Tag Archives: pullmatur cruises

SOVEREIGN HITS THE BIG 3-O

SOTS
Sovereign of the Seas. Photo credit: http://www.cruisereviews.com

Thirty years ago today, a ship unlike any other was preparing to leave the Penhoet shipyard at St. Nazaire, France. She was nothing less than the world’s first purpose built mega cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s awe inspiring Sovereign of the Seas.

Having successfully completed a series of strenuous sea trials, the 74,000 ton ship was making ready to leave Saint Nazaire on a direct crossing to her new home port of Miami. Under the command of Captain Tor Stangeland, the huge, still not quite complete ship would carry a small complement of passengers, and a full roster of skilled tradesmen who would be working flat out to complete the ship before her scheduled Caribbean debut in January of 1988.

Of course, the famed French shipyard had form when it came to building classic, almost heartbreaking beauties; Ile De France, Normandie and, of course, the Norway ex-France had all emerged from this hallowed cradle of fabulous maritime creations. Long before her proud, graceful prow ever cut salt water at all, Sovereign of the Seas could claim a rightful place in one of the most illustrious seagoing lineages of all time.

That heritage showed, too; the stern was a curved, knuckled masterpiece that perfectly echoed the magnificent Normandie of 1935. The bow, though sharper, had the same stance and vast, soaring flanks of her soon to be great rival, the SS. Norway. Indeed, those same two ships would soon be engaged in a game of maritime bragging rights on a scale unseen since the Normandie and Queen Mary in the 1930’s.

But while Norway was classic sixties luxe re-imagined in shimmering Art Deco, the Sovereign was almost relentlessly modern; a twenty five year leap forward in thinking and tastes. Unlike her adored rival, she was a ship created from scratch, tailor made to suit and, indeed, anticipate the tastes of a new age. Everything about her stressed a confident, dominant intent.

Externally, Sovereign of the Seas was a super sized version of the 1982, Wartsila built Song of America. Both ships had the same graceful, dramatic poise and stance. And, like the earlier ship, Sovereign continued the idea of having all the passenger cabins in the forward part of the ship, while the public rooms were piled up aft like a layered cake.

Again, there was the vast, open pool deck set in a sun bowl, with two pools and a pair of bars. Above it all, the imperious Viking Crown lounge sat, high and proud, wrapped around the single funnel. The similarities between the two ships were immediately obvious; they still are to this day.

But, while the earlier ship had no single outstanding internal focal point, Sovereign of the Seas flaunted a spectacular, five storey high atrium lobby that separated the cabins from the public areas. Writ large in brass, steel, marble and vast, sweeping staircases, it featured the first pair of panoramic lifts ever put into a ship. This swaggering, still impressive piece of architecture was such a stunning success that it became the benchmark for nearly all new cruise ships to this day.

The cabins were another matter; small, modular and functional, there was little real difference in size between inside and outside rooms. In those days, Royal Caribbean’s motto was ‘Get Out There’; by which they meant, into the bars, lounges, shops and casino, rather than crouching in your cabin.

Later- and in another ironic echo of the SS Norway– a string of balcony cabins would be added along the ship’s upper decks, although there was no massive structural alteration. Indeed, the ship’s proud, impressive silhouette remains almost exactly the same today as it was when new; a tribute to a truly well thought out and executed design concept.

This vast, vivacious ship was so stunningly successful that she was followed by a pair of near identical sister ships from the same French yard; the 1991 built Monarch of the Seas, and 1992’s Majesty of the Seas. All three are still sailing to this day.

Sovereign of the Seas sailed the prestige, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise itineraries out of Miami for many years, but as newer ships came on line in the mid 1990’s the great ship was relegated to the three and four night Bahamas cruise runs, mainly from Port Canaveral.

She was periodically updated and always well maintained; like her sisters, she had a rock climbing wall grafted onto the rear of the funnel. Royal Caribbean also added a branch of Johnny Rockets, the popular retro Fifties style diner. And, of course, the new balcony cabins gave her some very profitable real estate to offer prospective passengers.

Still, it was not enough. The tsunami of new buildings that her success had triggered, ultimately threatened to swamp her. Again, like the Norway before her, the Sovereign found herself unable to compete with all the bells and whistles that a whole new generation of ships were flaunting. Only so much could be shoehorned into a hull whose parameters had been decided back in 1985.

Renamed Sovereign, the still magnificent ship was transferred to Pullmantur, the Spanish satellite of Royal Caribbean, and sent to a new home in Europe. The Spanish operator offered mass market cruises to a mainly Spanish clientele, and still does to this day.

Now sporting a beautiful, dark blue hull (yet another apt Norway echo), the Sovereign sails on seven night Western Mediterranean cruises for most of the year, and allows passengers to embark in either Barcelona, or at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. Each autumn, she crosses the Atlantic to South America to operate a series of dazzling, three and four night party cruises from Santos to Rio De Janeiro. In spring, she re- crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona, to resume her Mediterranean season.

Just prior to her current anniversary, the Sovereign received an extensive dry docking that refreshed many of her public areas, as well as performing both essential and routine maintenance. Thus re-powdered, the proud old dame crossed the Atlantic, en route to South America.

I sailed on her back in March for a long weekend, and simply fell head over heels back in love with her. With her all inclusive prices and great range of children’s facilities, the ship is a big hit with her predominantly Spanish passengers. And, while the names of the public rooms have been changed, Royal Caribbean sentimentalists will find much on board that is instantly familiar.

The former Schooner Bar is almost completely as it was, ditto the Viking Crown lounge. The atrium seems frozen in a time warp, too, and is all the more appealing for it. The long, outdoor promenade decks, still lined with their original, plastic slatted, sit up and beg chairs, are the best kept secrets on the ship.

Thirty years on, it is nothing short of magical to see this gracious, still graceful ship sailing calmly on her way. Even after all these years, the Sovereign is still quietly doing what she was always built to do; providing thrilling, exhilarating seaborne travel to a whole new generation of fans.

I for one, hope that she sails on forever.

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CRUISING WITH PULLMANTUR- THE PROS AND THE CONS

SOVEREIGN
Photo credit for this great shot goes to Daniel Capella

In writing this blog, please bear in mind that these are the words of an Englishman, writing about what is essentially a Spanish oriented cruise experience. That has to be borne in mind at all times when considering the points I’m about to make.

Pullmantur is a cruise experience that offers fantastic value for money, with all inclusive food and drink folded into the fare. Unlike some cruise lines, the ‘all inclusive’ does not suddenly become ‘extra charge’ after two in the morning. The value is undeniable.

Food wise, we’re not talking gourmet quality here. The food- whether in the dining rooms, the buffet and the upper deck outdoor grill- was tasty, plentiful and wholesome, with more than enough variety for sure. It seemed to me that the chefs used a fair bit of salt in both meat and chicken dishes, but it was not over the top. Perhaps this is just a Spanish thing.

Idiosyncrasies exist; while butter is provided at the breakfast buffet service, it is absent at lunch and dinner. You have to ask for it, and it is then promptly supplied.

Drinks wise, it was normal waiter service everywhere, except in the late night disco. Here, waiters simply clear tables, while passengers line up, pub style, to be served at the bar. However, there are usually at least five drinks servers working at any given time, and wait times for service are actually short. For the busy, crowded disco, I actually think that this kind of service works better than normal waiting service.

One nice thing that Pullmatur does is that each table- in both bars and restaurants alike- comes complete with a little card, featuring the name and picture of your designated server. It’s a lovely little touch, and one that I have never seen on any other cruise line. As new servers come on rota to work, the cards are changed to match.

Now, to some of the cons. The great bulk of Pullmantur’s guests are Spanish and, while menus, literature and most announcements also come in English, the Spanish dominate these cruises. Individually they are lovely people, and they certainly know how to party. Even the older folk are still going strong in the small hours of the morning. Their sense of fun is both infectious and vibrant at once.

They also tend to travel in large, extended groups that expand as they make new friends. It is not unusual for them to take over two or three tables at a time in a public room, and then strip other tables, locust like, of all the chairs so that their friends can join them.

Naturally, this creates issues for couples or individuals looking for somewhere to sit. And these extended groups create a bewildering cacophony of sound that can drown out the quality entertainment- and it was quality- that you might be trying to listen to. Impromptu breaking into song by large groups is not at all unusual.

And the few foreigners on board sometimes do get forgotten. For instance, the staff members announcing tender debarkation in Villefranche did so only in Spanish. This was an accidental oversight rather than deliberate discourtesy, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Stage show are audio visual spectaculars, where little dialogue is required to follow along. As such, they are quite enjoyable, though the cruise director’s ten minute pre- show spiel was done, again, entirely in Spanish alone. Sometimes, I lost the will to live just trying to listen to it.

In summary, Pullmantur offers a sassy, stylish product at a superb price point. Service across the board is good, and often excellent. The on board vibe is bubbly, exuberant, and always loud. If you want peace and quiet on your cruise holiday, I’d suggest that you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Would I go back? Absolutely. And- knowing what I do now- I’d be better prepared to enjoy what I consider would be an even more rewarding experience than the one I have just related these snippets from. Happy sailing.