indeed.

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

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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.