Norwegian Sky at sea

The relationship between cruise lines and the Caribbean islands that they serve has always been symbiotic; one depends very much on the other for survival and growth. It has always been the same.

Within those parameters, there are times when disagreements surface; where one party will accuse the other of playing ‘fast and loose’ over relatively minor things such as docking rights, or shore excursion guides. It’s an inevitable part of the interplay between two closely allied operators.

Yet when Hurricane Irma cut a deathly swathe through the Caribbean in September, many cruise lines rallied after that initial, stunning impact to help out as and where they could. And, while both Carnival and Royal Caribbean International deserve great kudos for the work that they also did, this is the story of the role played by one ship from Norwegian Cruise Line- the 77,000 ton Norwegian Sky.

Built in 1999, the Norwegian Sky typically sails on short, fun filled three and four day jaunts from Miami to the Bahamas and Cuba. She’s a sunny, sassy, fun filled ship; fourteen decks of elegant, colourful hedonism whose sole purpose is to provide a fun filled short vacation to around four thousand travellers each week.

All of that changed dramatically when Irma’s angry fist slammed into St. Thomas, the capital of the US Virgin Islands. Irma caused devastation somewhat akin to the aftermath of a Great War battlefield; huge sections of the island’s infrastructure were simply shredded; power lines sagged and snapped, homes flooded, and supplies of even the most basic, daily needs of everyday life all but evaporated.

Against this backdrop, it was decided almost immediately to send the Norwegian Sky on a rescue and relief mission to St. Thomas. The sheer logistics involved in disembarking passengers, and then swiftly turning the huge ship into what amounted to a floating mercy mission, are difficult to exaggerate.

As the ship raced south from Miami on her vital mission, the two and a half days at sea were used to good effect. On board carpenters amassed quantities of nails, tarpaulins, plywood and hammers to erect temporary shelters for the often emotionally shattered survivors of Irma. On board cleaning and stateroom teams mustered a mass of disinfectants, other cleaning essentials, and fresh loads of clean sheets and towels. Masses of fresh ice- something like one hundred and sixty large bags of the stuff- were made available from the ship’s stores, and prepared for distribution once the vessel made landfall.

It went on; disposable cutlery and plates were gathered and prepared for landing. But what was truly exceptional were the donations made by the crew of the Norwegian Sky herself; no less than fifteen of the thirty five large pallets of supplies landed on the ravaged island were direct contributions from the crew; clothes, toiletries, anything that could provide any kind of respite was given up freely, without hesitation. In all, it was a quite extraordinary effort on every level.

Before departing for her return voyage toMiami, the Norwegian Sky embarked something like a thousand of the most seriously displaced locals, together with their pets, and shepherded them back to the Florida port. When the Norwegian Sky arrived back in her home port on September 15th, the ship was met by Andy Stuart, Norwegian’s UK President and CEO. Amid the emotional scenes- and they were certainly that- Stuart’s pride in the professionalism and sheer compassion shown by the ship’s crew was patently obvious.

That is nothing less than it should be; sequestered at short notice, the Norwegian Sky and her crew had performed an act of selfless, heroic sustenance at a time when it was most needed. If ever there was an instance of a cruise line and it’s staff giving back to the ports and the people that it interacts with, then the rapid deployment of this ship and her crew down south to the worst hit of the islands, this is surely it.

It wasn’t simply a question of delivering badly needed supplies and humanitarian succour; for the survivors of that hideous banshee called Irma, just the sheer sight of the arriving Norwegian Sky must have been a tremendous psychological boost, and right when they needed it most. A sign from over the horizon at they had not been forgotten or abandoned; they were not alone.

Of course, I wasn’t there. And I thank God that I wasn’t. But the crew of Norwegian Sky were there, in record time, and right when they were needed most on more than one level.

It’s a fabulous, largely unsung story of selflessness in the aftermath of a savage, relentless act of nature. The story of a ship and a crew that performed way above their normal game, acting as a single unit to take help and hope to a spot where it had never, ever been so urgently needed.



The Thomson, soon to be Celestyal Majesty. Photo credit: Thomson Cruises

The news has broken today that Thomson Cruises, part of the global TUI brand and the third largest cruise line in the UK, will rebrand as Marella Cruises later this month.

The name- a derivative of the Celtic word for ‘Shining Sea’- will be retrospectively applied to all four vessels that will fly the company colours by next summer- Marella Celebration, Marella Discovery, Marella Discovery 2 and Marella Explorer.

With the new name comes a serious expansion of the brand’s global reach; for winter 2018-18, Marella Discovery will embark on a series of fourteen, seven night Far East itineraries calling at such vibrant destinations as Singapore, Langkawi, Phuket and Vietnam- the first time that the operator has employed a ship in these waters for well over a decade.

And the line will also offer a first ever, two ship winter sailing out of Barbados over that same season, as Marella Celebration and Marella Explorer sail a series of seven night fly cruises to the highlights of the Caribbean, all of which can be combined with a seven night pre or post cruise stay on Barbados itself.

All of this marks a significant attempt by the tour operator to muscle in on the UK accented winter cruise market. With all inclusive fares, multiple dining options and the ability to join a Caribbean cruise from a whole range of regional airports across the country, the newly minted Marella is looking poised to make a significant impact on the contemporary cruise market.


Carnival Splendor

In something of a surprise move, Carnival Corporation has announced a ship swap for 2020; the proposed transfer of the Carnival Splendor to P&O Australia has now been cancelled, and the Australian company will now receive the 2001 built Golden Princess from Princess Cruises instead.

There’s little real difference in the size or passenger capacities of the two ships: I suspect the decision to retain the Carnival Splendor is simply a desire to keep a major fleet unit based permanently in Long Beach, California, where the Splendor will transfer to as of next year.

Ironically, the one off Carnival Splendor first began her regular career on that same, Mexican Riviera run in 2009. Launched in 2008, she did a few maiden sailings in Europe before making an epic circumnavigation around South America- Carnival Cruise Line’s first ever such voyage- before she took up station in the port of Los Angeles for regular, seven night Mexican Riviera cruises.

Once there, the Carnival Splendor endured a much publicised loss of power for two days, resulting in her having to be towed back for emergency repairs in San Diego. Since then, she has sailed successfully on many itineraries, including her current role in the Caribbean.

It was intended to send her back to California as a stop gap replacement for long standing veteran, Carnival Miracle, and then replace her in turn with another vessel out of Long Beach when she transferred to P&O Australia in 2012. That, as we now know, is not going to happen, and it’s more likely than not that the Carnival Splendor will become a more or less permanent Long Beach resident, at least for the next few years.

She beefs up the Carnival line up out of Long Beach with an increased passenger capacity in excess of 3,000, and joins the smaller Carnival Inspiration and Carnival Imagination to round out the company’s west coast roster. While the two smaller ships sail on a series of three and four night options each week, the Carnival Splendor will almost certainly run the line’s prestige itinerary down to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas.


An artist’s rendering of the proposed new Cunarder, slated to enter service in 2022. Image credit: Cunard Line

In a move that has surprised many, Carnival Corporation has signed an agreement with Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard for a new build for Cunard. The new ship, coming in at around 113,000 tons and with a passenger capacity of around 3,000, is currently slated to enter service in 2022.

While there will be many synergies with the current, three ship fleet, this new vessel will be of a different design to the popular duo of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, while also being a smaller, slightly more high density ship than the current flagship, Queen Mary 2. Inevitably, the name will also be the subject of much speculation to come.

Will Cunard go for a fourth ‘Queen’, or will the line itself seek to revive one of the more revered names from it’s storied past? While many think that another ‘Queen’ is a slam dunk in terms of a name, it’s worth remembering that the first so named ship was the Queen Mary back in 1936, by which time Cunard itself had been in the passenger business for almost a century. There was also the Berengaria of 1921, named after the wife of Richard the Lionheart. But she was an ex-German prize of war, built as the Imperator back in 1913.

By that time, many legendary Cunarders had already passed into the annals of seafaring lore, or were about to. Mauretania, Aquitania, Berengaria and Caronia are just a few of them. Reviving any one of these treasured names would signal both recognition of an illustrious heritage, and assumed continuity of what those great names represent. Cunard might just surprise everyone with this new ship.

And, for those who say that it won’t happen under Carnival management- well, it already did once. Recall the line’s restyling of the venerable Vistafjord into the Caronia back in 1999, a full year after the Carnival takeover. A repeat, while likely improbable, is by no means impossible.

And, it has to be noted, the availability of suitably regal names is actually pretty damned thin on the ground. Against that, the roster of evocative names from more than one hundred and seventy seven years of Cunard history is as substantial as it is stellar. While Cunard want a ship that will be complementary to the current trio, it will also be looking to make the ship as distinctive and original as practical. And nothing would do that quite so sweetly than by breaking with the sacred idea that all new Cunarders have to be named after a Queen. They don’t.

Interesting times, for sure. As always, stay tuned for updates.


Norwegian Jade at the Port of Tyne on September 1st, 2017. Photo: Anthony Nicholas

September 1st marked the auspicious debut of the first Norwegian Cruise Line ship ever to visit Newcastle’s Port of Tyne. The 93,558 ton Norwegian Jade- originally built in 2006 as the Pride of Hawaii- arrived in port on the penultimate leg of a round Britain cruise. As her 2,400 passengers poured ashore to visit such stellar local attractions as Alnwick Castle and the historic city of Durham, the ship played host to a small number of media, there to witness the formal exchange of visiting plaques between ship and port authority.

As well as the welcome news that the Norwegian Jade will be making a return to the UK next year (including three calls at Port of Tyne), there was also the chance to tour the ship (though not the cabins, which were all occupied by fare paying passengers) and sample a fine, three course lunch pared with some fulsome red wine in the ship’s beautiful Grand Pacific main dining room.

In the course of a recent, extensive refurbishment, the Norwegian Jade shrugged off many of her original colourful, slightly frantic decor elements. Now the ship is suffused with an aura of muted greys enhanced by a wash of sunlight from rows of floor to ceiling windows. The older, more funky style of furniture that once exploded around the ship like multi coloured mushrooms has been largely eschewed. In it’s place there now exists a calmer, more restrained palette that still has warmth but, at the same time, does much more to emphasise the scale and sweep of the ship.

Gone, too, are the upper deck, multi coloured water slides that resembled so many hallucinogenic spaghetti strands. This really is going against all current mainstream trends, and seems part of a more obvious resolve to raise the tone of the overall product. Though I doubt that other lines will follow soon, it’s still a pretty bold statement of intent. It fits the whole ‘pared back’ vibe of the ship quite nicely.

As always with Norwegian, a staple of in house, extra tariff dining venues take centre stage. Among them are the fabulous, French themed Le Bistro, the upper deck, American accented Cagney’s Steakhouse, and the Brazilian themed Moderno. Even the two main dining rooms continue to showcase the company’s signature ‘Freestyle Dining’; a concept that has more or less completely revolutionised the entire concept of cruise ship dining since it’s full scale introduction back in 2001.

But the Norwegian Jade is not some headlong rush into the future; parts of the ship showcase the Art Deco ocean liners of the past to near perfection. The Grand Pacific dining room is an out and out homage to the venerable old Queen Mary of 1936, with burled wood sheathing and evocative ceiling light fixtures. Meanwhile, the central, two storey ‘Bar Street’ has touches of Egyptian style lacquered panelling, and floor mounted ‘light fountains’ that are almost perfect copies of those once seen on the incomparable Normandie. And the large, upper deck SS. United States library pretty much speaks for itself.

Norwegian Jade left Port of Tyne for Southampton, there to embark on one last Scandinavia cruise before the ship returns to New York, sailing via Iceland. From there, the ship will showcase a brace of stunning fall cruises to Canada and New England, before redeploying to Miami to offer a full season of seven day Caribbean cruises from the Florida port.

With next year’s deployment of the Norwegian Jade aimed squarely at the British and German market, Norwegian Cruise Line will have a formidable competitor in place to fight for the best of the mainstream holiday family trade. And, with her on board prices now featuring all inclusive drinks as well, this stylish, thoughtfully redesigned ship offers a smart, elegant fun venue for all ages and tastes.


The band new Crystal Bach

The Rhine at Rudesheim was the picturesque backdrop for the Sunday christening ceremony for the Crystal Bach, the first purpose built new river ship for the luxury brand. The vessel, the first of a class of four, is in fact the first purpose built new ship for the Crystal brand since the launch of Crystal Serenity back in 2003.

Crystal Bach marks the evolution of the prestige Crystal experience onto a more intimate and engaging stage for prospective guests. The all suite, all balcony ship is, quite literally, in a class of her own- at least until her three siblings come on line. Unlike most ships on the rivers of Europe, she offers truly all inclusive pricing to the top end river cruise market, and she also has the added benefit of being launched by an across the board hospitality team widely regarded as being the most accomplished in their field.

In addition, reviews for start up river scion, Crystal Mozart, have been universally favourable; not as easy a start as you’d imagine for a cruise line trying to break into the famously competitive European river cruise arena.

There’s real bustle and momentum in the Crystal universe of late, what with the launching of the line’s luxurious new air cruiser, the Boeing 777 named Crystal Skye, and the imminent major surgery about to be undergone by fleet stalwart, Crystal Symphony. The scheduled October/November refit will see the fabled ship enhanced with a series of new penthouses and penthouse suites, a completely refreshed series of dining options, including open seating in the main Waterside Restaurant, and a consequent increase in the amount of on board space, as guest numbers on board will be lower as a result of some of the smaller cabins being re-crafted into larger spaces.

Interesting times and intriguing tides. As ever, stay tuned for updates.


saga sapphire
Saga Sapphire

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.

As ever, stay tuned.