It’s double up time for Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cuba offering. The line has just announced that the 78,000 ton, 2001 built Norwegian Sun will join near sister, Norwegian Sky, on the four day Florida to Cuba cruise circuit, effective as of May 7th, 2018.
Norwegian Sun will first undergo a seventeen day refit in Victoria, BC, to bring her in line with all the latest ‘Norwegian Edge’ innovations, after which the ship will transit through the Panama Canal to her new home port at Port Canaveral.
Once there, the ship will sail four day Cuba cruises that each offer a night in Havana, plus an additional call in Key West- a must for any of you Hemingway fans out there. The Norwegian Sun will also offer shorter, three night cruises to Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay, this effectively mirroring the sailings of Norwegian Sky from nearby Miami,
It would be perfectly possible to do these two, consecutive cruises together, or even to ‘switch’ between the two ships mid cruise, and thus get two for the price of one.
After her return from Thomson Cruises this coming November of 2017, it had been intended to send the 40,000 ton, 1400 passenger Celestyal Majesty (currently still sailing as the Thomson Majesty) to Cuba after a short refit. That plan has now been sunk.
Instead, it seems that the ship will lay up for the first two months of the year, before entering service on the three and four day run out of Athens to the Greek Islands and Turkey in late March.
Three day cruises will sail from Piraeus each Friday, offering a call in Mykonos that same evening. Next morning, passengers can choose between an early morning visit to Samos, or a shorter call into Kusadasi, before an early evening visit to Patmos.
Next day finds the ship at Heraklion in the morning, with an early evening visit to Santorini, before arriving back into Piraeus on the following Monday.
The four day, Monday sailings follow an identical route, except for an added, full day call into Rhodes after the Patmos call. In this guise, the Celestyal Majesty is offering the pretty much tried and tested ‘short run’ options that have proved so popular for several years now.
But it’s the following, seven day Idyllic Aegean itineraries that are really making waves. Beginning on April 30th, the Celestyal Majesty will offer a seven night cruise running through to October that offers no less than three overnight stays in two of Greece’s most compelling high spots.
Sailing in late afternoon, the Celestyal Majesty arrives at Mykonos just before midnight that same day, there to begin a two day and night stay in the platinum chip people watching capital of the Dodecanese. Passengers can come and go from the ship as and when they wish during this extended stay- the only one of its kind-at the Aegean’s most hedonistic hot spot.
The ship then sails on to further calls at Ios and Milos, before a third full overnight stay in Santorini. There is an afternoon call into Crete’s capital of Heraklion, before a final day that again offers the options of either an early start to Samos, or a longer day in Kusadasi, before the ship returns to Piraeus the next day.
These new cruises- similar to the ones being offered aboard the smaller Celestyal Nefeli this year- have really upped the ante in the Greek local market. While still very port intensive, the included possibility of three full nights ashore (though it’s not likely that the ship would run all night tender service into Santorini) on a larger ship, really marks a significant notch up in the local product offering.
Shore excursions in the ports, as well as an all inclusive drinks package, are offered to UK passengers as part of the overall cruise price. And, while Celestyal does not offer a fly cruise programme, flights and transfers to Athens are easily arranged independently.
From London, Manchester and Edinburgh, Easyjet has direct flights to Athens. Ryanair flies to Athens from Stansted. Air France and KLM serve Athens from twenty one UK airports via their respective hubs at Paris and Amsterdam.
Celestyal Majesty herself is the perfect size for cruising to the smaller, more secluded ports of the Greek Islands, as well as the ‘Greatest Hits’ ports such as Mykonos. While she does not have numerous balcony cabins or multiple restaurants, she is a pretty ship, both inside and out, that will offer her passengers an authentically intimate, local Greek style experience, with food and entertainment crafted to fit the environment through which the ship will be sailing.
Standard inside and outside cabins are of roughly the same size; not huge, but big and comfortable enough for a week where passengers will be spending much of their time ashore. And, while wardrobe space might be tight, you won’t need a huge amount of formal wear for what is a very footloose, free and easy kind of cruise experience.
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.
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.
Speaking during the inaugural voyage of Regent’s new Seven Seas Explorer, CEO Frank Del Rio said that he was just ‘waiting for the phone to ring’ before inaugurating a series of Cuba sailings with ships from right across the Norwegian/Regent/Oceania Cruises portfolio.
One source states that the Cuban born Del Rio actually named the Norwegian Sky as being the ship to probably start regular, year round Cuba cruises beginning in 2017. Other sources say that he refused to name any specific ship.
Assuming that the right ship has been identified, it would mean the 78,000 ton, 1999 built Norwegian Sky forsaking her usual, year round itinerary of three and four night Bahamas cruises from Miami. With several alternative dining venues and a reasonable number of balcony cabins, there is no question that the Norwegian Sky could work well as an immediately available start up ship, though it seems doubtful that Norwegian would completely abandon the lucrative, short Bahamas cruise run.
How might it work? Probably, the Norwegian Sky would sail on seven night, round trip cruises to Cuba from Miami. The ship could spend two, or even three, nights docked in Havana, where the revenue stream to be tapped from shore excursion sales must be extremely tempting to Norwegian Cruise Line. The ship could also offer one, perhaps even two calls at ports such as Grand Cayman and Key West.
In any event, it would be gratifying to see this still beautiful ship running on something more demanding than short, pedestrian jaunts around the Bahamas.
Sources at the inaugural celebrations aboard the new Harmony of The Seas are reporting that senior RCCL executives have said that the Empress of The Seas- recently refurbished at considerable expense- could be deployed on round trip cruises from Miami to Cuba, perhaps starting as early as July.
Formal clearance has not yet been given by the Cuban government, but all of this seems to have the making of a done deal. Ostensibly preparing for a season of short, three to five day cruises to the Bahamas and Cozumel, actual itineraries for the 1990 built ship are only being doled out on a month-by-month basis.
At 48,000 tons and with a capacity for 1,602 passengers, Empress of The Seas is the perfect size for operating quite immersive Cuba cruises. In fact, she is the only ship in the RCCL fleet that is currently capable of doing so. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the ship’s return to Royal Caribbean was announced after eight years’ sailing with Pullmantur, the company’s Spanish derivative. A Cuba itinerary for the ship was almost immediately anticipated.
During her refit to return her to the RCCL fold, Empress of The Seas was gifted with a new Chops Grille steak house, a Boleros Latin Lounge, and also benefited from a remodelled casino and freshly refurbished cabins.
Cabins on this ship are relatively small when compared to her more modern fleet mates. But if, as I expect, the ship is deployed on cruises that include a full two or three nights’ stay in Havana, then they should work out just fine. For many years, Empress of The Seas operated just such a similar itinerary between New York and Bermuda, and she was tremendously popular in this role.
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.
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.
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