Pullmantur’s Monarch has just emerged from a 21 day, $10 million refurbishment at Freeport’s Grand Bahama shipyard. The ship is probably best remembered as Royal Caribbean’s monolithic, 1991 built Monarch of The Seas.
Pullmantur- itself at one time part of the Royal Caribbean portfolio- has invested significantly in the 74,000 ton ship.
Much of the work carried out was internal in nature, and involved new carpeting, fixtures and fittings in cabins and public areas right across the 2,300 passenger ship, together with some external work across the pool deck, and other outdoor areas of the ship. In all, something like fifteen thousand square metres of carpeting was replaced, together with around a thousand metres of furniture upholstery fabric.
Deck Twelve has been outfitted with a new solarium area, and the indoor spa and shopping complexes have also been refreshed. There has also been a change for all signage in food and public area outlets, with the intention of making it more user friendly for the ship’s predominantly Latino clientele.
On the technical side, Pullmantur says that enhancements were made to make the vessel more ‘environmentally friendly’, but actual details on these are non existent at the time of writing.
After completing this period of overhaul and updating, the Monarch resumed her programme of year round, seven day, all inclusive Caribbean cruises. These destination intensive cruises allow foe embarkation in either Curacao, Aruba, or at Panama City’s port of Colon.
Meanwhile, the Sovereign- twin sister ship of the Monarch- has returned to Europe after her usual seasonal winter programme in Brazil. The ship- formerly the Sovereign of The Seas- is now operating seven night round trip cruises in the Western Mediterranean that allows for embarkation from any of six ports of call en route.
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.
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.
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