Though actual itineraries have yet to be finalised, Spanish cruise operator Pullmantur has confirmed that the 74,000 ton Sovereign will be deployed on a series of mainly four night cruises along the coast of South America over the winter of 2017-18.
The 1988 built ship– formerly Royal Caribbean’s highly acclaimed Sovereign of the Seas– is currently operating a series of seven night Mediterranean cruises, embarking in both Barcelona and Rome. She is scheduled for an annual dry docking, most likely in Cadiz, at the end of the season in early November.
On conclusion of this, the ship is due to sail on a twelve night transatlantic crossing in late November from Cadiz to Recife, Brazil. The ship will sail via Lisbon (where embarkation is also available), Gran Canaria and Lanzarote, to the port of Recife on Brazil’s east coast, where she is scheduled to arrive on December 9th.
From here, the Sovereign will sail on a series of winter long, four night cruises that allow passengers to embark both in Santos, the port for Sao Paolo, and Rio De Janeiro. Typically, these round trip cruises have also called at the beach resort of Ilhabella in the past.
In addition, the ship will also sail a trio of special, seven night cruises that will cover Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the famous Rio Carnival respectively. The ship is then due to recross the Atlantic to Europe, commencing her 2018 European season with a first sailing from Barcelona on March 26th.
In the UK, Fred. Holidays typically operates as sales agents for Pullmantur. The Spanish accented cruise operator offers an all inclusive on board product and, though Spanish is the primary language used on board, English is also widely spoken. The company can package these cruises with flights, hotels and transfers to create a completely all inclusive package, or you can of course make your own arrangements separately.
Stay tuned for further details as and when they become available.
Anyone who knows me even vaguely will tell you how much I love Villefranche Sur Mer. The small French fishing port is the pearl of the French Riviera; a jump off point for cruise passengers to visit the heady delights of Nice, Monaco, or even Cannes. As Villefranche has no pier, passengers come ashore via local tenders, and are then taken on tour by coach.
Their absence is fine by me; it leaves me free to just soak up the atmosphere and sheer, jaw dropping beauty of what is, quite simply, the most stunningly beautiful harbour in all of southern Europe. Villefranche, while not a cheap date, does not have the stratospheric prices and brittle glamour of nearby Monte Carlo. It’s always been about style here, rather than hype.
As our ship-Pullmantur’s stately, legendary Sovereign– hugged the coastline of the French Riviera, the expected springtime weather decided not to play ball. Presumably, it had not read the memo regarding blue skies and sunny weather.
Instead, a slate grey sea roiled and slammed against the sides of the ship. Grey clouds scudded like malign, ghostly galleons across a leaden sky that threatened rain at any moment. But none of that was going to dampen my enthusiasm; I was going back to Villefranche, setting foot once more on what, to me, amounts to hallowed ground.
I stood mesmerised on the windswept upper deck as the Sovereign loomed past Cap Ferrat. Before I knew it, the enormous ship swung to port, and came swaggering into the stunning bay of Villefranche. Jaws dropped by the dozen at that first view.
A vast, natural ampitheatre of low, rolling greenery is studded with hillside villas, peeping out from among the foliage. On the quay, a ring of beautiful Italianate architecture, clad in shades of ochre, terracotta and pale cream, crouched along the waterfront, their window shutters garbed in shades of electric green and petrol blue. A handful of unsteady fishing boats huddled against the quayside, as if seeking refuge from the rain clouds.
An hour later, I was on a tender to shore, bumbling across the slate grey briny. Whitecaps licked greedily at our flanks and, even as I watched, the gorgeous panorama of Villefranche opened like a flower, bursting into bloom. Oddly, I still felt the same sensations of awed reverence as when I first came here, way back in 1998.
I stepped ashore on the old stone quay, and took in that still peerless panorama. Truth be told, Villefranche seemed surprised to see us; some of the houses had paint peeling from their usually immaculate facades, and most of the cafes were still closed against the just gone winter weather. Rows of chairs and tables were stacked up against the front of these, as if seeking refuge from the elements. The normally pristine beauty resembled nothing so much as a drowsy supermodel, woken suddenly from her sleep, that had not yet had time to put on her make up properly.
There were very few people about on a waterfront that is normally sun splashed and awash with happy visitors in the long summer days and nights. The two small, perfectly formed beaches were empty, the twin bars that adjoined them still shuttered and silent. But the wisteria and the oleander were beginning to bloom again on the old stone parapets below the railway viaduct; a sure sign that much better weather was on the way. Alas, just not today.
Sovereign was the first cruise ship to arrive in Villefranche for the 2017 season, and she will be followed by literally hundreds more. In very short order indeed, Sleeping Beauty will awaken and greet these visitors with her usual flair and finesse.
Some of the old stalwarts were open, however. It was nice to enjoy a glass of wine and some sporadic people watching at Les Palmiers, a cafe bar set just back above the quay. I walked along the windswept beach and then came back for another glass of wine in the Wine Pier, the seaward facing conservatory of the waterfront Welcome Hotel, with its beautiful Art Deco interiors. Warm against the outside cold, that wine- a beautiful drop of Sancerre- was truly something to savour.
Later, as our tender purred back across the darkening sea towards the spectacularly floodlit Sovereign, I gazed longingly back at the waterfront of Villefranche. Pools of light danced and shimmered along the edge of the bay, casting a subtle, seductive glow on the water. I felt cheered, almost elated at the sight.
Spring might not yet truly have sprung on the pearl of the French Riviera, but I felt warmed, charmed and, once again, hopelessly in thrall to this singular piece of rare earth. Needless to say, a return visit is already in the planning.
I recently spent a weekend on the Sovereign, formerly RCCL’s ground breaking 1988 build, the Sovereign of the Seas. That game changing ship- the first ever purpose built mega cruise liner- created a sensation at the time, and would later be followed by a pair of almost identical sisters, the Monarch and Majesty of the Seas.
It’s a testament to their original, sound design that all three ships are still sailing today. Sovereign herself left the RCCL fleet in 2009, being seconded to Royal’s Spanish offshoot, Pullmantur Cruises. The Madrid based operator still runs the legendary ship to this day.
I boarded the Sovereign in Barcelona, to where she had just returned from her winter season of three and four day cruises in Brazil. Ours was a short, three night ‘filler’ cruise to Villefranche and Toulon, before the ship began her summer season of seven day, round trip Mediterranean cruises. This coming November, the 74,000 ton ship will be dry docked for a refit before she returns to Brazil for another season of short, sultry, samba fuelled runs to the highlights of east coast Brazil.
So how does the Sovereign stack up now? With a royal blue hull, flaring prow and elegant, knuckled counter stern, the Sovereign is still dominated by the enormous Viking Crown lounge that circles the funnel, a full fourteen levels above the water. Known these days as the 360 bar, it still remains one of the most amazing vantage points ever put into any ship at sea. Overall, this amazing vessel still has a proud, swaggering stance that puts most modern cruise ships firmly in the shade.
The famous, five story atrium lobby- known back then as the Centrum- still divides the ship almost vertically right down the middle. Instantly memorable, it contains the first pair of panoramic glass elevators that were ever put into a cruise ship. Swathed in brass, marble and shimmering glass, the grand staircases descend past window walled vistas that still flood the entire, elegant expanse with natural sunlight. This has the effect of making the Centrum seem bigger than it actually is- a neat little trick that was not lost on legions of ship designers as a future inspiration.
While this neat, maritime crossroads remains in a kind of Eighties time warp, it still divides the ship as nicely as ever. Forward of it are the cabins and suites, stepped up from low down to the upper deck in a kind of vertical layer cake. Aft of the Atrium, a string of lounges, shops, bars and restaurants rise through deck after deck, many of them with stunning outdoor vistas.
The cabins are still tiny by modern standards, with insides and outsides alike measuring a paltry 122 square feet. They all have en suite shower and toilet, a small television, twin beds that convert to a very comfortable double, and just about enough storage space to stow the smart casual wardrobe that is all you’ll need to fetch these days. They are functional places rather than lingering spaces.
By contrast, a series of retro fitted suites and balcony cabins run from fore to aft at the top of the ship, and offer a more secluded, expansive range of accommodations at a great value point. Considering how noisy the ship can get, I would definitely recommend considering one of these.
Aft of the Centrum, the public rooms remain almost in a kind of Royal Caribbean Eighties time warp. The Spinnaker bar is still there; a long, narrow room flanked by floor to ceiling windows, with an adjacent, long sit up bar and decorative steering wheel, mast and sails. It always was the most popular public room on the ship and, with great quality live music each night, it remains so to this day.
The Spinnaker is flanked by the casino, which now also has its own bar. One deck up, the large Rendez-Vous lounge opens up to the full, wrap around promenade deck to both port and starboard. On both sides, this centrally located room features raised levels that look directly out over the sea. With it’s large dance floor and bar set at the back of the room, it remains a focal point for activities of all kinds by day and night.
Deck eight showcases the aft facing, hugely popular Zoom disco. Forward on the Centrum, a newly created Alhambra bar features a limited range of extra charge food and drink options, irregular opening hours, and stark white, sit up and beg style tables and chairs which are something of an oddity on this otherwise dated, but still tasteful lady of the seas.
Bar 360, accessed by outdoor stair cases and a single, solitary elevator, remains the crown jewel of the ship. With magnificent views from an encircling wall of floor to ceiling glass windows, it offers a plush, expansive, peaceful idyll from which to enjoy a sunset with your favourite drink, though some live music (there is a piano up here) would add a lot to it’s barely burnished lustre.
In terms of dining, the two main restaurants retain their original positions on decks three and four respectively. I’ll get into the food and service aspects of the ship in another blog to come, but the two single story rooms are still expansive, spacious and impressive; each forms a fitting backdrop for the panorama of the dinner ritual each night.
Up top, the original Windjammer Buffet remains pretty much as was, with expansive floor to ceiling windows, and thoughtfully well sited food stations. Needless to say, it can be busy at any time of day and night. Nearby, the former Johnny Rockets has been converted into the upper level Wu bar and Fusion restaurant; a kind of club class venue that offers a selection of Thai, Japanese and Asian menu options at a fixed price. Outside, the original chrome shell of the Johnny Rockets Fifties’ diner remains in place; an at once recognisable and evocative memory.
The pool deck, with it’s two large pools, twin Jacuzzis and forward bar, is largely unchanged. The aft bar is still there, but was not open during our cruise. Above the forward bar, a grill located under the top mast serves up chicken, pizza and other fast food items from mid afternoon until around sunset.
I hope this blog goes some way towards giving those who loved this legendary ship some idea as to how she looks and feels now. Twenty nine years after her stunning debut in January of 1988, the Sovereign is still a wonderful ship; an elegant, enigmatic wonder littered with quirky, evocative works of art. Her royal blue hull gives her a grace and stance that nicely echoes that of her one time great rival, the long gone SS. Norway. Ironically, those two ships were built in the same French shipyard at St. Nazaire, the self same yard that also built both the Monarch, Majesty and, of course, both the Ile De France and the Normandie.
Curious about how she is now? In the age old words of Royal Caribbean itself; ‘Get out there’……
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.
In something of an inevitable retrenchment, the fleets of Spanish accented Pullmantur and it’s French cousin, Crosieres De France (CDF) will ‘share’ its existing tonnage, effective from coming this winter onward.
The move- a merger in everything but name- will give the two Royal Caribbean offshoots a combined, four ship fleet. This will rise to five ships when the current Majesty of the Seas joins the line up in 2018.
The transfer of Majesty of the Seas to Pullmantur was originally expected this year but, to the surprise of many, Royal Caribbean initially decided to retain the last of it’s three Sovereign class ships. For this new role, Majesty of the Seas is scheduled for a substantial refit, including the addition of a massive movie screen, new water slides, three new restaurants, and an expanded casino. Thi should be completed by May, after which the 74,000 ton ship is due to move to Port Canaveral to operate a series of three and four day Bahamas sailings.
Now, after sailing for Royal Caribbean through 2016 and 2017, Majesty of the Seas will indeed be transferring to Pullmantur/CDF effective in 2018, there to rejoin her original sister ships, Sovereign and Monarch. Each of those two ships will undergo a $5,000,000 refurbishment before beginning their upcoming winter schedules.
Meanwhile, Spanish passengers will continue to be offered cruises on the 46,00 ton former Celebrity sister ships, Horizon and Zenith. These two ships operate as an all inclusive product and, over the next season, the CDF ships will also revert to being an all inclusive service. French passengers will also be offered the opportunity to sail on the three Sovereign class vessels under the Pullmantur flag. Coincidentally, all three of these were built in the French shipyards of Saint Nazaire.
Interesting times over at the French and Spanish operators. As ever, stay tuned for updates.
The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that Pullmantur cruises is closing it’s South America office at the end of March.
The Spanish cruise line- an offshoot of Royal Caribbean International- has been sailing troubled waters for some time now.
Last year, the intended transfer to Pullmantur of Majesty of the Seas was put on indefinite hold. The ship- the third of the original, pioneering Sovereign class of mega ships- was earmarked to rejoin her sister ships Sovereign and Monarch in the Pullmantur fleet.
Instead, it was decided to keep the ship at RCCL instead and, after a substantial refurbishment, she is due to start a new series of three and four day cruises from Port Canaveral for the parent company.
Then came the news that the 1990 built Empress (ex Nordic Empress, Empress of the Seas) would be leaving the Pullmantur fleet and returning to Royal Caribbean as- Empress of the Seas. The ship is currently being refurbished in a shipyard in Cadiz, before returning to Royal Caribbean after some eight seasons with Pullmantur.
All of this should have been enough to set alarm belles ringing, especially after the end of the rival Spanish cruise operator, Iberocruises. This offshoot of Costa had also been struggling for quite some time.
Thus far, Pullmantur is planning to have one ship in South America over the coming winter of 2016/17, and the likelihood is that she will be chartered and sold by one of the local market operators, such as CVC.
The South America market as a whole is witnessing some enforced contraction, with MSC, Costa, and even Royal Caribbean itself downsizing their winter deployments there. Interestingly, only Norwegian Cruise Line is bucking the trend right now, with a deployment this winter of the popular Norwegian Sun down South America way.
As for 2016, Pullmantur has the Monarch in the Baltic, marking the first ever deployment of a Sovereign class mega ship on any Northern European itineraries.
Part of the problem for Pullmantur is that, while Sovereign and Monarch are still fine ships, they have far too many small inside cabins, precious few balcony cabins, and few of the bells and whistles of the rival Costa and MSC ships. They also lack the raft of alternative dining options offered by the competition. Those likely so sail down South America way are more likely to be attracted to these newer vessels in many cases.
Pullmantur does have the theoretical advantage of being an ‘all inclusive’ product compared to the competition, but current events would seem to suggest that is not enough to even the scales.
It would be a shame to see this spirited little Spanish operation go to the wall. Let’s hope it does not come to that.
As ever, stay tuned for updates.
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