CARNIVAL TRIUMPH BEGINS NEW ORLEANS SAILINGS

CARNIVAL TRIUMPH
Carnival Triumph

Carnival Triumph has arrived in New Orleans to embark on a new series of cruises to the Western Caribbean.

The 101,509 ton Carnival Triumph replaces the earlier Carnival Elation. With a passenger capacity of some 3,140 passengers, she represents something like a thirty four per cent capacity increase on the line’s short, four and five day cruising programme out of the Louisiana port.

Slated to sail from New Orleans through until 2018 at least, these Carnival Triumph itineraries will complement the seven day sailings from the same port of the larger Carnival Dream. Between them, the two ships are expected to embark a staggering 450,000 passengers per annum through the recently renovated Erato Street passenger ship terminal.

Typically, the four night sailings will make for the Mexican stalwart port of Cozumel, while five night itineraries will also add Costa Maya to the mix

Built in 1999 as the second of the original Destiny class- the first generation of mega cruise ships to exceed the 100,000 ton mark- the Carnival Triumph achieved notoriety in 2013 when she was left adrift for some hours after a fire in her engine room. There were no casualties in the incident, and the ship was subsequently repaired and returned to cruise service.

The arrival of such a large ship in New Orleans for at least two years can be seen as a serious statement of intent on the part of Carnival. While many eyes are on China and the Far East, the company is quietly taking care of business at home by bolstering it’s key departure points in the year round, hugely lucrative Caribbean trade.

Stay tuned for updates.

CUBA CRUISING IN CONTEXT

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Cuba cruises are on the horizon for more players than ever from 2017

Without doubt, one of the defining memories of Barack Obama’s second term as US President will be the sudden, long overdue rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba. All of a sudden, more than five decades of mutual fear, suspicion and name calling seem to have collapsed as completely as the Berlin Wall of old.

Now the cruise lines are looking to get back into Cuba, and how. And, with relations between the two countries warming almost daily, it is only a matter of time before Cuba becomes as subsumed by contemporary cruise culture as every other island in the Caribbean. My advice? Get out there now.

As things stand, these are your current cruising options if you are a European citizen, intent on seeing Cuba.

MSC Cruises will operate the 60,000 ton MSC Opera on year round Cuba cruises, centered on Havana, for the 2017 season. Each voyage features at least a two night stay in the Cuban capital.

Come the winter, sister ship MSC Armonia will also offer a similar season of seven night cruises, again centered on Havana, before the ship returns to Europe in the spring.

Both of these ships offer a large number of balcony cabins, great entertainment, as well as multiple dining venues. But if they seem a little big, other options are available.

For the last several seasons, Celestyal Cruises have operated a winter programme aboard the intimate, 24,000 ton Celestyal Cristal. Originally sailing under charter to a Canadian outfit called Cuba Cruises, Celestyal saw massive potential in being the sole operator.

Thus, they bought out the Cuba Cruises stake, and continue to use Celestyal Cristal on the seven night runs. Again centered on Havana, the size of the ship allows the company to offer the most destination intensive programme of all Cuba bound ships.

While relatively intimate, a recent refurbishment updated the Celestyal Cristal with refreshed public rooms, and a number of additional balcony cabins. And, as of next year, the ship will be sailing Cuba itineraries year round, instead of returning to Europe each spring.

Carnival has also introduced fortnightly sailings on it’s new Fathom offshoot. Making a week long circuit of Cuba from Miami, the 4o,000 ton ship offers what is claimed to be a truly immersive local experience. Passengers can opt to learn how to make cocktails at bars ashore, or engage with local artists, musicians and families, in an environment intended to benefit both the passengers and the local community. It will be interesting to see just how this new genre of ‘eco-cruising’ ultimately plays out.

Perhaps most evocative of all, Star Clippers will offer a series of sailings between Havana and Cienfuegos over winter 2016-17 on the 3,000 ton, four masted Star Flyer. Carrying just 170 passengers, this awesome seagoing cathedral offers a series of seven, ten and eleven night sailings that-like many of the other cruises listed here- also call in at Grand Cayman. And, while the idea of a Cuba cruise is exotic enough in it’s own right, the lure of seeing this sultry island under full sail is something else again.

EMPRESS OF THE SEAS
The Empress of the Seas

What else might be coming? I would put money on it being only a matter of months before Royal Caribbean enters the ring. The line has just resumed sailings with the 42,000 ton Empress of the Seas from Miami, after that ship had spent the previous eight seasons in Europe sailing for the Spanish operator, Pullmantur.

Currently, the ship is slated to sail three, four and five day sailings to the Bahamas and Caribbean from Miami, but she is also the perfect size for a resumption of Cuba cruising. All of the ‘big’ companies in the cruise industry- notably Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean- are currently hampered in the Cuban market by the sheer size of most of their vessels. The long neglected infrastructure of Cuba is simply incapable of handling such giant ships.

Hence the sudden return of Empress of the Seas, a ship that operated successfully for many years on the New York to Bermuda run, where similar size limitations then applied. I would not be at all surprised to see this spiky little ship placed on a round trip, weekly service from Miami, with up to three full nights’ docked in Havana itself. If this does indeed materialise, I would expect it to be a year round service as well.

Invariably, Cuba will adept to accommodate the latest and largest of the all singing, all dancing, Vegas-at-Sea style resort ships. When that eventually happens, it is highly likely that Cuba will become as much a Caribbean staple circuit as Cozumel, Saint Thomas and Antigua.

Interesting times, for sure, Al always, stay tuned.

RETURN TO THE QUEEN- THE MARY ENCOUNTERED

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Triple stacked welcome from a Queen

The familiar sight of those three great funnels welcomed me back to the port of Long Beach. Proud, perfectly spaced and gleaming in the fresh spring sunshine, the towering trio of red and black smokestacks that still crown the Queen Mary provided the perfect welcome aperitif to a fun, seven day cruise down to the hot spots of Mexico and back.

Sadly, of course, it would not be aboard her.

Looming across the pier, and looking equally as resplendent in her own way, the Carnival Miracle was waiting for me. Even larger than the venerable, petrified Cunarder that she was docked adjacent to, the 2004 built Carnival Miracle would prove to be a fun fuelled travelling companion for the week.

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Seldom seen starboard side of the Queen Mary, shot from the Carnival Miracle

But, in those first minutes, my eyes were drawn inevitably back to her. Queen Mary, a legend the world over. A Blue Riband holder, war heroine, and a genuine, larger than life celebrity that still exists today as a hotel and convention centre, her wooden decks bleached by decades of static exposure to the year round California sun. Still, it is impossible to remain unmoved by that still majestic presence.

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Queen Mary, seen from Deck Three on the Carnival Miracle

I gazed at the raised wedding gazebo tacked on to her stern, and could not help but smile as I imagined the shade of Commodore Edgar Britten scowling with disapproval at the thing; a necessary concession to keeping this great institution afloat financially these days. The good commodore, more interested in prudent seamanship than pretty settings, would probably have had it thrown overboard at once.

Seeing the great lady had special poignancy for me this year. It is eighty years since her famous maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, when the hopes and expectations of an entire empire trailed along in her wake as she thundered to the west.

The Queen Mary had first set sail on a sunny May day in 1936, almost four hundred years to the day after another famous English queen- Anne Boleyn- lost her head on Tower Green.

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Queen Mary’s original port of registry- Liverpool- still adorns her stern

I couldn’t help but wonder what the feisty, free spirited Anne would have made of this doughty new British monarch of the seas. With her continental upbringing and lifelong taste for all things French, perhaps she would have been more naturally drawn to the Normandie.

Of course, the Normandie lived fast and died young. Much like Anne herself. And- like Anne- that same brief, spectacular reign guaranteed her a kind of immortality. A kind of exquisite coincidence.

But the Queen Mary, even at the age of eighty, is still very real indeed. And very much alive. Her stance is every bit as majestic and commanding as it was back in 1936. Her sheer stage presence and charisma pulled me in as if to some incredible black hole. Stage struck was no understatement for how I felt. My adrenaline was flowing like tap water right then..

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The changing shapes of ships. The 1936 built Queen Mary, seen from the Carnival Miracle of 2004

Even once aboard the Carnival Miracle, I found my eyes drawn almost helplessly back to her. The hull is in desperate need of painting, and a glimpse of her starboard (seaward) side indicated that it is in even worse shape, if anything.

Eighty years on, I wonder what Queen Mary feels as she sits shackled to her berth, while a conga line of vast, sassy cruise ships come and go, loaded with passengers looking for a sunny, fun vacation. Does she instinctively, almost imperceptibly heel at her ropes, as if impatient to follow them, back out into her natural element? The thought simply would not leave me alone.

I kind of hope not, in a sense. For, if any ship has done more than her duty, both in peace and war, it is surely the Queen Mary. Today, people still thrill at the sight of that massive, majestic presence, just as they did back in 1936.

She shortened the course of the most destructive conflict in human history by at least six months. And, with the Queen Elizabeth, she formed the most successful two ship transatlantic service in ocean liner history.

Ordinarily, even the grandest liners wither and die. But this is no ordinary liner. She is a piece of world history, an emotional lightning rod every bit as potent as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, or the Great Wall of China. She connects us instantly to a past that, for most, is vicarious at best.

But step back aboard those decks- the same ones trodden by Churchill, Noel Coward, Walt Disney and a whole, gilded cast of glittering extras- and you arrive in actual, living history. Tethered as she is, the Queen Mary still takes passengers back on a voyage in time and space. She is a portal to another era, and a damned fine, grand one at that.

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The Dome and the Dame

It was nice to see you, old girl. And, come the end of May, as I set foot aboard another glittering new cruise ship, I will happily lift a glass to toast your memory.

I am pretty sure that I won’t be on my own in doing this. Thank you for everything.

CARNIVAL MIRACLE- AN OVERVIEW

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Carnival Miracle at sea, looking along the starboard side from Deck Nine

I recently returned from a week long cruise out of Long Beach down to the Mexican Riviera aboard the Carnival Miracle. Quite apart from the fact that it was a fun fuelled, seven day fiesta to a trio of feisty Mexican highlights, more importantly it gave me the chance to get an up close and personal look at a class of ship I’ve been interested in for quite some time.

Carnival Miracle is one of four so called Spirit class ships. Built in Finland, the 88,500 ton ship entered service in April of 2004.

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Horatio’s buffet, Carnival Miracle

Size wise, she falls neatly into the middle between the 70,000 ton Fantasy class vessels and their huge, 100,000 ton Destiny class siblings. The result is a ship that encapsulates a kind of ‘big ship’ feel with a slew of smaller, more intimate areas on board.

Like the earlier Carnival ships, the Carnival Miracle has interiors designed by the legendary Joe Farcus, very much the Andy Warhol of cruise ship interior design. Like all of his ships, she has a specific ‘theme’; in this case that of legendary fictional characters. This is carried through most of the ship’s interior decor.

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Metropolis lobby, looking upward from Deck Two

Here, enshrined amid acres of glass, brass, mirrors and neon lighting, you will find a disco featuring a twelve foot high replica of Frankenstein’s monster, complete with flashing overhead ‘electric bolts’. Further forward, a quartet of glass lifts swoop silently up and down the ten story high Metropolis atrium.

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Bacchus restaurant

The main dining room is called Bacchus, and represents a two story high decorative tribute to the mythical god of wine. Here, lighting is concealed behind chains of grapevines the adorn the walls and ceiling, and fanciful, Da Vinci-esque frescoes line the walls at random intervals.

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Whimsical Farcus artistry in the Mad Hatter’s lounge

It goes on and on and, like all of the Farcus designs, it represents a wonderful, fanciful brew of the intricate and the bizarre. Mad Hatter’s tea party is a forward facing show lounge that features full size wall depictions of various characters from the Lewis Carroll story, including the Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and, of course, Alice herself. Somehow, it would all still only work on a Carnival ship.

And yet… for all that, there are traces of a newer, far more modern look in some of the Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements that were added during a recent dry docking. Many of these come as something of a complete contrast to all that mesmerising Farcus fun stuff.

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Alchemy Bar

At the end of the main run of public rooms on Deck Two, the new Alchemy Bar is cool, spare, and almost totally bereft of real gimmickry. In some ways, it seems like a kind of stark, almost spartan contrast to all the glitz and glitter of the lobby that precedes it. Ditto the Red Frog pub, with it’s faux Caribbean palms trees, beer barrels and signature real ale.

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Red Frog pub

These facilities are, of course, familiar standouts on the more recent Dream class trio, and will be further showcased aboard the imminent new Carnival Vista. But this combination of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ aboard the Carnival Miracle makes her something of a floating anachronism; a warm,whimsical look at a colourful, fondly remembered past and yet, at the same time, a window into a vibrant, new, future Carnival.

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Gotham Lounge, Deck Three

Passenger flow through this vessel is the best that I have ever seen on any Carnival ship. She absorbs something like 2,100 passengers quite beautifully- far better than the more recent, larger ships in many ways. The only exceptions to this are when the dinner line for second sitting gets mingled helplessly in with those posing for portraits at no less than five- and I do mean five- photographer’s hot spots set up along the same side of the ship. It’s maddening, and completely needless.

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Lobby Bar at the very heart of the Carnival Miracle

Most of the bars, as well as the huge casino and the lounges, flow one into another from forward on Two Deck, to the entrance to the Bacchus dining room, right aft on the same deck. There are a handful of public rooms up on Three Deck but, in the main, Two Deck is the true heart of the ship, and there is literally something for everyone along it.

Live entertainment suffuses this vast, sassy ship from bow to stern, and includes some excellent live bands, as well as a pair of really deft acoustic guitarists. What is sadly missing is any kind of live jazz or big band; an anomaly that Carnival is supposedly looking at changing in the near future.

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Nick and Nora’s Steakhouse, located in the funnel

Two highlights from my trip; firstly, Nick and Nora’s Steakhouse has possibly the most spectacular setting of any such venue on any ship. Achieved via a spiral glass staircase from inside the buffet, it sits nestled in the forward base of the vast funnel, and offers stunning views out over the ocean. Food and service is sublime from start to finish and, at a supplement of just $35 per person, it is both a visual and actual feast that represents far and away the best buy on the ship.

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Part of the aft facing Serenity

Second is the aft facing Serenity zone; an adults only, 21 plus oasis sprinkled with hammocks, comfy circular pods and padded loungers, as well as comfy chairs, sofas, a pool, and a hot tub that overlooks the ship’s wake. On the face of it, it seems nothing unusual compared to similar, sometimes larger such zones on other Carnival ships.

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Serenity in the shade…..

But here, the location is perfect. Overlooking the stern, it is protected from most breezes, and it has a canopy shading the main seating area from the sun. With a nearby bar and buffet area, this trim, tidy little eyrie adds hugely to the pleasure of a cruise on this cool, comfortable ship.

Cabins run the gamut, from inside grades to decent sized suites with balconies. I had one of the Seven Deck balcony cabins. It boasted a good sized Queen bed that could convert to twins, a powerful shower in a bathroom that had good storage for toiletries, more than adequate wardrobe and drawer space for clothing, a nice sitting area and- most importantly for me- a tidy little teak lined balcony with a couple of chairs and a small table.

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Sunset from the balcony of my cabin #7170

That balcony proved to be a perfect little window box to watch some amazing sunsets (and one magnificent sunrise), as well as the perfect venue for some great, end of evening stargazing. Say what you will but, for my money, having a balcony cabin enhances the pleasure of a cruise no end.

So; there we go. Some of the highlights of the Carnival Miracle. If you really want to sail on this ship, my advice is to do it now, while you still can. Come 2018, she is slated fro transfer to the Chinese market, along with the larger Carnival Splendor.

Get out there while you can.

 

PULLMANTUR AND CDF TO ‘SHARE’ FLEETS

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Horizon will become part of an initial, four ship line up for the combined Pullmatur/Crosieres De France line up from this winter

In something of an inevitable retrenchment, the fleets of Spanish accented Pullmantur and it’s French cousin, Crosieres De France (CDF) will ‘share’ its existing tonnage, effective from coming this winter onward.

The move- a merger in everything but name- will give the two Royal Caribbean offshoots a combined, four ship fleet. This will rise to five ships when the current Majesty of the Seas joins the line up in 2018.

The transfer of Majesty of the Seas to Pullmantur was originally expected this year but, to the surprise of many, Royal Caribbean initially decided to retain the last of it’s three Sovereign class ships. For this new role, Majesty of the Seas is scheduled for a substantial refit, including the addition of a massive movie screen, new water slides, three new restaurants, and an expanded casino. Thi should be completed by May, after which the 74,000 ton ship is due to move to Port Canaveral to operate a series of three and four day Bahamas sailings.

Now, after sailing for Royal Caribbean through 2016 and 2017, Majesty of the Seas  will indeed be transferring to Pullmantur/CDF effective in 2018, there to rejoin her original sister ships, Sovereign and Monarch. Each of those two ships will undergo a $5,000,000 refurbishment before beginning their upcoming winter schedules.

Meanwhile, Spanish passengers will continue to be offered cruises on the 46,00 ton former Celebrity sister ships, Horizon and Zenith. These two ships operate as an all inclusive product and, over the next season, the CDF ships will also revert to being an all inclusive service. French passengers will also be offered the opportunity to sail on the three Sovereign  class vessels under the Pullmantur flag. Coincidentally, all three of these were built in the French shipyards of Saint Nazaire.

Interesting times over at the French and Spanish operators. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

 

CELESTYAL CRUISES PLANS EXPANSION

OCEAN COUNTESS
Ocean Countess was typical of the ‘old guard’ at Celestyal/Louis Cruises. Now, it looks as if considerably bigger new builds are on the way

Greek cruise operator, Celestyal Cruises, has announced some radical departures from the usual during the Seatrade conference currently taking place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

As previously alluded to in this blog, the company will begin a first of a kind ever winter cruise season in the Eastern Mediterranean over the winter of 2016-17. These cruises will be offered by the company’s current flagship, the 37,000 ton Celestyal Olympia, originally the 1982 built Song of America of Royal Caribbean International.

In another major move, Celestyal CEO Kyriakos Anastassiadis announced at Seatrade that the highly successful winter cruise programme around Cuba, currently served by the Celestyal Cristal, will become a year round operation with effect from 2018. As of yet, no ship name has been announced for this venture, but it is quite likely that the current Thomson Majesty’s charter to Thomson Cruises will end after 2017. Her subsequent return to Celestyal would allow the line to free up either her, or another ship, for a year round Cuba deployment.

But most significant of all is the news that the line is looking to order a pair of new builds- the first in the history of Celestyal. Carrying around 1,800 passengers each, they will be considerably bigger than the smaller ships that the line has always been known for. None the less, they will still be considerably smaller and more intimate than many of the modern mega ships now in service.

At present, the company is talking to different potential shipbuilders with a view to arranging building slots, and is also in the process of locking down finance for these new ships.

In the next few weeks, the fleet will be augmented by the entry into service of the 19,000 ton Celestyal Nefeli, on a new programme sailing out of Turkey. The ship is currently undergoing final upgradings and renovation at a dockyard in Piraeus. With her addition, Celestyal will offer a three ship deployment out of Piraeus to the Greek islands and Turkey for the 2016 season.

As always, stay tuned for updates.

THE SECOND MAURETANIA

MAURETANIA THE SECOND
Cunard’s second, magnificent Mauretania of 1939

Another vessel that often ‘falls through the cracks’ in terms of ocean liner recognition is the second Mauretania of 1939. Though she was actually slightly larger than her famous, speedy forebear of 1907, this second liner to wear the hallowed name looms nowhere near as large in the public memory as the original namesake.

Built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead, she entered commercial service in June of 1939, mere weeks before the outbreak of a second global conflict. At a little over 35,000 tons, she was a relatively small ship when stacked up against the likes of the Queen Mary, the Normandie, and the Bremen. Almost from the start, there seemed to be a notion that existed that this second Mauretania was not at the forefront of the transatlantic lists. As things stand, that in itself is something of a shame.

In fact, Mauretania was in many ways a template for the impending, much larger Queen Elizabeth. Her raked bow, curved forward superstructure and pair of stout, stand alone funnels were aesthetic stand out points that would be repeated on the new Cunard liner in 1940. With a speed of around 23 knots, she was never intended to be a headline grabbing record breaker. All the same, I have always felt that this quiet little ground breaker deserves more than the casual glance that historians often throw her.

Several things combined to overshadow her from day one. Mauretania was always in the shadow of the Queen Mary- sometimes quite literally- and the spotlight of world attention was already turning to the new Queen Elizabeth. Her maiden voyage came right on the cusp of the most ghastly global conflict in history. Caught between these points, it is little wonder that the doughty liner often gets forgotten.

And yet, in terms of accommodation, service and facilities, the Mauretania was right up there with the Queens. Her war record, while not as widely trumpeted, was every bit as heroic and important, and her post war restoration to a belated, regular civilian service was every bit as thorough and painstaking.

Converted for full time cruising in 1962 and painted in ‘Caronia green’, the old girl was by then slipping fast. Yet she seemed to disappear with indecent haste; not for her the drawn out eulogies that garlanded the two great Queens in their respective farewell seasons. The Mauretania had started life quietly, and she ended it in the same way. There was something almost desperate and shameful about the entire business.

But for many millions of passengers, and for the thousands of troops that she conveyed safely from peace to war and then home again, the Mauretania looms larger than life; a kind of emotional lightning rod that marks out one of the key times in their lives.

In that respect, this dignified, beautiful ship has left behind a legacy and a legend that is truly imperishable. She was every bit as much a proud, reliable Cunarder as her famous namesake of 1907, and she deserves a little bit more from posterity than just the occasional nod.