Category Archives: over fifties cruising

GREEK ISLANDS TO BECOME YEAR ROUND CRUISE DESTINATION?

MYKONOS
Mykonos

As a rule, the main season for cruising the Greek islands runs from early March through to mid November, at least in terms of shorter cruises. But the region’s most consistent and destination immersive operator-Celestyal Cruises- is finally set to change all of that.

Beginning this year, the company will extend it’s main range offering of three, four and seven night cruises by a full month on either side, with the eventual aim of making the sailings a full, year round operation. At present, the line’s brace of intimate, smaller ships- Celestyal Crystal and Celestyal Olympia- typically lay up at the Greek port of Piraeus during the winter months, before resuming their respective cruise programmes the following spring.

As with anything, cruising those waters during these off season months throws up a whole raft of potential pros and cons. Here’s just a few thoughts of mine that you might care to take on board, pun wholly intentional.

CROWD NUMBERS WILL BE MUCH LOWER

In these destination rich waters, sightseeing is everything for a great many people. Nowhere else on earth offers up such a vast, vibrant palette of alluring historical sites and world famous attractions as those fabled, wine dark waters, and the clusters of often arid islands that sheer up out of them. And, of course, in the long, hot months of the summer season, they are often bursting beyond capacity with tourists. It’s not the ideal season for in depth exploration, to be sure.

Come summer, and whole flotillas of giant cruise ships descend upon this perennially popular region. One or two of these large ships at, say, Santorini (and that’s usually an absolute daily minimum in high summer) can disgorge a staggering nine thousand visitors ashore in one stupendous outpouring. The pressure on the local infrastructure is obvious and intense, as is the searing, pitiless heat that you’ll be subjected to as well.

Those quieter, off season months thin these same crowds out quite dramatically, as the bulk of those self same huge resort ships return to the Caribbean for winter. As a result, the entire Greek Islands region feels calmer, more tranquil and hushed. An ideal time for getting ‘up close and personal’ to those sites that you’ve always wanted to see. But, on the other hand…..

THE WEATHER MIGHT NOT BE KIND…

Sure, the temperatures can be quite mellow, with the Aegean region sometimes getting up to a positively balmy seventeen degrees centigrade, even in February. Typically, temperatures are lower than that, but it’s still agreeably mild. Perfect, in fact, for sightseeing.

The real problem can be the wind, which can whip up the sea on a regular basis at this time of year. And, because so many of those same popular Greek ports require you to go ashore by tender, there’s a real chance that you might end up missing one, or maybe more, of the banner ports of call should the sea kick up.

Still, safety has to come first, and no captain worth his salt would ever consider exposing his passengers to even the merest hint of danger. While potentially disappointing, your continued existence is much more important than taking a chance on getting you ashore to traipse around the likes of, say, Patmos. In the end, the weather can always be a factor, just as it can be on any cruise.

It’s also worth remembering that, as so many of these islands are clustered together in close proximity to each other, the captain can almost always take you to some other interesting little idyll in the event of a cancellation. Think of it as a form of ‘magical history tour’ and you won’t be too far off the mark.

PRICES ARE NICER….

From a European perspective, air fares to the prime Greek embarkation port of Athens are always cheaper in winter than over the peak summer season. There’s no shortage of good, quality priced air lift into Greece and, this being winter, overnight hotel stays will also be much cheaper.

LESS KIDS AROUND…..

If other people’s children are an issue for you on holiday, then obviously the patter of tiny footfall is going to be a lot slacker- and possibly even non existent, in fact-over those somnolent winter months. It follows that the ships themselves will often be a lot less crowded than in the fun filled, hectic hugger mugger of the long summer nights. More space, and an easier pace. The common sense here is obvious.

IT’S QUIETER ASHORE, TOO….

Banner ports of call such as Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini will have many food and drink outlets closed up during the quieter winter months, but not by any means all of them. There will obviously be less choice and diversity than during peak season, and the overall pace of life ashore will feel much slower. Depending on your mindset, this could be either a boon or a bust.

So; there you go. You pay your money, and you make your choice. It’s entirely over to you but, as an avowed fan of the Greek islands experience in the long summer months, I am more than a little intrigued as to how those same islands would strike me during the calmer, cooler, less crowded days of winter.

And I don’t think that I’m alone on that one, either.

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OCEANIA TO BUILD NEW DUO OF DREAM SHIPS

MARINA

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.

FRED GETS FESTIVE-SINGLE SUPPLEMENTS TORPEDOED ON 2019-20 SAILINGS

BOUDICCA AT SEA
The aft terrace decks on FOCL’s evergreen Boudicca. Photo copyright is that if the author

 

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is gifting potential single passenger with some early festive treats, as it removes single supplements on a whole raft of sailings over 2019 and into 2020.

The itineraries include both ex-UK sailings, and a series of selected fly cruises right across the entire, four-ship Fred. Olsen fleet. The only real caveat is that all travel must be booked by February 28th, 2019.

Among the options on offer are an eight night round Britain cruise, sailing from Liverpool aboard Black Watch on June 20th, 2019, and a fourteen night fly cruise on sister ship, Boudicca. That one begins in the Cypriot port of Limassol on March 5th, 2020, and finishes in Dover.

Another tempting option-also aboard Boudicca-is a  fourteen night foray to the ‘Fortunate Isles’- Madeira, Tenerife and Gran Canaria-departing from Dover on March 9th, 2019. This one in particular is a nice option for anyone desperate to dodge the last, dying days of winter.

Always famous for the warm, gracious service that is the hallmark of their smaller, more intimate ships, Fred. Olsen continues to offer superb on board cuisine, as well as one of the most highly rated shore excursion programmes in the entire cruise industry. Collectively, the four ships- Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch- cover almost the entire globe on their yearly roster of sailings.

A great option for singles, to be sure.

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.

SHORT CRUISES; A SURE THING, OR SHORT CHANGE?

BOUDICCA
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is one of the major companies offering a range of short cruises from the UK each year

Let’s face it; there are times in life when you simply need a quick, short break from the normal, everyday routine, and you simply don’t have the time to take an extended trip. That being so, maybe a quick, three to five day cruise might just fit the bill.

Maybe you’re getting together a small group of friends for a reunion, or celebrating some landmark event that makes pushing the boat out (pun wholly intentional) seem like a grand idea. You want to put something together that is short on time, but high on style. Something truly memorable. Again, a short cruise might just be the very thing.

For sure, a short cruise means that you’re pretty damned limited as to where you can go, especially when sailing from a UK port. And not even the best salesman can make Cherbourg sound as alluring as, say Curacao. Plus, a lot of these trips tend to sail in the later months of the year, so the likelihood of getting good weather can be pretty low. If these are your main drivers, then you might be better off exploring other options.

That said, a short cruise still serves up more pros than cons in my experience. For me, a short cruise still wins out over a land stay in terms of style, price and inclusiveness every single time.

There’s also the welcome knowledge that you’re being cosseted in a safe, stress free environment; one in which your accommodation, food and entertainment have already been factored into the price. That leaves you free to simply indulge in all the fun stuff; drinking, dining, dancing, enjoying the shows and live music. Even for a few days, the world- if not quite your oyster- can seem like a pretty damned tasty prawn platter.

And there’s no denying that a short cruise sounds, indeed feels, almost wickedly self indulgent, too. It gifts you the luxury of time and space to reconnect with friends and family, in a way that the normal, hectic hugger mugger of everyday life often makes impractical.

Think of a short cruise as being like a really tasty box of chocolates; it isn’t going to last very long for sure, but just the memories alone will put a smile on your face long after you return to reality.

For Christmas shoppers, these short cruises are ideal, too. Many of them rock up at continental ports where traditional Christmas markets are a seasonal standard. And that in itself puts back the fun into Christmas shopping that is largely absent back at home these days.

Best of all, mind you, is the fact that you have gifted yourself with something truly special as a present, too. And-let’s face it- you’re worth it.

Do enjoy!

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

STARBREEZE
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.