Category Archives: deluxe boutique cruising

RIB RIDING THE WAVES, FRED. OLSEN STYLE….

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One of the new RIB boats. Photo credit: http://www.fredolsencruises.com

The River Tyne in early March is not noted for it’s gentle waves and benign climate.So, imagine my surprise, then, to find myself waddling down the seaward side gangway of Fred. Olsen’s stately Boudicca to climb into a small boat that looked for all the world like a pilot fish sitting alongside some supine, basking whale.

I’m togged out in a full survival suit in fetching shades of coal black and bubonic yellow, topped off with a life jacket, and with matching gloves and a woolly hat as accessories. Getting into all of this was one awesome sartorial challenge. I suspect that it might have been easier getting into the Siegfried Line….

But all of this was for my own good. Those awesome little boats are called RIBs (literally Rigid Inflatable Boats) and they are the latest set of enhancements to be added across all four ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet. Each of them has been gifted with a brace of these beauties and boy, can they ever barrel across a flat stretch of water. As I was just about to find out.

The idea is simple; enhance the already very considerable allure of the Fred.Olsen brand of small ship cruising by adding the RIBs. At any given time, these give the ships an opportunity to get a handful of intrepid adventurers right ‘up close and personal’ to the silent, soaring walls of rock that frame the great fjords of Norway, or to make landfall on some sublime, serenely dreamy Caribbean beach. And, with the four ship fleet literally exploring almost every known corner of the globe on a yearly basis, the opportunities to get even more immersed in some truly wonderful, spine tingling experiences are brilliantly obvious.

Imagine motoring around the massive, imperious rock formations that shear up out the seas off Phuket, or getting right up close and personal to some immense, glistening iceberg as it calves, crackles and sheds massive fragments of glistening ice into what looks like a sea of glass.  How about getting right up close to Sydney’s awe inspiring bridge, before actually sailing under it? Or even motoring at speed past the secluded manor houses and chateaux that line the banks of the sinuous, spectacular River Seine?

Most- but not all-of these adventures are quite likely to unfold on more benign waters than a River Tyne still gripped in the last, strangulated grasp of a raw winter Wednesday. Likely as not, there will be no need to shoe horn yourself into the second skin that I was sporting, as I moved to where my own little RIB boat was bobbing up and down in the slate grey swell. The sky overhead frowned down at us; fleets of great, grey clouds loomed above our heads, looking like inbound zeppelins on a bombing raid.

But, before you even get this far, there is a full safety briefing, and a mock up of the actual seating aboard the RIB. Each and every passenger has to demonstrate that they are fit and able enough to climb on and off these, before even being allowed to proceed any further. And each RIB comes complete with a brace of fully trained crewmen, capable of dealing with every aspect of the RIB experience.

The RIBs themselves each have two rows of seats running from fore to aft, complete with sturdy back rests, and a set of hand grips to which I was soon to become very attached indeed. Not since my white knuckle donkey ride to the top of Santorini’s cloud scraping caldera a few years back have I held onto anything with such grim determination.

We shuffle into our allotted seats with a sense of dour, determined resolve. Once everyone is seated the lines are cast off, and the boat splutters and rumbles into life. Boudicca begins to vanish into the Tyneside mist like some anxious, perplexed wraith. Spray flails the air as we begin to romp across the sullen, spitting briny. But, my word, this stuff really is exhilarating.

Waves flail at the walls of the harbour breakwater like angry, foaming fists as we surge towards it. A stout, grimy trawler waddles past us like some drunken dowager of old, while seabirds screech and then wheel all around it. As we increase speed the boat shudders, jumps and races along, with hissing girdles of foam curling around her flanks like so many angry slaps.

Now then rain drums down, knifing into us as we nose out past the breakwater. To port, the stunted remains of ancient Tynemouth Priory loom out of the mist like squat, truncated fingers. In our ears, the roar of the motor feels more like a heartbeat as the RIB remains purposefully on track. The boat can turn on a penny; it’s ability to nip, swerve and shimmy is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s an exhilarating, adrenaline pumping run that really does take destination intensive cruising to a whole new level. As we raced back into the sanctuary of the Tyne, the RIB gradually slowed, like some shattered steed that had run itself into the ground. The roar of the engine died down to something like muted burbling, even as the welcoming, solicitous bulk of Boudicca loomed out of the mist to tower over us once more.

Secured and reassured, we trooped dutifully back up the gangway, shedding our sodden protective skins at what seemed like warp speed. There was piping hot coffee to welcome us back, and a series of awed, befuddled glances from some of the other people on board. Their eyes said it all: what were you even THINKING , being out there on a day like this?

For me, what I was doing was trying something radically different, something that was as exhilarating as it was rewarding. And, if this little taste of RIB riding got to me quite so much, then what must it be like to do something similar, sans wet suits, in the calmer, far warmer waters of, say, the Caribbean?

As an adventure, this is definitely one that should be on your bucket list.

OCEANIA TO BUILD NEW DUO OF DREAM SHIPS

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It’s official; Oceania Cruises has placed an order with Trieste’s ever busy Fincantieri shipyard for a brace of new 67,000 ton, 1,200 guest cruise ships. Slated for delivery in 2022 and 2025 respectively, these new ‘Allura’ class ships build on the success of the first pair of bespoke new builds, the successful duo of Marina and Riviera.

Ten years between these two classes of ships allows for a certain amount of fresh thinking and fine tuning. The new vessels will carry something like fifty passengers less than the early ships, while being around a thousand tons larger each. And each one comes with a hefty price tag of around 565 million euros in all.

Once again, the new ships will place an emphasis on the diverse, superlative cuisine for which Oceania has deservedly become a byword in recent years. Both ships will build on the popular design elements and classically inherent elegance of their fleet mates, while also showcasing an as yet unspecified series of enhancements and distinctive design and leisure highlights that will make them quite unique in their own right.

These two new vessels will bring the Oceania fleet up to eight ships in all; it’s a nice balance between the larger, more diverse ships and the original, more intimate quartet of 30,000 ton former R-class vessels with which the line built it’s name and crafted it’s niche.

Those four vessels are currently in the middle of a $100, 000, 000 refurbishment project-known as OceaniaNEXT-that will allow them to take on board the best design elements of Marina and Riviera, while simultaneously honing and enhancing them for the deluxe, destination intensive itineraries for which they have already become very well known.

As of now, both Marina and Riviera themselves will also undergo further enhancements, in April, 2019 and May, 2020 respectively.

All of this should help to position Oceania Cruises at the vanguard of casual, deluxe cruising for the next couple of decades or so at least. With two distinct sizes and style of ships, united by a common focus on exquisite dining and excellent, personalised service, this line has to be one of the most beautifully balanced products in the modern cruise industry today.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

NIEUW STATENDAM AND MARDI GRAS; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

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Pacific Eden, soon to be CMV’s Vasco da Gama, started life as the fifth Statendam for Holland America Line

It has long been a truism of the fashion world that ‘everything old becomes new again eventually’. But it also happens right across the broad sweep of commerce as a whole; just look at the company currently trying to re-invent the postcard by offering to print and post all of those delightful photos that you have stored on digital media, and you get my drift.

The cruise industry, too, has a similar penchant for re-using the names of fabled former liners and cruise ships of old and, after years where cruise industry new builds were often almost religiously given the company’s own name as a prefix, there’s been something of a return to using the old names again of late. And, right at the forefront (as so often before) is the monolithic Carnival Corporation.

Holland America’s current, sassy Nieuw Statendam bears one of the most venerable names in maritime history. Beginning in 1898, no less than five of her illustrious fleet predecessors bore the name of Statendam (though admittedly, the prefix addition of the world ‘Nieuw’ is a nice bit of up to date word play). For the sea-minded Dutch, as well as for maritime historians and lore lovers in general, the very name of Statendam is almost totemic; an evocative nod to a time that is often- if incorrectly- seen as infinitely more glamorous than the current cruising scene.

Back in the 1920’s, a well seasoned travel writer bearing the equally well seasoned name of Basil Woon opined that ‘a speck of dirt on a Dutch ship would be enough to make the chief steward commit suicide’. And, indeed, Holland America maintains a timeless tradition for sparkling, on board cleanliness to the present. Just look at the constant raft of perfect, one hundred per cent CDC scores that the line continues to attain to this day. For HAL, this continuation of a seamless, cherished uniform standard over time is that company’s justly deserved great claim to fame. And long may it continue.

But the real surprise of these current times has surely come from Carnival Cruises itself. After decades of prefixing all it’s new builds- and, indeed, rebuilds- with the company name, it has just announced that it’s newest, largest ever built cruise ship will go right back to the future, in least in terms of name.

Starting in 2020, the Mardi Gras will be Carnival’s largest ever cruise ship when she enters service out of Florida’s Port Canaveral. She also bears the name of the line’s first ever cruise ship; the barnstorming, ex Canadian Pacific ocean liner that took the cruising world by storm (pun wholly intentional) when she made her initial, rocky debut back in 1972. No Carnival prefix here- just a statement of intent with a ship that is intended to be a literal ‘Carnival Afloat’, as it were.

Cunard is a fellow Carnival Corp. partner of HAL that can also look back on a long and illustrious lineage, with so many storied names to potentially choose from that it resembles a veritable, venerable conga line of ocean liner royalty.

That line currently sails a trio of cherished, British accented Queens (all, except for Queen Victoria, named in homage to venerated former company scions). Again, the play on famous names from a storied past has been an invaluable marketing boon for Cunard’s worldwide PR and marketing machine. And, with a fourth new Cunarder due to debut in 2022, the majority of expressed opinion seems to believe that this ship, too, will be named after a former monarch. The only problem here is that they are out of female names to use, other than-perhaps-that of Queen Anne.

Of course, there’s the potential that this particular name- never used before- might not be connected with the very successful, eighteenth century Queen Anne, but rather with the second, ill fated wife of the irascible Henry the Eighth. You can just imagine the jibes if any of her cruises had to be cut short at short notice….

Companies in general try not to associate new ship names with deceased grandees or even royalty, however noteworthy. An original idea of the French Line was to name their monumental new build of 1932 as Jeanne D’Arc. Instead, wiser (and perhaps more sober) heads prevailed, and the ship instead greeted both water and world alike as the Normandie. Mind you, considering her eventual fate, maybe that first choice of name was not too far wide of the mark, after all.

But, you get the picture. There has never been a second Titanic, Lusitania, or Andrea Doria, for instance. But as for the new Cunarder, she could still yet combine history and past majesty without needing to revert to any royal moniker at all.

Carnival Corporation could just well edge away from convention here- just as it has with the Mardi Gras name decision- and decide to eschew any royal connection whatsoever for the Cunard new build. And, if current practices and statement of intent are anything to go by, it might just well do so. As intimated earlier, it is not as if Cunard is actually short of excellent, alternative options.

How about a new Mauretana, or Aquitania? Caronia, anyone, or even Carmania? Or how about Carpathia, a name last borne by the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic? And perhaps, just perhaps, they could even consider a respectful nod to their former rival and partner, the White Star Line, and go with Olympic, or even the truly regal sounding Britannic? Neither of those names is as far fetched as they might seem.

What’s in a name, then? Quite a lot, as it turns out. History. Connectivity. Nostalgic familiarity and, perhaps more than anything, sheer platinum chip marketing clout. It will be very interesting to see just how this one plays out.

ARE DELUXE SHIPS GETTING TOO BIG?

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At 28,000 tons and carrying under 400 guests, Silversea’s Silver Whisper is one of the finest luxury ships in service anywhere

It’s a question well worth asking, when you consider developments over recent years. Are newer, bigger ships trading off intimacy and accessibility to ports in order to create more dining experiences and ever larger, more luxurious suites? Has the formerly unique magic of the deluxe, all inclusive ships been diluted in some quarters by a headlong rush to build bigger, flashier ships than was the case some three decades ago? Let’s take a look….

This article was prompted in part by the decision of Windstar to embark on an ambitious, triple ship expansion programme. It’s three motor yachts- fondly remembered as the original, start up trio for the very upscale Seabourn Cruises- will be updated with the addition of a twenty-five metre new mid section. Tonnage will go up from the present 10,000 to around 13,000; an increase of roughly a third. But passenger capacity will go from 212 to 312-an almost fifty per cent increase in real terms.

All three ships will benefit from new suites, and no doubt those added balcony rooms will do much to increase the allure of the already superb Windstar product. There will also be a welcome brace of new restaurants, together with a new spa, and much expanded health facilities. But will this upping of guest numbers do anything in the long run to dilute the on board Windstar experience that people know and love?

It isn’t simply the enlargement of existing ships that is worth considering. Look at Silversea. That line started in 1994/1995 with a brace of beautiful, bespoke 19,000 ton sister ships- Silver Cloud and Silver Wind- that carried just 279 guests each. The same line’s latest ships now come in at around the 40,000 ton mark, and the recent lengthening of the 2009 built Silver Spirit brought her roughly up to that same size as well.

Over at Seabourn, those same, original 10,000 ton sister vessels cited in the Windstar paragraph have been supplanted by a series of wonderful new vessels, each one four times as large as those original building blocks. Seabourn had rightly realised that a lack of expansive cabin balconies on those ships was seen as a drawback; a fact that Windstar’s decision to upgrade those same three ships would seem to vindicate. But a fourfold increase in overall size is still quite the leap.

When Oceania Cruises turned it’s mind to new builds in 2011, the two resulting ships- Marina and Riviera- were svelte, sublime twin revelations in many ways. And, at 66,000 tons each, they were more than twice the size of the R-Class ships with which the company had been founded back in 2003. Passenger capacity almost doubled as well, right up to 1,266 on the new ships.

But not everybody has gone down the ‘bigger is better’ route. Always at the edge of the luxury pack, Crystal Cruises’ initial plans for a trio of 100,000 ton, deluxe sister ships, complete with an entire deck of Condo suites for sale, was scaled back down to a more bijoux trio of 60,000 tonners that sit neatly between the lines’ existing brace of seagoing scions, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. And, in another move, both of those latter ships have actually had their on board guest capacity reduced. This is partly to finally allow both ships to offer single sitting dining, and also to create some larger, more expansive suites at the very top end of both ships.

Regent Seven Seas, too, has also remained on it’s successful, well proven trajectory of crafting ships of around 50,000 tons. The line’s recent Seven Seas Explorer is just 4,000 tons bigger than the 2003 built Seven Seas Voyager. For Regent, ‘steady as she goes’ seems to be the mantra in terms of size and on board numbers.

Azamara Club Cruises has played it coy, nurturing and burnishing a trio of 30,000 ton, former R-Class sisters that, in time, will almost certainly be joined by a fourth. As things stand, this is one of the best balanced lines of all in terms of synergy.

Does size really matter in the long run, then? Not so much in terms of personal space on the luxury ships, where the passenger numbers are still kept at a uniform low. If anything, accommodations have actually grown in terms of size and opulence. And, of course, these larger ships can offer far more diverse, sophisticated dining options. And, while entertainment is not always the main priority on many upscale ships, it’s also true that crafting a larger class of ship allows for more diversity and range in the on board offerings. And there are few greater luxuries associated with top end cruising than choice, whether in terms of food, accommodation and yes, even entertainment.

Where a bigger ship-however luxurious-can lose out is in terms of access to smaller, more intimate ports of call around the globe. That’s immutable, and one of the areas in which size really does matter.

The bottom line? It’s always going to be a trade off, even at cruising’s gilded apex. If it’s ease of access and the destinations that are your prime driver when picking a cruise, then opting for a small ship remains an obvious given. But, if the on board lifestyle and luxe are more your prime consideration, then any one of the more recent breed of larger, luxury cruise ship will please and pamper you, 24/7.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here either, by the way. There’s just diversity. And we’re all the better off for that, whatever cruise type we decide to choose.

WINDSTAR GOES BIGGER; THREE YACHTS TO GET NEW MID SECTIONS,CABINS AND DINING OUTLETS

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Windstar’s Star Breeze

When extra capacity becomes an imperative and you simply don’t have the time to build a new ship from scratch, sometimes the best solution is to ‘stretch’ one or more of your existing ships instead, to accommodate more guests.

Stretching ships as an expedient is nothing new; in the 1970’s and early 80’s, both Royal Caribbean and Royal Viking Line did exactly that with (almost) all of their first line tonnage. Later. Home Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line did something similar, but on a larger scale of ship. And even Royal Caribbean not so many years ago ‘stretched’ one of it’s Vision class ships in the American short cruise market.

Stretching is faster on the whole, it’s usually cheaper, and it also allows the option of staggering the rebuilds so that at least some of the ships are always in service, guaranteeing that vital revenue flow that all lines need to keep to survive.

Recently, Windstar Cruises decided to go down this same, tried and tested path. The line is introducing a $250,000,000, three ship expansion project- the Star Plus initiative- that will bring all three of it’s current motor yachts right up to the forefront of intimate, contemporary cruise vessels.

Between October of 2019 and November 2020, Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride will each in turn be cut in half at the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo, Italy. There, all three ships will have a newly built, 25.6 metre long mid section inserted.

Tonnage for each ship will go up, from the present 10,000 to a projected 13,000 tons in all. The addition of some fifty new suites and cabins will bring the guest capacity of each ship up to around 312- one hundred more than at present.The new, added space will allow for the creation of two new, as yet unspecified dining venues on each ship, together with a new spa, a much larger fitness centre, and extra retail space. Crew accommodation will also be significantly upgraded; always a good move.

Far more crucially-both for the environment and Windstar’s bottom line- all three ships will be completely re-engined with a set of four new motors. These are designed to make the ships cleaner and more fuel efficient, and also to give them a slight increase on their present speed of around eighteen knots.

The yachts- all near identical sister ships built between 1989 and 1992- have been carefully inspected right back down to the bare steel, and were found to be in such excellent overall condition that a rebuild on this scale was eminently practical, as well as financially sound.

In all, this vastly ambitious project should raise passenger capacity across the six-ship strong Windstar fleet by something like twenty four per cent overall. At present, no plans have been announced in regard to the stellar core trio of sail assisted vessels that were the line’s founding sisters, but I would be very surprised if some kind of complementary upgrade programme is not at least being considered.

Eschewing the on board formality and set dining times of some other upscale lines, Windstar has long been a byword for casually elegant cruising in a more intimate environment, with the six ships literally covering most of the globe between them. With a reputation for high quality food and excellent, personalised service, it has long been the choice of those who prefer to take their cruises in an upscale, unstructured environment that still pays attention rather than lip service to the smallest detail.

I’ll be following this one with more than a passing interest. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

FIVE NOVEL APPROACHES IN CRUISING…..

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The breathtaking panorama of Manhattan at dawn….

These days, we have become accustomed to mass air travel as the main means of getting from A to B. Almost every minute of every day, a plane lands at an airport such as, say, JFK in New York. And, except for the pilot and the flight controller, nobody bats an eye at such comings and goings.

And yet.. some cities can only truly be seen at their absolute best when you approach them from the sea. Few things cap any sea voyage with such poetic perfection as the stately procession of an elegant ocean liner along the waterfront of Venice, or a midnight departure from the floodlit, mountain studded backdrop of Hong Kong. And, while the list of truly spectacular and arrival ports is potentially endless, here are five of the ones that both time and tide have left seared into my memory…..

RIO DE JANEIRO

Rio; just say it. It sounds sultry enough in its own right. But imagine sailing into the vast, hushed expanse of Guanabara Bay at sunrise, with the city’s fabled twin trademarks of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain shearing out of the silvery water like gigantic exclamation marks. At your feet, epic, world famous beaches such as Leblon and Copacabana sprawl like silent, honey coloured sirens of old. Any way you slice it, it all makes for a sensational arrival in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

ISTANBUL

The early morning cry of a muezzin floats over the steel grey sprawl of the Bosphorous, where Europe meets Asia. Minarets on world famous buildings like the Haghia Sophia splintering the first, rosy glow of dawn. Sleek, low ferries bumbling back and forth across the sparkling expanse of water. The ancient, spiky Galata Tower pointing at the sky like some gnarled, skeletal finger. Only here can you sail into the embrace of two continents at the same time, and be equally awed by both.

SYDNEY HARBOUR

The biggest, most vibrant city in Oceania is a rocking, rolling metropolis around the clock. But an early morning arrival in Darling Harbour is an adrenaline fuelled surge as you nudge up close to the famous ‘Coat hangar bridge’ that still spans the harbour. Meanwhile, the quixotic, brilliant white ‘sails’ of the nearby Sydney Opera House loom like giant shark fins against the Antipodean daybreak. Proof, if ever you needed it, that you really are in a different world.

CAPE TOWN

Dominated by the looming, cloud kissed spread of the infamous Table Mountain,  South Africa’s most instantly recognisable city has a waterfront studded with fleets of moored yachts, fussing tugboats and bustling cargo ships. Pastel coloured hotels, shops and restaurants on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront crouch in the shade of jagged, rolling peaks laid out under a carpet of vibrant, petrol blue sky. Awe inspiring does not even begin to truly cut it.

NEW YORK

The city that still remains the daddy of them all in terms of impact. Manhattan at dawn is a spellbinding forest of steel and glass, clawing at the sky. Car horns can be heard from traffic that barrels along the waterfront as your ship ghosts upstream. To port, the Statue of Liberty is a demure, sightless, pale green siren with her torch held aloft in greeting. Tug boats fuss around your ship like water beetles. Amazing and, once seen, an awe inspiring adventure that you will never, ever forget.

 

SILVERSEA TO ADD BRACE OF ACES TO IT’S DELUXE FLEET

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Silver Whisper. Image credit: Silversea Cruises

In what amounts to a serious statement of intent following it’s buyout by Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises has announced plans to build a brace of new cruise ships, known as the Evolution Class, for it’s ultra luxury brand. The lead ship is expected to enter service in 2022,

Other than this grand announcement, actual physical details are thin on the ground. We know nothing as yet of the anticipated size or interior layout but, given Silversea’s stellar reputation, no one should anticipate any watering down of either the on board luxury or service that has been the company’s twin pillars.

But what is groundbreaking from the Silversea perspective is that this is the first time that company new builds will be constructed outside of the line’s normal, ‘go-to’ Italian shipyards at T. Mariotti and Fincantieri. Instead, the new duo will be crafted by Germany’s prestigious Meyer Werft shipyard.

Since the company’s inauguration with start up ship, Silver Cloud back in 1994, each new generation of Silversea ship has been slightly larger than the one which preceded it. But it remains to be seen whether that tradition will continue with this new class of ship.

Already on order from Fincantieri is another duo, Silver Moon and Silver Dawn. Slated to debut in 2020 and 2021 respectively, these 40,700 ton siblings are sister ships to last years’ Silver Muse. I honestly doubt that the new ships will be much bigger than this. if indeed, they actually are bigger at all.

That said, Silversea has definitely tilted toward some ever so subtle up-sizing over the last few years. The recent addition of a new mid section to the one of a kind Silver Spirit allowed the line to create a diverse, very substantial dining handle on board that these new ships will also surely replicate. Despite being one of the most esteemed names in deluxe luxury cruising, Silversea realised some time ago that it needed to enhance and update the traditional, tried and tested staple product, and it has done exactly that. Under the new ownership, I would very much expect that trend to continue.

Silversea is also strengthening it’s current, pre-eminent position in the deluxe expedition ship market with the commission of a first ever dedicated new build. Due to debut from the De Hoop shipyard in Holland in 2020, the Silver Origin is designed specifically for the niche Galapagos market. Whether this means that the current, on site ship-Silver Galapagos– will go elsewhere, remain on site or, perhaps, even leave the fleet-is as yet uncertain.

However you cut the cards, it’s still full steam ahead for Silversea on both fronts. As always, anticipation truly is a marvellous appetiser.