Category Archives: expedition cruising

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.

 

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SAGA CRUISES TO JOIN THE ALL INCLUSIVE BANDWAGON IN 2020

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Artist’s rendering of Saga Cruises’ elegant new Spirit of Discovery, slated for delivery from Germany in 2020

Saga Cruises has formally announced what some of us have been expecting for some time. Namely, that the line will go all-inclusive following the introduction of it’s brace of bespoke new builds in January and August of 2020, respectively.

The two ships- Spirit of Discovery and Spirit of Adventure- will showcase the already included, hugely popular Saga USPs, including free door-to-door transfers, free insurance, and no extra charge on board restaurant reservations. But the addition of an all inclusive package on the drinks front will raise the appeal of the line to something possibly quite beyond it’s current, mandatory ‘fifty plus’ passenger demographic.

While this is undoubtedly a smart move on the part of Saga Cruises, it is also one that is gathering pace across the cruise industry as a whole. Remember that the British accented Marella Cruises is also going all inclusive effective from May, 2019.

Among the niche lines, ‘all inclusive’ has always been a tenet for the value and exclusive on board lifestyle that each offers. The likes of Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, Seadream Yacht Club and Silversea have offered just such inclusiveness for a decade and more now.

Coming just a small step down, Azamara Club Cruises went all inclusive some time ago, and it is surely only a matter of time before it’s main competitor, Oceania Cruises, does the same. Also, look out for the stylish, yacht like Windstar Cruises following along the same path in the not too distant future.

Potential passengers now want more inclusive fares more than ever. Even more traditional British lines such as Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime Voyages are now adding very cost effective, per day drinks packages onto most of their cruises of more than five nights’ duration. On the USA oriented front, big lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean also offer all inclusive drinks packages for purchase, though these must be arranged by Day One, and all passengers in the same cabin must participate.

Several factors are driving this; firstly, the relative weakness of the UK Pound against both the Dollar and the Euro is has bled UK travellers of around twenty per cent on average of their normal holiday spend, with the inevitable result that most of us are now getting more than a bit canny about which particular cruises we decide to splurge on in future. The continuing uncertainty about Brexit certainly does not help, either. And there’s mounting evidence that European passengers are beginning to shy away from US-centric itineraries in the current political climate as well. That last one could turn out to be a potential double whammy. Let’s hope not, for the sake of all concerned.

Interesting times, one way and another. As ever, stay tuned.

THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART FOUR: TIME OUT IN THE TIMELESS ISLANDS

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Santorini from the heights

Though our week long cruise on the CelestyalCrystal would be very destination intensive, the extended stays at most of the places we visited meant that there was not always a hard and fast rush for me to need to get ashore. Especially if, like me, you know most of those islands very well indeed. In fact, returning to these wonderful islands is like revisiting old friends these days in so many ways.

And, to sure, it seemed wise to make time just to enjoy one of the smaller, more laid back of the Greek Islands- the CelestyalCrystal herself.

Naturally, most people cannot wait to get ashore to visit the islands themselves, and the lowering of gangways and/or tender boats at most ports soon produced an exodus of eager travellers, ready to get off the ship and get into full exploration mode. Those days, the ship would often go from boisterous and bubbly mode to calm, sedate repose in a matter of minutes.

To be clear, those were moments to treasure; just the simple, pared down pleasures of a well run ship on a bright, sunny day is a tonic for all sorts of things. A warm breeze, a cold beer, some delicious ice cream, maybe a book… this is what I always define as platinum chip quality relaxation time.

Always in the background is the crew, going through the ballet of the daily duty roster. At any port of call, around thirty per cent of the crew is obliged to remain on the ship, both to keep essential services (eg, the supply of cold ice cream) running, as well as to provide an adequate safety cover over all of the different departments on board.

These moments when a ship seems to draw breath, to gather herself and get ready for the next port of call, are ones worth savouring. All around you, people are working hard to prep and primp the surroundings. getting them ready for returning passengers and the occasional, small groups of visiting travel agents and port officials.

It’s always worth watching the expressions on the faces of those visitors as they are ushered from lounge to lido, pool deck to dining rooms. They always seem to look with envy at any passengers around in, say, the Jacuzzi, or on a comfortable deck chair.  It’s true of every ship in every situation. I’ve seen it so many times now over the years.

Of course, you can take your time over breakfast and lunch, too. Meander in and out of the buffet as many times as the mood takes you. Curl up with a cappuccino, or enjoy a few languid laps in the sparkling pool. Too hot out in that mid-day sun? Head for cover in one of the air conditioned, near deserted lounges, and just lose yourself in a book for an hour or so.

I love the slower, smooth tempo of those days, especially on a really port intensive cruise like this one. These cruises are like some fantastic fairground ride, whirling you through a carousel of islands of all shapes, sizes and colours. But, every now and then, it’s kind of nice to step off that carousel, to gather your breath, and just glory in all the good stuff that is around you, right at that very moment. You can jump right back into the fun places the minute that you’re ready to.

And sure, there’s something quite sublime and magical about tendering ashore to Santorini at about six in the evening when the crowds are still all ashore, up in the hills, but the worst of the heat has begun to fade. The play of the slowly setting sun against those massive, imperious rock formations is really something else to behold.

Watching those vast, grizzled walls of ancient granite turning shades of gold, green and burnished rust is spellbinding stuff. Early evening in the islands throws up all sorts of beautiful sun and seascapes that the sheer brilliance of the noon day sun largely negates.

A kind of low, shimmering rosy haze dusts the line of the horizon as the sea turns a fine shade of blush red. Walls of rock embrace you even as they blacken in the shade of the setting sun. Sunlight glances against a wine carafe standing sentinel atop a chequered table cloth, sitting above a gnarled stone quayside where idly bobbing, brightly coloured fishing boats sit tethered like sated swans. Seabirds arc, dive and swoop against a backdrop soundtrack of chirping tree frogs and sizzling sea food, probably freshly caught that same morning. The sounds of bouzouki music begins to kick in from some local musicians, playing in one of the nearby bars.

It’s a tender, mellow time of day, and it showcases these wonderful islands in an entirely different light. Quite literally, as it turns out. And, as sunset softens and fades like slowly vanishing fog, the first glimmering stars make their appearance, ‘like pin pricks in the fabric of the universe’ as someone once wrote quite wonderfully.

Forget the shopping. Forget the history. Just for now, at any rate. This is Greece in the raw; stunning, magnificent and almost bereft of crowds, even in the last, lingering days of high summer.  Intimate and yet grand at the same time, low key and languid,  it’s a dreamscape wrought in stone, sky, sea and time. And yet, one in which you are completely and utterly wide awake.

Lovely stuff.

THE MARINA; DIGS AND DINNER IN DUBLIN

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The Green Hen on Wicklow Street in Dublin

Having survived the airborne adventure that is Stobart Air to Dublin, I transited the airport and was lucky enough to find my driver already waiting at the exit. Minutes later, and the black saloon car was swishing its way through the teeming, Saturday afternoon throng of the great city on the Liffey.

My overnight hotel was the Spencer, located literally on the banks of the Liffey, not a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, and all the buzz and bustle of O’Connell Street. Check in was fast, warm and courteous and, with my room being on the first floor, it took no time at all to get there.

The corridors en route are kind of grey and dimly lit; one part submarine, one part Sing Sing. But no complaints about the room at all; great bathroom, with fab toiletries, plus a bed big enough to lose myself in. All things considered, a comfortable, accommodating base that I’d be happy to go back to, as much for it’s convenience as for it’s conviviality.

Dublin’s streets are a happy, teeming mess of bars done out in every style, from baroque to gleaming chrome and glass. Regardless of style, they all have that earthy, irreverent feel that is still ever so slightly anarchic, even in a city that is as much in love with Gucci as it is with Guinness these days. Be advised; Dublin is not a cheap date these days, but there’s no denying the sheer quality of everything on offer here, from beer to freshly baked bread.

Cobbled streets bisect the main roads where traffic barrels through Dublin’s centre like swarms of maddened beetles. They are filled with the sound of everything from accordions to full symphony orchestras, via buskers, sax players and even some raw, raucous old skiffle. This is a city that rocks, rolls and swaggers- also sometimes staggers-through until the small hours. And she does so to a sublime, Celtic rhythm that is uniquely all her own.

For dinner, I went to a French-Irish bistro called the Green Hen on Wicklow Street. Set on two levels, the place has a long bar that sits to the right of the entrance, and all the dark wooden panelling that you could ever want. You can eat at the bar, or in the main dining area at the rear. A filigreed staircase leads to an upper level but, downstairs, it’s all deep red leather chairs and rose coloured lamps on the tables. In some ways, it’s a little too dim to read the menus properly, but then a side order of ‘quirky’ should be an essential element of any good bistro, wherever it is in the world.

There’s no edge or attitude here, but there is excellent food and service proffered up in an informal, expansive setting. I had a carrot and rose soup that was almost spine tingling, and a fillet steak so tender that it crumbled at the touch of a knife. It came with a side order of asparagus the size of a Kansas wheat field.

Dessert- I just managed it- was a comely creme brulee washed down with a feisty cappuccino. Wine wise, I went with the recommendations of a very savvy, and extremely busy waiter that clearly knew his field. All things considered, the Green Hen was a game old bird of a venue, pun wholly intentional.

Later, it was back to the Mercantile Hotel, where a cracking live band had been kicking up a storm outside for most of the night. Drinking, dancing Dublin is a soundtrack all her own, and she’ll twirl you around into the small hours of the morning if you let her. I did.

I hit my hotel bed like a felled tree at some scant remembered small hour of the morning. And, even as I lumbered toward my slumber, a small flotilla of cruise ships was converging on Dublin, intent on an early Sunday morning arrival.

There was the spiffy little Variety Voyager and the vast, looming Mein Schiff 3. The main port also had the pretty little Pacific Princess, the last of the eight, original ‘R’ Class ships now not in service with either Azamara Club Cruises or Oceania. There was also an old friend of mine; the sublime little Silver Wind, so fondly remembered from a cruise around the Mediterranean a few years ago.

And-unmistakable in the slowly rising Sunday morning sun- there was my ship, the magnificent Marina in the outer harbour.I would be joining her later that day and that, as I knew from a previous trip on her, was something else entirely worth salivating over.

SMALL SHIPS; GOING SOUTH FOR GOOD?

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Black Watch at Flam. Photo is copyright of the author

When Saga Cruises takes delivery of it’s new Spirit of Discovery in 2019, that line’s current, popular Saga Pearl II will leave the fleet. Though no buyer has yet been announced, it is to be hoped that this charming, intimate ship will find another owner, and hopefully within the UK market at that.

One possible interested party could well be Cruise and Maritime Voyages, which operates the Astor on a winter programme of fly/cruises to and from South Africa and Australia over the autumn and winter. Saga Pearl II is the near identical sister ship to Astor, and there’s no doubt that the two ships would make a great working duo. And, by then, it has to be reckoned that the veteran Marco Polo might well be coming to her final sell by date around that period. The slightly smaller Saga Pearl II would make an ideal replacement, with her outdoor terraced decks and similar, intimate styling, so the logic is inescapable here, too.

Against that, Saga Pearl II has a passenger capacity of just over 500- significantly less than the 800 carried by the adults’ only Marco Polo. And the trend lately at CMV has been to buy more bigger, second hand ships than before. The line first acquired the 45,000 ton, 1,300 passenger Magellan, and then upped the stakes significantly this year with the introduction of the near 64,000 ton, 1,400 passenger Columbus. Though relatively intimate compared with the modern big ships of P&O and Cunard, these two ships are still respectively double and treble the size of the Marco Polo. And, though intimacy remains at the heart of the CMV philosophy, the size of the ships is moving inevitably upwards.

A similar, upward gradient has also taken hold at Fred. Olsen, whose last addition- the 43,000 ton Balmoral- is almost twice the size of the 24,000 ton Braemar, and much larger than either of the stable, popular 28, 000 ton sister duo of Black Watch and Boudicca. It’s interesting to note that all four of the Fred. Olsen ships have been ‘stretched’ with the addition of a new mid section. In fact, both Braemar and Balmoral endured the process when already under the Olsen flag.

Like CMV, Fred. Olsen has nailed it’s colours firmly to providing a more intimate, British oriented travel experience, aimed at the older passenger. And, while both lines have succeeded and gained much success with this approach, it’s difficult to see how they expand in the same market; quite simply, the availability of major tonnage is now becoming an ever increasing problem.

Fred. Olsen has failed to add any new tonnage since the Balmoral back in 2009 and, while all four of the fleet’s ships are undergoing significant refurbishments to keep them fresh and attractive, the line is clearly in need of a new ship, or perhaps two. For a long time, the line has cast a covetous eye on the 38,000 ton Prinsendam of Holland America Line. Up to now, the Dutch line has proved very reluctant to part with it’s widely admired ‘Elegant Explorer’. But that might be about to change.

Holland America itself is in the throes of a retrenchment, geared towards providing the line with larger, more luxurious and family friendly vessels. Two of the 50,000 ton, 1990’s built Statendam class vessels- Ryndam and Statendam herself- were recently sold off to the Carnival subsidiary of P&O Australia. The two remaining in Holland America’s portfolio-Maasdam and Veendam– are clearly on borrowed time, especially when Holland America takes delivery of the stunning Nieuw Statendam in 2018.

If those two do, indeed, go- and it is pretty certain that they will- then Holland America might also, finally, divest itself of the Prinsendam. Any of these three fine, well cared for vessels would make great additions to  Fred. Olsen or, indeed, to Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

Elsewhere, other potential pickings are slim. I’ve already mentioned the lovely little Saga Pearl II, but the 19,000 ton Celestyal Nefeli- the original twin sister of the Braemar– might also be in the mix. Her two year charter to Celestyal Cruises comes to an end this year and, thus far, the Greek line has shown no commitment to renewing it. It has returning tonnage of it’s own to hand at the end of this year, coming back from Thomson Cruises. But the latter line’s decision to retain the popular Thomson Spirit for one more season might yet cause Celestyal to rethink again about the Nefeli.

Other than the ships cited above, it seems that the only new route open for both lines is that of dedicated new builds. Indeed, this is the route that Celestyal itself is heading towards, with plans for a pair of new, 60,000 ton cruise ships. And, with the current, on going boom in the number of small sized expedition ships now under construction, builders are beginning to appraise the viability of more general purpose, smaller sized cruise ships, albeit to a limited degree.

That said, none of this is written in the sky, never mind set in stone. It’s food for thought rather than a set menu. But, as the next two years or so play out, the moving of chess pieces here and there should be fascinating to watch.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

 

 

 

SCENIC ECLIPSE- THE EXPEDITION BOOM CONTINUES

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SCENIC ECLIPSE

The burgeoning expedition cruise ship circuit looks set to reach a new plateau next year with the introduction of the all suite, all inclusive new Scenic Eclipse.  Purpose built for cruising to regions such as Antarctica and the Amazon, this new vessel pushes the boundaries in terms of sumptuous, on board amenities and sheer, personal indulgence.

Time was, you really had to be prepared to ‘rough it’ on an expedition ship to Antarctica. It was almost exclusively the preserve of chartered Russian ice breakers, hired by companies such as Quark. The vessels were as sturdy, uncompromising and yes, as spartan, as the incredible scenic smorgasbords that they pushed and crunched their way through. It’s safe to say that on board product delivery was not top of the bill on these ships, and equally safe to say that many loved them for that simple, no nonsense approach. They wore that perceived discomfort like a badge of honour.

My, how that will change….

Scenic Eclipse will carry just 228 passengers in all suite, all balcony accommodation, with a 1:1 crew ratio to match. When the ship is in Antarctica, passenger numbers will be limited to just 200. There will be no less than-count them- nine separate, all inclusive dining venues, and the ship will be completely all inclusive. There are indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs and, naturally, the Scenic Eclipse will carry her own helicopter, submarine for sightseeing under the ice, and an on board fleet of zodiac motor boats.

You’ll be able to scuba dive, or take specially prepared picnics ashore in some of the more temperate waters where the ship will cruise. You can take out a kayak or an e-bike, have unlimited wi-fi usage, and even have your clothes unpacked and repacked by your own, dedicated butler.

So, does all of this lavish indulgence (and I personally think that nine restaurants for a ship of this size and capacity is way over the top) mean that expedition cruising has ‘gone soft’? Will the exploits and memories of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen be decried by the prowling presence of the sort of ship previously associated with a particularly well heeled Bond villain?

I guess it depends where you stand, but to my mind, the answer is ‘no’. There is no written rule anywhere that expedition cruising has to be either uncomfortable, or almost puritan in its scope and intent. The notion of progress is hog wired into our very DNA, after all. And, for all his seafaring prowess and derring- do, I dare bet that Christopher Columbus would have found crossing the Atlantic far more pleasant on the Queen Mary 2 than on the doughty, plodding little Santa Maria. Thrill seeking need not automatically equate to lack of style or space. I am more than happy to survey the great, jagged, blush tinted ice floes of Antarctica up close and personal, as long as I can sit in a hot tub with a glass of something warm and reviving to hand.

Scenic Eclipse? Sounds more like a scenic sunrise to me. As always, stay tuned for updates.