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.
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 with 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.
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