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.
Without doubt, one of the defining memories of Barack Obama’s second term as US President will be the sudden, long overdue rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba. All of a sudden, more than five decades of mutual fear, suspicion and name calling seem to have collapsed as completely as the Berlin Wall of old.
Now the cruise lines are looking to get back into Cuba, and how. And, with relations between the two countries warming almost daily, it is only a matter of time before Cuba becomes as subsumed by contemporary cruise culture as every other island in the Caribbean. My advice? Get out there now.
As things stand, these are your current cruising options if you are a European citizen, intent on seeing Cuba.
MSC Cruises will operate the 60,000 ton MSC Opera on year round Cuba cruises, centered on Havana, for the 2017 season. Each voyage features at least a two night stay in the Cuban capital.
Come the winter, sister ship MSC Armonia will also offer a similar season of seven night cruises, again centered on Havana, before the ship returns to Europe in the spring.
Both of these ships offer a large number of balcony cabins, great entertainment, as well as multiple dining venues. But if they seem a little big, other options are available.
For the last several seasons, Celestyal Cruises have operated a winter programme aboard the intimate, 24,000 ton Celestyal Cristal. Originally sailing under charter to a Canadian outfit called Cuba Cruises, Celestyal saw massive potential in being the sole operator.
Thus, they bought out the Cuba Cruises stake, and continue to use Celestyal Cristal on the seven night runs. Again centered on Havana, the size of the ship allows the company to offer the most destination intensive programme of all Cuba bound ships.
While relatively intimate, a recent refurbishment updated the Celestyal Cristal with refreshed public rooms, and a number of additional balcony cabins. And, as of next year, the ship will be sailing Cuba itineraries year round, instead of returning to Europe each spring.
Carnival has also introduced fortnightly sailings on it’s new Fathom offshoot. Making a week long circuit of Cuba from Miami, the 4o,000 ton ship offers what is claimed to be a truly immersive local experience. Passengers can opt to learn how to make cocktails at bars ashore, or engage with local artists, musicians and families, in an environment intended to benefit both the passengers and the local community. It will be interesting to see just how this new genre of ‘eco-cruising’ ultimately plays out.
Perhaps most evocative of all, Star Clippers will offer a series of sailings between Havana and Cienfuegos over winter 2016-17 on the 3,000 ton, four masted Star Flyer. Carrying just 170 passengers, this awesome seagoing cathedral offers a series of seven, ten and eleven night sailings that-like many of the other cruises listed here- also call in at Grand Cayman. And, while the idea of a Cuba cruise is exotic enough in it’s own right, the lure of seeing this sultry island under full sail is something else again.
What else might be coming? I would put money on it being only a matter of months before Royal Caribbean enters the ring. The line has just resumed sailings with the 42,000 ton Empress of the Seas from Miami, after that ship had spent the previous eight seasons in Europe sailing for the Spanish operator, Pullmantur.
Currently, the ship is slated to sail three, four and five day sailings to the Bahamas and Caribbean from Miami, but she is also the perfect size for a resumption of Cuba cruising. All of the ‘big’ companies in the cruise industry- notably Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean- are currently hampered in the Cuban market by the sheer size of most of their vessels. The long neglected infrastructure of Cuba is simply incapable of handling such giant ships.
Hence the sudden return of Empress of the Seas, a ship that operated successfully for many years on the New York to Bermuda run, where similar size limitations then applied. I would not be at all surprised to see this spiky little ship placed on a round trip, weekly service from Miami, with up to three full nights’ docked in Havana itself. If this does indeed materialise, I would expect it to be a year round service as well.
Invariably, Cuba will adept to accommodate the latest and largest of the all singing, all dancing, Vegas-at-Sea style resort ships. When that eventually happens, it is highly likely that Cuba will become as much a Caribbean staple circuit as Cozumel, Saint Thomas and Antigua.
Interesting times, for sure, Al always, stay tuned.
Elegant luxury travel on sea, land and by air, past, present and future