While many of the ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet continue to garner headlines for their great size, amenities and range of dining options, other ships in the fleet simply carry on with their own, often unremarked on schedules.
Yet some of these vessels are among the mainstays of the Royal Caribbean portfolio, and perhaps none has been so overlooked, or as persistently passed over as the Enchantment of the Seas.
Originally built as one of the six ship Vision class of siblings, the 74,000 ton ship first entered service in 1997.
However, in 2005 the Enchantment was expanded by the addition of a brand new, purpose built, seventy two foot mid section. The work was carried out at a shipyard in Rotterdam, and it had the effect of raising the ship’s tonnage to it’s current figure of 82, 910 GRT. As it currently stands, the Enchantment of the Seas has a passenger capacity of 2,446, based on double occupancy.
The actual lengthening was regarded as a great success at the time, and it was the company’s intention back then to repeat the process with all five of her siblings, beginning with near twin sister ship, Grandeur of the Seas. However, the prohibitive cost of such a massive, multi vessel project, together with the entry into service of several successive classes of new, purpose built cruise ships at Royal Caribbean, meant that only the Enchantment of the Seas was thus remodelled.
The ship subsequently returned to Florida. Unlike her sisters and fleet mates, there has never been a subsequent deployment of Enchantment of the Seas to Europe, Asia, or even Alaska.
Instead, this beautiful ship currently operates out of Miami, sailing three and four night cruises to the Bahamas each week. The three night, mostly weekend cruises typically visit Nassau, Grand Bahama Island, and the company’s recently remodelled ‘private island’ at Coco Cay.
The four night sailings (and you really do need four nights to get the true feel of such a large, amenity laden ship) typically take in Coco Cay, Nassau, and Key West.
Unless some major policy change dictates otherwise, these cruises will continue on through to 2019.
This still very glamorous, under the radar ship is celebrating her twenty-first year of successful service with Royal Caribbean in 2018. I, for one, have always felt that she deserves somewhat more of a starring role in the company line up than has thus far proved the case.
Finally, it’s Saturday morning, and the Adventure of the Seas is back where we started in Puerto Rico, just one week ago. It’s time to go home and, inevitably, the sense of regret and loss I always feel at the end of my trip sits as uneasily as an unwanted side order on my breakfast plate.
A long couple of days lies ahead; the inevitable downside to whooping it up for a week in winter on the other side of the world. But, truth be told, both Royal Caribbean and their partner airlines do their best to make the process as smooth and painless as possible.
Thus, our luggage already awaits us ashore, and I had been able to check in for my Delta flights the night before. I’m flying from Puerto Rico back to the UK via New York, but there’s plenty of connecting time. Finding my luggage is easy once off the ship; it goes into a separate, sealed van that follows our transfer coach to the airport. We enjoy a curbside reunion under sullen, humid skies. The warmth and wonder of those islands in the sun already feels a lifetime away.
Despite my flight not being for several hours, I’m glad to be able to check my luggage right away, and all the way through to Heathrow at that. Those last few hours pass in a blur of retail therapy, a couple of beers, and the attempted consumption of an armour plated hamburger that’s as spiky as an Armadillo. And, I might add, just about as edifying.
I’ve lucked out with an exit aisle seat on the four hour flight back to JFK, and it’s on a brand new 737-900 with seat back TV’s for everyone. The plane lofts into a flaring purple twilight, and I lapse into some obviously much needed sleep. Not long before landing, some very welcome (and free) Starbucks coffee gives me that vital caffeine lift that I need. As first legs of a long journey go, this was actually a damned pleasant flight.
JFK is rain lashed, with pools of light shimmering on the tarmac as we rumble to a halt. The Delta staff on our flight have been perceptive enough to inform us at which gates our onward flights will be waiting. It takes me all of fifteen minutes to debark and arrive at the gate for my next flight.
I’m on a Boeing 767 back to the UK, and my initial dismay at being on an ‘older’ plane fades when I see the smart, obviously newly refreshed interior on this one. Again, I luck out with an aisle seat (the 767 flies in a 3-3-3 across configuration in economy) and there’s more than enough room for me to hunker down for the next seven hours or so.
Manhattan falls away below us in a rain soaked, neon smear and, before I know it, the first drinks run comes through the cabin. I cradle a vodka and orange- Delta serves free spirits, wine and beer on all international economy flights- and decide on the chicken from the three choices on the dinner menu. I flick through a choice of more than ninety boxed seats on offer to watch, and that’s before I get to the films, when the main meal arrives.
It’s hot and plentiful, with some taste to it. At 36,000 feet, it’s realistically as good as it gets. Wines on offer are white, red, rose and even sparkling. The pours are generous too, from full bottles into plastic glasses rather than the small, quarter bottles that most airlines offer. Somehow, this just seems more satisfying. And, by the time I have munched my way through the meal and then gorged on four episodes of The White Princess, sleep finally creeps up and coshes me. I sag into a gentle, three hour snooze and, as I do, we cross the Atlantic, and dawn breaks once again over old Europe’s beckoning shores.
London is sunny enough as I transit through Heathrow in around thirty five minutes on a Sunday morning- something of a personal record. Both Delta flights have been agreeable, hassle free experiences; in fact, the crew on the overnight flight in particular were outstanding. But now I’m off to Terminal Five to surrender myself to the tender mercies of British Airways for the last, short leg home.
Check in is painless enough, and I have ample time to grab some lunch at Terminal Five. It’s over priced, over rated, and served up in hugely over crowded surroundings. At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask. But, needs must; because BA will offer you nothing in with the price of your ticket, not even a coffee. Nada. Zilch.
The hour long flight passes in a blur and, before I know it, we land with a gentle bump. The warm, welcoming lights of Newcastle’s passenger terminal glint on the rain sodden runway. The air is shockingly bone chilling. Even my luggage has made it home with me; something of a win-win situation these days. I sag with genuine gratitude into the back of my taxi, and recoil from the cold, oppressive darkness looming just outside my window.
So, those are the actual, physical logistics of the long journey home laid bare. It wasn’t too bad of an experience at all; long, but not interminable. And, for once, I didn’t actually feel jet lagged, either.
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.
Next in line, the Adventure of the Seas rocked up in Aruba’s pretty capital of Oranjestad. The local motto here is ‘One Happy Island’ and, after a few hours here, it’s not too difficult to understand just why.
It’s a chocolate box pretty kind of place, with fussy, flamingo pink buildings overlooking a waterfront strewn with yachts. To the north, the lush, expansive sands of Eagle and Palm Beaches invite para gliders, scuba divers, and those simply in need of some weapons grade relaxation.
Me? I just strolled, took pictures on the afternoon, and then dropped into my favourite waterfront bar- The Paddock- for a couple of ice cold Heinekens. Dutch beer in a Dutch bar; it just makes sense, especially on such a muggy, overcast day as this one. Make no mistake; this really is Holland in the Caribbean and yes, you do hear quite a lot of the mother tongue spoken out here, too.
Late afternoon, and I’m aboard a smart, snow white catamaran for a sunset cruise around the harbour. The sails go aloft, and we bumble out onto the sparkling blue briny. There’s free rum and other similar stuff for our crew of apprentice pirates and, once clear of the pier, we’re given our leave to wander around the boat at will.
I’m quite surprised at how many people simply remained glued to their seats, to be honest. It’s almost as if they are afraid of any actual contact with the elements all around us. For a full two hours, I lapped up the sensation of the warm breeze in my hair, and the gentle rise and fall of the ‘cat’ as she bucked the briny head on.
There’s something intense, truly elemental, about being this close to the water. I can never get enough of it. Also close to water- very close, in fact- was the rum, which was as weak as the water sloshing around on the floor of the men’s toilet. But the rum wasn’t the point; it was the sights on offer that I had hoped would be far more visually intoxicating.
Sadly, Mother Nature declined to play ball, gifting us only jagged, crimson smears that slashed the horizon as the sun set at the end of what had been an all day haze. But, as darkness fell, she instead gifted us a curve ball that drew gasps of awe and admiration right across the boat.
Sudden, ragged displays of lightning flickered across our bows as darkness encroached, coming and going for a few minutes on end. It looked as if some random deity was casually flicking a light switch on and off, just for the fun of it. Deep and intense, this stunning, totally unexpected visual feast rolled right across our horizon. I’m pretty sure that it seared itself into the memory of most of us lucky enough to get to see it.
Once the boat had bumbled to a halt along the floodlit waterfront, I wandered back down to The Paddock for a couple of quiet farewell beers. Pools of light shimmered on the ink black water; the evening air was as warm as toast, with just the hint of a cool breeze floating around the town.
We were in port until 2230, so there was ample time for those last beers ashore. And that’s what I love about cruising the Caribbean to this day; those special little moments where you can simply kick back, meet and talk to strangers, and form new bonds.
I’m all for that, personally. There’s more than enough negative, destructive rhetoric out there as things currently stand. Me, I’m all for talking to people from wherever, whoever they are. Because, if humanity is sometimes depressing, more often than not it is still damn fascinating. And, in the Caribbean, there truly are no strangers; only drinking partners that you haven’t met yet.
Sweet, soulful stuff, and so life affirming. Special memories made anew in a special place. Fine times in a fine style. What’s not to love?
Today finds the Adventure of the Seas in the pretty Dutch port of Willemstad, Curacao. There’s a warm breeze whipping across an otherwise cloudless sky. In front of us is P&O Cruises’ Britannia. From both ships a torrent of passengers is pouring ashore like a stream of maddened ants.
I’m thinking back to last night right now, and remembering one of the most spectacular welcome aboard cocktail parties that I’ve ever seen on any ship in over three and a half decades of cruise travel. As events go, it was- like the rest of this enormous ship- spectacular, and well over the top.
The venue was the vast, four deck high Royal Promenade, a huge open space that bisects the middle of the ship over a length of around six hundred feet or so. It’s done up like a European main street, and is lined with bars, shops and cafes that run right along the length of both sides. There’s an English pub here, a sports bar there, and a French style sidewalk cafe for good measure. Tables and chairs spill out along the paved ‘street’; a trio of viewing bridges span the middle levels of the complex while, on both sides, three rows of atrium cabins have huge bay windows that look down on all the fun below.
So you have a grand, truly glamorous venue that buzzes and hums with foot traffic at all hours of the day and night. This being formal night, most people put on their glad rags, and really dressed up to the nines.
The large Puerto Rican contingent on board looked every bit as smart and snappy as you might expect. They promenaded up and down the huge expanse of space in large, expansive family groups, from Grandparents right down to tiny tots. It was a wonderful sight to behold.
One young couple even paraded their baby dog. Naturally, the little doggy was carried, proudly sporting a bright new red bib that it had been bought for it’s prom stroll. It got almost as much love and attention as the cutest of the kids. You couldn’t help but smile.
In the midst of all this, a battalion of solicitous Royal Caribbean stewards circulated among the crowd, delivering glasses of complimentary chilled champagne to the milling throng. And, stage left, the ship’s eight man orchestra took it’s stand. All sporting full tuxedos, they launched into a rollicking set, with the five man brass section creating a wall of sound that reverberated off the upper level of this cavernous chamber and it’s crowd of schmoozing, boozing fun lovers.
They played it all; starting with classic Sinatra staples, then segueing smartly into sultry Brazilian samba and a medley of delicious Dixieland jazz. People began to shuffle their feet and dance as the music, mood and venue came together to create something utterly magical, and well worth getting dressed up for. To those who say that the magic has ‘gone’ from cruising, well- no. No, it hasn’t.
There then followed the usual welcome introduction from the captain and his officers, and then we all set away to indulge in our own wealth of diverse whims for the evening. All in all, it was a truly stellar beginning to a magical night at sea.
On another front, by now I was beginning to grow mildly worried about my increasing addiction to the fried dumplings served up at the on board breakfast buffet. My arteries started to whimper every time I laid eyes on the damned things, but they were just too good to resist. It’s only a week, I kept telling myself…
And so, with the sun well and truly past the yardarm on another sunny day, it was time for my daily Jacuzzi aerobics session before heading ashore. Honestly, who knew that lifting a Strawberry Daiquiri in a hot tub required such intensive practice?
In 2017, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom Of The Seas will return to Europe for her first series of cruises since being delivered from the Turku shipyard in Finland, back in 2006.
The 154,407 ton ship- first of the three Freedom class ships (Her sibling are Liberty Of The Seas and Independence Of the Seas) has stayed in service out of North American ports ever since her debut.
The deployment of the 3,782 passenger ship brings a temporary halt to the deployment of successive Oasis class ships on the seven night ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ circuit out of Barcelona for Royal Caribbean. In succession, Oasis, Allure and currently Harmony Of The Seas have spent summer seasons sailing on the port intensive Mediterranean run out of the Spanish port.
Thus, this first European deployment for Freedom Of The Seas comes as something of a surprise, and definitely a downscaling of Royal Caribbean’s presence in Europe. On the other hand, the deployment of all three Oasis class ships in the year round Caribbean trade gives the company unparalleled dominance in the US domestic market.
Whether this is a one off deployment (a reaction to falling passenger numbers in general, perhaps) remains to be seen. None the less, with sister ship Independence Of The Seas sailing out of Southampton to the Mediterranean as well, the arrival of Freedom Of The Seas on station in Barcelona next summer still gives Royal Caribbean a very formidable presence indeed in the region.
Interesting times, for sure. Stay tuned for further news.
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.
Interesting times, for sure. As ever, stay tuned.
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