According to the well respected Cruise Industry News website (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) the laid up, 1968 built Louis Aura will begin a season of three and four night cruises for the Turkish operator, Estur, this summer.
The much loved ship, originally famous as Norwegian Caribbean’s Starward, will operate from the Turkish port of Cesme on a series of three and four night cruises to the Greek Islands. The cruises begin effective June 24th this year, with prices beginning at 199 euros per person.
If true, the news represents an astonishing, albeit very welcome reprieve for one of the cruise industry’s original pioneers; a much loved ship that has introduced many people to cruising over five successful decades.
For a few years, the Louis Aura was chartered out to a French operator called Rivages du Monde. This author can remember seeing her in the unlikely setting of Saint Petersburg in the summer of 2015. But, once that final charter finished, the ship was laid up and Celestyal Cruises, the offshoot of original owners Louis Group, showed no interest in reviving the ship. Most people took this as a sign that the Louis Aura had, indeed, come to the end of her days.
So the news that this lovely ship looks like having at least one last season in the sun will be welcomed by ship lovers all over the world. Let’s hope that Estur make this a yearly event.
Long standing rumours that the forthcoming Celestyal Majesty might go out to Cuba have finally been confirmed by Celestyal Cruises.
The 40,876 ton, 1460 passenger ship is still currently sailing under charter to Thomson Cruises as the Thomson Majesty, but she will return to the Celestyal fold in November of 2017. Initial reports suggested that, after a refit, the ship- restyled as the Celestyal Majesty- would re-enter service on a series of three, four and seven night round trip cruises from Malaga, Spain.
However, after rumours that Celestyal would add a second ship to it’s nascent, highly successful Cuba operation, it was thought by some- this blog included- that the rejoined Celestyal Majesty might become that second, Cuba based ship.
Truth is, Celestyal is replacing, rather than augmenting. Current Cuba stalwart, the 1200 passenger Celestyal Crystal, will return to Greece in 2018, to operate the three and four night cruises from Piraeus to the Greek Islands that she was once so familiar for.
Celestyal Majesty ups the passenger capacity for each seven night Cuba sailing by around some 200 plus passengers. The ship will offer embarkation both from Havana (where the vessel will stay overnight) and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sailings will begin in January 2018, and thence continue year round.
This move marks the welcome redeployment of a once very popular Caribbean stalwart back towards her former cruising zones. Built in 1992, the ship sailed for both Majesty Cruise Line and, later, Norwegian Cruise Line. The latter had her dry docked in Bremerhaven and stretched in an ambitious refurbishment in 1999.
For both lines, the pretty little ship sailed from Boston to Bermuda each spring, before moving to Miami each winter for longer Caribbean runs. Later, Norwegian Cruise Line also sailed her out of Charleston, where she was very popular with the South Carolina market.
The ship was sold to as- was Louis Cruises in 2008, though she remained on charter to Norwegian Cruise Line until late 2009. Since acquisition by Louis, and then under subsequent charter to Thomson, the ship has operated exclusively around the Canary Islands, Mediterranean and Aegean, mainly on seven night cruises.
A handful of balcony cabins were added to the Thomson Majesty during a recent refit, and it will be interesting to see if Celestyal add more before her bruited move to Cuba, or even whether such a move is practical.
The Celestyal Majesty is a busy, pretty ship with very beautiful interior decor, though the entry grade inside and outside cabins are quite small. Wardrobe space is not great, but you won’t really be needing a huge amount of formal clothing on these informal, sun splashed cruise itineraries in any event.
Once clear of the port of Piraeus, the Celestyal Olympia cut an elegant swathe through Homer’s ancient, wine dark Aegean as we settled on our course for Mykonos. Lunch was being served, both at the upper deck buffet and in the main restaurant downstairs.
I opted to go alfresco, picking at some delicious souvlaki as the ship slipped neatly between a string of shimmering, arid looking islands flung at random across the sparkling emerald carpet of the Aegean. Sunlight danced on the water in the two swimming pools as the sound of on board bouzouki music caught the ears of seabirds wheeling in our wake. Warm breeze, ice cold ouzo- life felt good that late September afternoon.
All too soon, a familiar, fondly remembered shape stirred me from my daydream as it breasted the line of the horizon, filling our view as it spread across the sea. Low, rolling hills took on depth and definition as the sun began to dip, taking on a sharper aspect. Indistinct dots on a headland morphed into a quintet of shimmering, petrified white windmills.
Time to say ‘hello again’ to dear old Mykonos, the hedonistic queen of the Dodecanese.
Yes, Mykonos is expensive compared to many other Greek islands, and there are those who think that it is over rated. But for me, the island retains an inherent, ageless charm that no amount of tacky souvenir shops can erase. It’s a magical place, almost adrift in time and space.
The Celestyal Olympia docked at the new port of Tourlos, and I was amazed at just how much that port has developed now from just a small pier surrounded by arid hills, into more or less an extension of the main town itself. A chain of small, biscuit coloured beaches has been grafted onto the sea shore here, lined with a run of bars, shops and tavernas that now runs right along the waterfront.
As a result it’s now busier, more bustling and colourful than before, and the yacht marina near the pier is now blossoming into a beautiful, expansive place in its own right. But, inevitably, I found myself drawn back along that ancient, cobbled quayside, and back towards the old town centre.
In the winding streets, shop lights shone on white bordered crazy paving. Bouquets of flaming red and cherry plants overflowed from painted baskets that hung below balconies framed by bright, electric blue shutters. Tables and chairs spilled out across every conceivable space as evening revellers sought out a place to dine. On the crown of the hill where the windmills stand, crowds gathered to watch the ritual, world famous Mykonos sunset.
I would normally have joined them, but this time I chose to grab a veranda seat on the upper level of a bar overlooking Little Venice. From there, with an ice cold Mythos beer to hand, I watched spellbound as the vast, crimson ball of the sun sagged slowly into the Aegean like some flaming piece of performance theatre. In the background, I could hear Louis Armstrong’s La Vie En Rose playing. The sound of Satchmo’s soft, cool trumpet notes kissing the flaring purple Mykonos twilight was almost too good to be true. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the moment forever.
It was the end of the season in Mykonos, and the night air somehow felt heavy with the feeling of the impending winter’s hibernation. White capped waves flailed and thrashed against the quayside on Little Venice like the heralds of the coming darkness. It felt beautifully mellow, nostalgic and sentimental all at once.
But Mykonos will awaken again. Come the spring, she will stir lazily and smile at the first, welcome rays of the returning springtime sun. Tourist haunts, closed against the bony stillness of winter, will reopen. Plants will bloom. Life will flood back like spring water. And I, too, will return.
I mused on this as I walked back to the ship. Floodlit from bow to stern, the Celestyal Olympia was a towering, majestic presence, at once welcoming and reassuring. As I walked back on board, the sound of an acoustic guitar caught my ears.
Later, I sat in the spectacular, twelfth level high Viking Crown lounge, drinking prosecco as the lights of Mykonos glanced against the window panes before fading from sight like so many dying fireflies. The gentle shudder of the ship brought me out of my reverie, and set me to thinking about the upcoming ports of call on the morrow.
I boarded the Celestyal Olympia at the port of Piraeus on September 26th for a short, four night run around the Greek islands and Turkey. Recently fresh from a multi million dollar overall refurbishment, the flagship of Celestyal Cruises looked magnificent, her long white flank bathed in late summer sunshine as the passengers went on board.
The ship has a long and interesting history. Built as the Song of America for Royal Caribbean back in 1982, she was the first ship in that company’s fleet to have a complete, wrap around Viking Crown lounge installed right around the funnel- a feature that, quite happily, still survives on board to this day.
In 1999, the ship was transferred to the UK based operator, Airtours, and sailed for them as the popular Sunbird. A few years later, she was bought by the as-then titled Louis Cruises, and chartered to another UK operator, Thomson Cruises, as the Thomson Destiny. At this stage, a set of penthouse suites, complete wit balconies, were added to the forward, upper structure of the ship.
A subsequent ship swap with Thomson meant another rebranding, this time as the Louis Olympia. She then entered service from Piraeus, the port of Athens, on three and four night mini cruises to the Greek islands and Turkey, from March until November, and is usually laid up until the following spring.
Finally, with Louis itself transformed into the nascent Celestyal Cruises, the ship was renamed once more as the Celestyal Olympia. But this time, the company recognised that more than a simple renaming was in order to make the ship into an attractive, contemporary choice for short, port intensive cruises.
Celestyal Olympia was given a comprehensive refurbishment, with new TVs and fittings in every cabin, major enhancements to the Junior Suites on Deck Seven, and a vastly upgraded food operation, both in the main dining room and at the aft facing, enclosed upper deck buffet. With an emphasis on local Greek cuisine and regional wines, the ship was intended to be a floating, authentic complement to the places that she visits on each cruise.
The revitalised Celestyal Olympia then resumed service on the three and four day cruise circuit. Leaving Piraeus at 11.30 every Friday morning, the ship arrives in Mykonos that same evening for an approximately five hour stay.
Saturday morning finds her in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi for five hours, usually departing at one in the afternoon. By four thirty she is in the port of Patmos until around nine in the evening.
Sunday morning finds her in Heraklion until around noon, with the afternoon and early evening spent in Santorini. From here, she leaves for Piraeus, arriving back at around five the next morning. At 11.30 that same morning, she goes out again with a fresh complement of passengers.
The longer, four day sailings also include a full Wednesday spent in Rhodes. As you can see, both cruises are short on time, though long in potential for seeing the sights. It needs a comfortable ship, capable of docking smartly in the smaller ports along the way, to maximise the full potential of this itinerary.
Hence my return to the Celestyal Olympia on September 26th, to check out the four day cruise circuit. First of all, I wanted to get a good look at the re-imaged ship.
I was delighted to see that the Argo Bar- the one time Schooner Bar of RCCL days- retains it’s classic maritime theme, with coiled ropes and decorative furled sails, wooden decking and table groupings that lined the floor to ceiling windows. It was a venue that featured a live acoustic duo each night, and it also had brilliant, attentive bar staff.
I was also much taken with the upper deck Thalassa Bar, a great attempt to recreate a classic Greek taverna on a terrace overlooking the twin pools. Complete with white painted tables and chairs with basket weave coverings, it was a joy to just sit here, sipping on ice cold ouzo as the ship slipped smartly between a series of sun kissed islands, sprinkled across a glittering seascape.
My refurbished Junior Suite on Seven Deck combined both space and grace. With shaded windows overlooking the Promenade Deck, it was easily big enough for twin beds, ample storage space, a full bathroom, a table, and full length sofa that could easily convert to another bed. I loved this room, both for its comfort and accessibility to every part of the ship. It’s always worth remembering that, although the Celestyal Olympia is a big enough ship for these short cruises, she is relatively small compared to today’s giant new vessels.
As such, she represents the design ethos of the early 1980’s. With cabins mainly in the forward part of the vessel and stacked more or less in layers, the aft part of the ship contains most of the public rooms and lounges. It makes the Celestyal Olympia a very easy ship to navigate, even for those new to the cruising life.
Although the ship can accommodate around 1400 passengers, just over eight hundred actually came on board for this cruise; one of the last of the season out of Piraeus. So the ship seemed very spacious and, throughout four days, there were no real queues for anything. Both embarkation and disembarkation took mere minutes.
I had sailed on this ship before as the Thomson Destiny back in 2007, but I have to say that the food overall was of far better quality this time around. The main dining room- the Aegean Restaurant- was open sitting; it’s a loud, bubbly chamber where most passengers dine at night. But there was also a small, speciality option called the Galileo, just off the main restaurant entrance.
This is quieter, more subdued, and offered a few tables for two. It also featured a small, extra charge menu that included some memorable surf and turf, as well as fillet steak collections. With the more intimate surroundings and hushed tone here, this venue makes for a wonderful treat for a special occasion. And the service was first rate, too.
Up top, the Lido Buffet had also improved a lot from my previous cruise, from breakfast right through to dinner. Passengers in general do not dress up for dinner at night on these short trips- it’s not that kind of cruise experience. But it was, undeniably, a little piece of ‘Greece afloat’ and, in that respect, a far more authentic taste of these islands than many of the mega ships could offer.
Similarly, the entertainment was more low key, but much more in keeping with the region through which we sailed. It was wonderful to hear real, live bouzouki music played on board during our short spells at sea during the day. The typical Greek dancing ensued at night, and always attracted a good, energetic crowd. There was also a casino and a late night disco in the large, aft facing Selene Lounge. But for me, those guitarists in the Argo Bar won out every night.
So, that’s a short overview of how I spent four nights on the Celestyal Olympia. I found her to be a charming, captivating travel companion at all hours of the day and night. As well as the bars. pools and dining venues on board there was also a small shopping centre (though Celestyal really needs to have more of its own, branded products available for sale such as polo shirts, caps, etc), a spa, an internet cafe, and even a library, as well as laundry services available to all passengers.
The Celestyal Olympia is big enough to feel spacious and accommodating, and to allow enough choice on board without being overwhelmed. At the same time, she is also intimate and accessible, with everything to hand. And now, with all shore excursions folded into the on board fare, plus drinks and speciality coffees, the value to be found in board is very hard to beat.
Following on from the recent Norway trip on Fred. Olsen, here’s a heads up on the next one in this year’s calendar.
I’ll be joining Celestyal Cruises’ 38,000 ton flagship, the Celestyal Olympia, for a short, four night cruise from Athens to the Greek islands and Turkey, sailing on September 26th and flying home on the 30th. Short, for sure, but awfully sweet as well.
A number of factors influenced my choice. Here’s the breakdown of those;
The mutual proximity of the Greek islands and Turkish mainland to each other means that you can pack in an almost unimaginable amount of sightseeing in just those four days. Should I really decide to push the boat out- pun wholly intentional- I could see and savour a whole raft of sights, many of them rated as UNESCO World Heritage experiences.
Ftom Kusadasi, I could see the magnificent, swaggering ruins of the preserved city of Ephesus (and on my birthday too, no less). There is the stunning Library of Celsus, the House of the Virgin Mary, the magnificent amphitheatre, and the vast, marbled central axis that Anthony and Cleopatra once strolled. Not bad, eh?
Mere hours later, from Patmos I could visit the Holy Monastery of St. John, where the great man is said to have written the Book of Revelations, as well as visit the Cave of The Apocalypse. For anyone with even a passing interest in either history and/or religion, that would rank as reason enough alone to make this trip.
The next day- a full day in Rhodes- I could take in the stark, isolated splendour of the Acropolis at Lindos, or tour the still formidable Palace of the Grand Masters that dominates the old town of Rhodes. I could stroll the ancient, cobble stone lanes of Rhodes Town, where the Knights Templar once fought and died in their vain attempts to hold on to the island. On an island like Rhodes, the echoes of history are, quite literally, just around every corner.
Crete next and, from the port of Heraklion, I could visit the magnificent, recreated Palace of Knossos, with its links to the fabled Minotaur, the legendary half man- half bull that supposedly roamed the corridors here. Or I could simply take in the harbour itself, with its magnificent Venetian fortress at the entrance. Not a bad morning’s enlightenment on offer there.
The same afternoon, I can take in the view from the legendary caldera of Santorini, where white painted houses look like bits of frosted wedding cake, clinging to the rim of the long extinct volcano. Thought by many to be the sight of the fabled ‘lost city’ of Atlantis, the views down into the lagoon are rightly regarded as some of the most awe inspiring, heart stopping vistas anywhere on the planet.
Not bad in four days, eh?
THE COMFORT FACTOR
Celestyal Oympia is the ideal sized ship for cruising these idyllic waters. Big enough to showcase a variety of bars, lounges and restaurants that offer up local as well as international favourites; yet still small and intimate enough to find her way into the chic, more sedate little places that make cruising these waters such a rewarding experience.
Recently refurbished quite extensively, the ship is freshly primped, with all new menus featuring food for all tastes, from basics such as burgers to bountiful Greek fare. This particular cruise has a wine and cheese theme, as it happens.
Everything on board is handy, easy to reach, and expansive enough to relax in during our short spells at sea between islands. The cabins are comfortable, stylish and more than commodious enough for a short cruise like this one.
And-from 2017- Celestyal Cruises are also featuring fully inclusive fares that cover shore excursions, together with an all inclusive drinks package, as well as food and accommodation on board. This makes perfect sense as it creates a seamless, worry free product. Good forward thinking.
THE TIME OF YEAR
While cruising the Greek Islands is idyllic in high summer, I prefer the slightly cooler days of autumn- and indeed early spring- for my voyages in the region. There are not quite so many tourists, the heat is less intense and-in September/October in particular- the whole atmosphere is a little more mellow and reflective; a truly nice way to end the summer traveling season, without using a lot of valuable holiday time or, indeed, breaking the bank.
THE FEEL GOOD FACTOR
While Greece and Turkey are truly awash with historical lore, few other places on earth offer so many opportunities to just ‘kick back’ and enjoy the indolent, laid back pace that makes these waters so damned compelling. Whether watching a legendary Mykonos sunset from the quay just outside Jackie O’s, or savouring exquisite souvlaki on the Patmos waterfront, there are little moments for self indulgence that just stand out as if writ large in spotlights.
Few things beat an ice cold beer in Rhodes Town after a few hours’ spent strolling the ancient streets and magnificent sights. On Santorini’s almost exalted peak, a glass of wine takes taste to new heights. And that first, early morning coffee at a waterfront café in Heraklion is truly something special to savour, too.
So; these are my reasons. In the fullness of time, no doubt you will find your own. And, believe me, few other parts of the world are worth taking time out for so much as these ancient, seemingly enchanted Aegean idylls.
Interesting times lie over the horizon for Celestyal Cruises, it seems.
In an interview with Cruise Critic UK (www.cruisecritic.co.uk), Celestyal CEO Kyriakos Anastassiadis confirmed the return to the fleet of both Thomson Spirit and Thomson Majesty at the end of 2017. With new tonnage coming on line, the UK based holiday operator no longer needs these smaller, more intimate ships.
The line plans to add a second ship to the current, year round Celestyal Crystal sailings in the Cuban market out of Havana. This could probably the Thomson Spirit, once rebranded in Celestyal livery. The second ship will offer three and four night sailings on a year round basis, in and around Cuba. My feeling is that the smaller Celestyal Crystal might shift to the shorter sailings, with the bigger second vessel taking over the current, seven night sailings, but time will tell.
As for Thomson Majesty, it has been bruited that she might make off season sailings in the western Mediterranean, where her smaller size would allow her to access the smaller, more intimate ports that the big ships have to pass by.
And-confirmation of an earlier rumour- the Celestyal Olympia will, indeed, go to the Persian Gulf next winter, to operate a season of short, three and four day cruises out of Dubai. Ports of call will for the 1,664 passenger ship will include Bahrain, Doha and Muscat. Sailings will last through until April 2018, when the Celestyal Olympia will return to Piraeus to operate her summer season in the Greek islands.
This gives much needed year round employment to the ship, which traditionally had laid up in Piraeus over winter at the end of each Greek islands season. Traditionally, one of the problems encountered by Celestyal was the need to lay up its whole fleet in Piraeus over the entire winter season. It is good to see this anomaly finally being addressed, and no doubt it will bring a welcome boost to the company’s revenue stream.
On the traditional, port intensive summer Greece and Turkey itineraries, the three, four and seven night cruise programme will be maintained from both Greece and Turkey by both Celestyal Olympia and the recently added ‘baby’ of the fleet, Crystal Nefeli.
But most intriguing of all is that the line does, indeed, intend to build two brand new cruise ships of their own- the first in the history of the company. At around 60,000 tons each and with a passenger capacity of around 1,800, the new ships would feature balconies as standard on all outside cabins. It is anticipated that they will operate-initially at least- on the short, three and four day cruise circuit out of Athens. But it would also make perfect sense to send both ships further afield through the winter as well.
The problem thus far is in finding a shipyard with enough spare capacity to fulfill a building order. Cautious estimates give a launch date of 2021 or 2022 for the first of these new vessels.
A lot of momentum seems to be building here. Certainly, developments here are well worth following.
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.
As ever, stay tuned.
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