In her first summer season back in the Aegean after several years out in Cuba, Celestyal Cruises’ popular 24,000 ton, 1,200 passenger Celestyal Crystal has embarked on a series of seven night sailings- known as the Idyllic Aegean itineraries- out of her home port of Piraeus, Athens.
These are very different from the normal Celestyal offerings on a number of fronts. Firstly, the vessel sails at 2100 in the evening, thus actually allowing passengers from Europe to fly in on embarkation day itself. The normal, 1130 in the morning sailings so typical of the three and four night itineraries usually mandate an overnight stay in either Piraeus or Athens itself.
Central to this new itinerary is a pair of overnight stops at both Mykonos and Santorini, allowing passengers ample time to sample both the famous Mykonos beach and nightlife scene, as well as the sublime experience of enjoying the summer sunset from atop Santorini’s lofty cliff top town of Oia.
Other ports along the way include a new, first time call into Milos, as well as full day stays at both Heraklion, with it’s fabulous Palace of Knossos and nearby resort life at Aghios Nikolaios, and also at Turkey’s beautiful, breezy seaside port of Kusadasi, an easy access point for the nearby ruins of once mighty Ephesus.
Uniquely among niche Greek Island operators, Celestyal includes complimentary shore excursions at many of the banner ports en route, as well as tips and an all inclusive drinks package.
All things considered, this longer cruise allows for more interaction and immersion with some of the most seductive, sought after destinations in the Aegean when they are at their most popular, at the height of summer. And the pretty little Celestyal Crystal offers a more intimate, truly immersive, Greek style experience and ambience that the big, international cruise ships simply cannot replicate.
Pullmantur’s Monarch has just emerged from a 21 day, $10 million refurbishment at Freeport’s Grand Bahama shipyard. The ship is probably best remembered as Royal Caribbean’s monolithic, 1991 built Monarch of The Seas.
Pullmantur- itself at one time part of the Royal Caribbean portfolio- has invested significantly in the 74,000 ton ship.
Much of the work carried out was internal in nature, and involved new carpeting, fixtures and fittings in cabins and public areas right across the 2,300 passenger ship, together with some external work across the pool deck, and other outdoor areas of the ship. In all, something like fifteen thousand square metres of carpeting was replaced, together with around a thousand metres of furniture upholstery fabric.
Deck Twelve has been outfitted with a new solarium area, and the indoor spa and shopping complexes have also been refreshed. There has also been a change for all signage in food and public area outlets, with the intention of making it more user friendly for the ship’s predominantly Latino clientele.
On the technical side, Pullmantur says that enhancements were made to make the vessel more ‘environmentally friendly’, but actual details on these are non existent at the time of writing.
After completing this period of overhaul and updating, the Monarch resumed her programme of year round, seven day, all inclusive Caribbean cruises. These destination intensive cruises allow foe embarkation in either Curacao, Aruba, or at Panama City’s port of Colon.
Meanwhile, the Sovereign- twin sister ship of the Monarch- has returned to Europe after her usual seasonal winter programme in Brazil. The ship- formerly the Sovereign of The Seas- is now operating seven night round trip cruises in the Western Mediterranean that allows for embarkation from any of six ports of call en route.
Thirty years ago today, a ship unlike any other was preparing to leave the Penhoet shipyard at St. Nazaire, France. She was nothing less than the world’s first purpose built mega cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s awe inspiring Sovereign of the Seas.
Having successfully completed a series of strenuous sea trials, the 74,000 ton ship was making ready to leave Saint Nazaire on a direct crossing to her new home port of Miami. Under the command of Captain Tor Stangeland, the huge, still not quite complete ship would carry a small complement of passengers, and a full roster of skilled tradesmen who would be working flat out to complete the ship before her scheduled Caribbean debut in January of 1988.
Of course, the famed French shipyard had form when it came to building classic, almost heartbreaking beauties; Ile De France, Normandie and, of course, the Norway ex-France had all emerged from this hallowed cradle of fabulous maritime creations. Long before her proud, graceful prow ever cut salt water at all, Sovereign of the Seas could claim a rightful place in one of the most illustrious seagoing lineages of all time.
That heritage showed, too; the stern was a curved, knuckled masterpiece that perfectly echoed the magnificent Normandie of 1935. The bow, though sharper, had the same stance and vast, soaring flanks of her soon to be great rival, the SS. Norway. Indeed, those same two ships would soon be engaged in a game of maritime bragging rights on a scale unseen since the Normandie and Queen Mary in the 1930’s.
But while Norway was classic sixties luxe re-imagined in shimmering Art Deco, the Sovereign was almost relentlessly modern; a twenty five year leap forward in thinking and tastes. Unlike her adored rival, she was a ship created from scratch, tailor made to suit and, indeed, anticipate the tastes of a new age. Everything about her stressed a confident, dominant intent.
Externally, Sovereign of the Seas was a super sized version of the 1982, Wartsila built Song of America. Both ships had the same graceful, dramatic poise and stance. And, like the earlier ship, Sovereign continued the idea of having all the passenger cabins in the forward part of the ship, while the public rooms were piled up aft like a layered cake.
Again, there was the vast, open pool deck set in a sun bowl, with two pools and a pair of bars. Above it all, the imperious Viking Crown lounge sat, high and proud, wrapped around the single funnel. The similarities between the two ships were immediately obvious; they still are to this day.
But, while the earlier ship had no single outstanding internal focal point, Sovereign of the Seas flaunted a spectacular, five storey high atrium lobby that separated the cabins from the public areas. Writ large in brass, steel, marble and vast, sweeping staircases, it featured the first pair of panoramic lifts ever put into a ship. This swaggering, still impressive piece of architecture was such a stunning success that it became the benchmark for nearly all new cruise ships to this day.
The cabins were another matter; small, modular and functional, there was little real difference in size between inside and outside rooms. In those days, Royal Caribbean’s motto was ‘Get Out There’; by which they meant, into the bars, lounges, shops and casino, rather than crouching in your cabin.
Later- and in another ironic echo of the SS Norway– a string of balcony cabins would be added along the ship’s upper decks, although there was no massive structural alteration. Indeed, the ship’s proud, impressive silhouette remains almost exactly the same today as it was when new; a tribute to a truly well thought out and executed design concept.
This vast, vivacious ship was so stunningly successful that she was followed by a pair of near identical sister ships from the same French yard; the 1991 built Monarch of the Seas, and 1992’s Majesty of the Seas. All three are still sailing to this day.
Sovereign of the Seas sailed the prestige, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise itineraries out of Miami for many years, but as newer ships came on line in the mid 1990’s the great ship was relegated to the three and four night Bahamas cruise runs, mainly from Port Canaveral.
She was periodically updated and always well maintained; like her sisters, she had a rock climbing wall grafted onto the rear of the funnel. Royal Caribbean also added a branch of Johnny Rockets, the popular retro Fifties style diner. And, of course, the new balcony cabins gave her some very profitable real estate to offer prospective passengers.
Still, it was not enough. The tsunami of new buildings that her success had triggered, ultimately threatened to swamp her. Again, like the Norway before her, the Sovereign found herself unable to compete with all the bells and whistles that a whole new generation of ships were flaunting. Only so much could be shoehorned into a hull whose parameters had been decided back in 1985.
Renamed Sovereign, the still magnificent ship was transferred to Pullmantur, the Spanish satellite of Royal Caribbean, and sent to a new home in Europe. The Spanish operator offered mass market cruises to a mainly Spanish clientele, and still does to this day.
Now sporting a beautiful, dark blue hull (yet another apt Norway echo), the Sovereign sails on seven night Western Mediterranean cruises for most of the year, and allows passengers to embark in either Barcelona, or at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. Each autumn, she crosses the Atlantic to South America to operate a series of dazzling, three and four night party cruises from Santos to Rio De Janeiro. In spring, she re- crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona, to resume her Mediterranean season.
Just prior to her current anniversary, the Sovereign received an extensive dry docking that refreshed many of her public areas, as well as performing both essential and routine maintenance. Thus re-powdered, the proud old dame crossed the Atlantic, en route to South America.
I sailed on her back in March for a long weekend, and simply fell head over heels back in love with her. With her all inclusive prices and great range of children’s facilities, the ship is a big hit with her predominantly Spanish passengers. And, while the names of the public rooms have been changed, Royal Caribbean sentimentalists will find much on board that is instantly familiar.
The former Schooner Bar is almost completely as it was, ditto the Viking Crown lounge. The atrium seems frozen in a time warp, too, and is all the more appealing for it. The long, outdoor promenade decks, still lined with their original, plastic slatted, sit up and beg chairs, are the best kept secrets on the ship.
Thirty years on, it is nothing short of magical to see this gracious, still graceful ship sailing calmly on her way. Even after all these years, the Sovereign is still quietly doing what she was always built to do; providing thrilling, exhilarating seaborne travel to a whole new generation of fans.
This week gives me a golden opportunity to sail on a ship that I’ve been keen to see for years, when Saga Cruises’ stately Saga Sapphire leaves Dover for a short, five day Bank Holiday jaunt over to the continent. While it’s a relatively short cruise, there should be time enough to get under the skin of this 37.000 ton ship and see what she’s really all about.
Both her history and her design are worthy of note. Ordered for Hapag- Lloyd cruises as the Europa, the ship was delivered to her new owners in December 1981, and she entered commercial service the following year. By the standards of her time, Europa was a stylishly streamlined, almost space age ship, with a sharp prow, a single funnel, and ship wide vertical division with the cabins located forward, and most public rooms stacked aft, abutted by a series of tiered terrace decks. The resulting ship was a staunch, graceful vessel that would stand the test of time.
Those cabins were large by contemporary standards, though they lacked the balconies that were not then in vogue. Europa soon gained a reputation as the most exclusive and luxurious cruise ship in the world, and her German passengers loved her. A voyage aboard her represented one of the most highly sought after travel experiences available anywhere
By 1999, with a newer, even more lustrous Europa on the horizon, the eighteen year old ship was sold to the Asian based Star Cruises, under the name of Superstar Europe. She operated short, port intensive Far East cruises for them, being renamed as Superstar Aries by 2000.
Once more surplus to requirements, the ship passed in 2004 to the Spanish operator, Pullmantur, who restyled her as their Holiday Dream. By 2008 she had moved again, becoming the start up ship for the French accented Croisieres De France, under the name of Bleu De France. At this time, a comprehensive $30 million modernisation brought her up to modern standards, though of course she was not as large or as amenity laden as many of the new ships then entering service.
Finally, the ship was purchased by the UK based Saga Cruises in 2011, and sent for a comprehensive refit that saw the addition of several more balcony cabins, the refurbishment of much of the ship’s interior, and a complete overhaul of the on board machinery. She re-entered service in April of 2012 as the Saga Sapphire and, after a shaky maiden voyage in April of 2012, she soon settled down into popular, acclaimed service.
Today, the Saga Sapphire caters to around 720 passengers. She offers intimate, luxurious, largely inclusive travel to the over fifties UK passenger, with an emphasis on fine food and flawless, bespoke service in surroundings of casual elegance.
As with any grand dame of a certain age, the ship has some delightfully quirky elements that I’m looking forward to seeing. She’s far more sedate than stuffy, with an airy, relaxing vibe carried through on a ship that is just ‘the right size’ for a more refined, traditional style of cruising, a product where fine gastronomy prevails over fabulous gimmicks; and calm style rises above a sense of calculated frenzy.
I’ll be putting together a series of blogs on this hardy, still highly styled perennial while I’m out there, and there will also be ample photographs to come as well. You’re more than welcome to ‘step aboard’ with me as we share what I believe will be a totally agreeable voyage of exploration.
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.
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