Celestyal Cruises, the company that leads the way in small ship, destination intensive itineraries around the Greek Isles and Turkey, is going all inclusive for the 2017 season.
The company currently operates a trio of vessels- Celestyal Olympia, Celestyal Cristal and Celestayl Nefeli- on a series of three, four and seven night cruises from March through to November, sailing from ports around the Athens area, to such storied destinations as Mykonos, Rhodes, Istanbul and Kusadasi, among others.
As of 2017, these cruises will now be offered as an all inclusive package, with all drinks and shore excursions ashore bundled into the lead in fare as standard, creating great value packages that should appeal to family groups and singles of all ages.
For instance, a three night cruise in April from the port of Lavrion, some sixty kilometres south of Athens, visits Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Heraklion and Santorini. Fares for this sailing start from 422 euros per person, based on two people sharing an inside cabin, and include all the perks of the new all inclusive fares.
Such breaks are perfect for groups of friends looking to travel together, as well as for first time cruisers, and those looking for a quick, cost effective post winter break that does not really eat into valuable holiday time allowances too much.
I’ll be on the Celestyal Olympia later this month, so you can expect a full review of the experience, plus photos, on my return.
By 1922, the White Star Line had intended to operate a crack, three ship express service on the Atlantic with three almost identical, giant sister ships- the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic.
Fate took out the second of these ships in the most resounding maritime tragedy in the years leading up to the Great War. The bullets that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Empress Sophie in Sarajevo in June, 1914 found an echo in the mine explosion that sent the incomplete Britannic- serving as a makeshift hospital ship- to the bottom of the Aegean in 1916. By the time that peace returned to a shattered, exhausted Europe in 1918, only the Olympic remained of that once grand, unrealised dream.
Olympic at the time was described as ‘our one Ewe lamb’ by Harold Sanderson, managing director of White Star. But even as he spoke, Sanderson had already acquired a couple of surrendered German replacements for the two lost White Star juggernauts. The three ship service remained the ultimate dream for White Star and Cunard alike.
The reasons for a three ship service lay in simple scheduling and economics. White Star’s plans were for one ship to leave Southampton each Wednesday, bound for New York. A second ship would leave New York on Saturday, bound for Europe. The third ship would always be in mid Atlantic, heading in one direction or another.
In this way, the company could guarantee a weekly service, offering six day crossings on a year round basis. Cunard would also offer a similar service post war, but with different sailing dates.
The Olympic was soon joined on the service by the Majestic, the third of Albert Ballin’s intended trio of world beaters for the Hamburg America Line. She was the largest ship in the world and, crucially for White Star, her speed was roughly compatible to that of the Olympic. Her new owners called her ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’ when she first set sail for them in May of 1922.
For their third vessel, White Star acquired a 35,000 ton liner, originally intended to be called Columbus. She remained incomplete in Germany during the war. Under White Star’s stewardship, the unfinished hulk was completed as Homeric She came round to Southampton in early 1922 to join the Olympic and Majestic on the platinum chip run to New York.
By far the smallest and slowest of the three, the Homeric would have seemed an odd choice at any normal time. But those post war years were not normal times. New tonnage was in pitifully short supply, and many shipyards needed to be reconfigured from war duties back to peacetime production. Like every other shipping line in those first, lean years, White Star had to make do with what it could get.
Her maiden voyage actually took place in February of 1922, from Southampton to New York. In terms of service, style and accommodation, the Homeric was every bit as plush, elegant and prestigious as her two larger siblings. Once settled down into regular passenger service, she proved popular enough for sure. With a passenger capacity of 2,145 across first (750), second (545) and third (850) plus a crew of 780, the Homeric provided twenties travellers with a safe, highly styled crossing of the Atlantic.
But she was a flawed, limping greyhound, capable of only an average speed of eighteen knots, against the routine twenty three knot crossings of her siblings. As a result of this imbalance, the White Star express schedule began slowly losing ground to Cunard. Fine ship that she was, the Homeric was simply not up to the rigours of the year round express service between Europe and New York. By 1927, she was already being sent on cheaper, off season cruises to the Mediterranean.
By 1929, the advent of the Great Depression had combined with the arrival of speedy, stylish new French and German liners to put the White Star Line on life support. By 1932, the ageing Homeric had been relegated to full time cruise duties, a role terminated by the shotgun wedding of Cunard and White Star in May of 1934.
With the Queen Mary already looming large in the rear view mirror, the new Cunard White Star Line began shedding surplus tonnage like some Stalinist purge. The end for the Homeric was officially announced in August of 1935. By 1938, she had been completely scrapped.
The Homeric never really had much of a chance. Slower than her fleet mates, she was soon outpaced in both the style and glamour stakes by newer, flashier foreign rivals. Even within the White Star ranks, she was something of a ‘poor sister’ when compared to the more prestigious Olympic and Majestic.
Still, there is something truly sad, almost indecent, about the way in which she seems to have almost vanished from the pages of history. Of itself, this small article is an attempt to redress part of that balance.
That was exactly what I first thought to myself when I accepted the chance to take this short cruise aboard Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ casually elegant Black Watch the other week.
Five days? Really? Sailing from Edinburgh’s port of Rosyth, the Black Watch would take us deep into Aurlandsfjord, right up to the pretty local hamlet of Flam. Leaving there, we would shape course for Olden, and a full days’ cruising and sightseeing, before turning tail and heading back to Rosyth,
So, effectively, we had a brace of days in Norway proper, bracketed by two full sea days heading out to Norway and back. Seems hectic- that was to be expected. But value? Time well spent?
Well, yes. Taken collectively, the twelve thousand miles of jagged, indented coastline called Norway is, quite simply, the most stunning natural theme park on the planet. Whether viewed through a veil of mist or the shimmering prisms of a rainbow, the views are never anything less than jaw dropping. Still…
I was amazed at just how much I managed to pack in. Open jawed, I gazed like a star struck kid at sunrise in Flam, as the silent, seemingly deserted Black Watch ghosted across a surface as still as a mirror. Gorgeous views from the hills looking down over Aurlandsfjord, and a long, leisurely walk along the rolling, green carpeted landscape of Flam itself. Meandering past ominous waterfalls and along gently rolling meadows, ablaze with late summer fauna and finery, was hugely cathartic, to put it mildly.
There was a wonderful dinner out on deck, feasting on Fillet Steak as we threaded our way between rows of rolling , slowly darkening mountain ranges, the sky above us full of cotton candy clouds as the slowly descending sun came down like a stunning theatre curtain. The silence was almost deafening.
In chocolate box pretty Olden, I hiked right up to the face of Briskdal Glacier, it’s chilly, pristine heart still defiant in the face of twenty seven degrees of Nordic sunshine. I huffed and wheezed up asphalt trails and across bridges soaked by the freezing spray of relentless, plunging waterfalls, to finally gaze in awe at the icy facade of the glacier, the face tinted forty different shades of light blue as the sun glanced across that ageless landscape. No fresh air ever tasted sweeter or finer.
Back on board, there was time to sag with pathetic gratitude into an upper deck lounger, sipping on Cape Cods as the Black Watch swung skittishly at anchor amid the fairy tale finery of the fjord itself. Water black as coal, where the outlines of buildings and waterfalls were mirrored to almost cosmetic perfection. Like being awake in a particularly vivid dream, Norway will bewitch you on even a short trip.
Heading out- and coming back- there was ample time to get re-acquainted with one of the ‘greats’ of the cruise industry. Stately and assured, the Black Watch surged back and forth across northern seas while I dived into a long overdue re-read of Wolf Hall. A task often interrupted by random chocolate tastings in the Bookmark Cafe, and the odd glass of wine in the Courtyard.
There was an actual real, honest to goodness cinema on board, where you could watch up to the date feature films, and no shortage of live music and entertainment, too. There was time to be solitary, and reflect on the wonders of Norway, and time to be sociable over some remarkable food, too. In fact, it seemed endless, almost as if we were suspended in time and space, rather than pushing purposefully on our course back to Rosyth.
Five days. Five nights. Great fun. Heart stopping sights and unforgettable, mellow sunsets. A soul stirring little sweep across the briny to a magical land of half realised myths, where trolls still lurk in the stony silence of the hills, and witches still flit by moonlight across waters darker than a pirate’s heart.
One of just a pair of more or less identical sisters operated by the boutique, Azamara Club Cruises, the Azamara Quest was a very welcome sight on a fine, sunny day in Olden recently. Bathed in late summer sunshine as she sat tethered to her quay, the Azamara Quest looked sublime. She is a ship that has raised the bar on small ship, luxury sailing to a new level of immersion and indulgence.
Why so? Azamara offers more overnight stays in ports around the globe than perhaps any other cruise line in the business. Instead of limbering out of, say, Barcelona, Copenhagen or Saigon in the early evening, the ships often stay in port for at least one night, and possibly two. This allows their guests to see some of the most incredible cities in the world in an entirely new light, and enjoy the exotic, markedly different nightlife on offer.
On top of that, the ships are famously well fed and served. It is nothing short of amazing that these intimate, 30,000 ton siblings offer no less than six open seating, high quality dining and snacking venues each, offering a smorgasbord of tasty snacks and gourmet cuisine that is almost literally a world journey in itself. And, best of all for many, the dress code is smart casual, which means that you can leave the tuxedos and tiaras at home, should you so desire.
What you will not find on board is a surfeit of over the top entertainments, dalliances and distractions. If what you are looking for is rock climbing walls, dodgem cars and multi storey discos, then these are not the ships for you.
Instead, you can anticipate cool jazz and soft, piano accented sailaways from the kind of idyllic, intimate, yacht studded havens that the larger ships have to leave in their wakes. Expect a total absence of crowds on board, too. With just 686 guests looked after by a crew of 408, the Azamara Quest and her sibling, Azamara Journey, are two of the most spacious and stress free ships wandering the globe today.
Tasteful exterior spaces makes outdoor living an art form on these ships. A secluded, forward facing spa features an expansive, open air terrace, complete with hot tub, that offers sensational views over the bow. And the centrally located sun deck features a pool with twin Jacuzzis, plus ample sunning spaces all around, to make for some wickedly indulgent ‘me’ time when the mood takes you as well.
The sister ships boast every kind of accommodation, from practical, perfectly primped inside staterooms, to sublime balcony suites that offer memorable vistas for viewing dazzling clusters of stars in mid ocean, or even a delicate South Pacific sunrise.
Beautifully thought through, with exquisite cuisine and a series of world spanning, imaginatively executed itineraries each season, the Azamara brand is most definitely an option worth exploring. And after all, no one said adventure has to be hard work.
Regular followers of this blog will know that I am recently back from five days’ cruising aboard the wonderful Black Watch, fondly remembered by many as the legendary Royal Viking Star.
Five days is not long, but it is long enough to re-evaluate a ship that I last sailed on back in 2004. What I discovered on board was a sublime, well packaged cruise experience that does exactly what it promises. No hype or hyperbole.
This list is by no means all encompassing or exhaustive; Black Watch is a lady brimming with both quirky and endearing delights. She has a poise, married to a sense of enduring authenticity, that give her the genuine stamp of ocean going maritime royalty.
So- without any further ado- here are my ‘Top Five’ great experiences about sailing aboard the Black Watch
THE DECK SPACE
Originally built for high quality, low capacity world wide cruise itineraries, the ship is generously swathed in broad, expansive acres of sun washed teak decking, sprinkled with really comfortable furniture, that make her a delight to relax aboard. Outdoor pools and Jacuzzis, together with a pair of outdoor bars and an upper deck tennis court, makes both relaxation and gentle exercise a true joy on sea days.
There is a full, wrap around promenade deck, and no shortage of artfully stepped terraces overlooking the stern. that are a treat to experience at any hour of the day or night.These swathes of outdoor real estate helps make the Black Watch feel larger than she actually is.
Time and again, Fred. Olsen’s warm and friendly Filipino staff win plaudits from new and returning passengers alike. And no wonder.
Many have been with the company for several years, and their hospitality skills are as finely tuned as a Swiss watch. Everything is done with a smile; nothing seems to be too much trouble. No mean feat, considering the long hours that they work.
These people are, quite literally, the heart and soul of the Black Watch. They give the ship an aura of cosseted ease, and a level of attentiveness that works like some kind of magical healing balm. Collectively, they cannot be praised enough for their dedication and attitude to their guests. Truly lovely people.
Despite the name, this beautiful room is actually sited indoors, just across the corridor from the centrally sited Braemar Lounge, with its floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea.
Because of this proximity, The Courtyard is flooded with natural light at most hours of the day. With a faux stone floor sprinkled with small tables and rattan chairs, the room has a very strong passing resemblance to the Veranda Cafe aboard a rather famous, not to mention unfortunate, White Star liner of a certain vintage.
With beautifully primped greenery and a slate faced bar, this elegant, airy room is a perfect ante chamber to the adjacent Orchid Room buffet. With plenty of space between tables, it never feels crowded. The Courtyard works just as well as a venue for a semi formal afternoon tea, when the tables are dressed with white tablecloths, or as somewhere to linger over a glass of wine at any time of the day. And the beautifully styled tunes performed by the Rosario Strings trio really do evoke that ‘Palm Court’ feel to cosmetic perfection.
New to Fred. Olsen, this is a very nice introduction as an evening alternative to the main dining room. At an extra tariff charge of £20 per guest, the sheer quality of the food and service would beat many land based establishments for both style and price.
Located outside, aft on deck six, The Terrace offers a la carte classics in a matchless setting. Feasting on Fillet Steak, asparagus and hand made chips while sailing through a sun draped Norwegian fjord in early evening takes some beating, for sure. That steak itself was so perfectly done that it almost fell apart at the touch of a knife.
The dessert I chose- chocolate cup with berries- was worth going for on its own. Pared with some exquisite wines and finished with a dreamy Cappuccino, the food served up in The Grill constituted, quite simply, the best meal that I have eaten on any cruise ship this year. Not simply a restaurant, but an open air theatre too, The Grill really raises the bar on the already fine dining offered right throughout this ship.
THE BOOKMARK CAFE
A wonderful, window lined indoor space that is one part library, one part sweet shop, Bookmark Cafe is irresistible to anyone with even a remotely sweet tooth. With rank upon rank of tempting, chocolate based treats-Chocolate Truffles, anyone?- on sale for around 65p each, not to mention an entire raft of reasonably priced, exotic speciality coffees to complement them, this room is a real hazard to activity of any kind.
In hues of ruby read, full of deep, comfy chairs and tables, and abutted by one of the most elegant libraries afloat, Bookmark Cafe oozes style, space and sheer temptation that few will be able to resist. And now available on all four ships in the Fred. Olsen fleet, Bookmark Cafe adds something fresh and compelling to the already considerable allure of this most stately of ships.
So- there we have it. Black Watch. Primped, proud and freshly powdered. Don’t take my word for it- go see for yourself.
In her first full year of service for CMV, the company’s new flagship, Columbus, will make a full world cruise in 2018.
The spectacular, 121 day odyssey will sail round trip from Tilbury on January 5th, 2018. Leaving home waters, the Columbus – a ship that many will remember as the popular Ocean Village– will visit some forty ports of call on four different continents.
Among the more exotic highlights en route will be such destinations as Tahiti, Hong Kong, Auckland, Shanghai, and Sydney. She will cross three oceans, as well making transits of both the Panama and Suez canals during the course of the adventure.
Fares for the full voyage start at £8, 275 per person- around £68 per day- for all bookings made before November 30th. Another big plus point for this ship is the availability of some 150 single cabins, priced at a supplement of just 25% on the equivalent twin grade fare.
The idea of using Columbus on the 2018 world cruise follows healthy bookings for the line’s inaugural world voyage, due to be operated by Magellan, in January of 2017. In contrast to the pioneering Magellan, Columbus carries roughly the same number of passengers, but she is something like 18,000 tons larger.
That extra space translates into more space per passenger, several more dining options, a large number of balcony cabins and suites, and a much larger entertainment handle on the newer ship. If bookings keep on looking as brisk as current trends suggest, it might be entirely possible that CMV might well consider offering a world cruise each year.
I’m currently in the last stages of packing for the next voyage in this year’s series of adventures. In this case, it’s a short, five night cruise from Scotland to Norway and back aboard Fred. Olsen Cruise Line’s fabled Black Watch.
This year, the company introduced a range of these short, five night cruises for the first time, sailing from northern ports such as Newcastle’s Port of Tyne and Rosyth, the cruise port for Edinburgh. It is from this latter port that I’ll be embarking on the former Royal Viking Line veteran to three of the loveliest fjords on the cusp of western Norway.
Bracketed by a brace of sea days sailing to and from Norway, the Black Watch will make calls at Flam, Olden and Geiranger, showcasing some of Norway’s platinum chip scenery against the backdrop of the last days of summer. An itinerary that combines the timeless pleasure of life aboard one of the true aristocrats of the cruise industry with one of the most amazing scenic smorgasbords on the planet, at a time sensitive pace, and a at a price that won’t break the bank, either.
En route, I’ll be checking out Fred. Olsen’s legendary cuisine, including the new outdoor dining concept at The Grill, an extra tariff establishment that has been getting rave revues. I’ll also be sampling the extra price, premium afternoon tea, a white gloved extravaganza served up in the lofty heights of the Observation Lounge each afternoon.
Both represent something different and more upmarket for what has always been this most traditional of ships. With her profile resembling a miniature version of the QE2, Black Watch embodies all that is best and timeless about old style cruising, without simply becoming some kind of Victorian theme park afloat.
For example, there is no shortage of spacious suites and cabins with private balconies, many installed in a very comprehensive refit a couple of years ago. And, while the jury is still out on the ‘new’ dove grey paint scheme, Black Watch has all the contemporary creature comforts that a 21st century cruise passenger could want.
It will be interesting to see if the ship has managed to maintain the air of special, personalised intimacy and superb service that I remember her for. Though I visited her recently, I have not actually sailed on Black Watch since 2004.
Hence, I’m looking forward to boarding this very special, highly styled ship. Departure alone should be stunning and dramatic, swinging out and under the fabled Forth Bridge. It will hopefully prove to be a grand appetiser to a wonderful adventure, come rain or shine.
Look out for the blogs and photos to come, as Black Watch and I renew our old acquaintance.
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