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SMALL SHIPS; GOING SOUTH FOR GOOD?

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Black Watch at Flam. Photo is copyright of the author

When Saga Cruises takes delivery of it’s new Spirit of Discovery in 2019, that line’s current, popular Saga Pearl II will leave the fleet. Though no buyer has yet been announced, it is to be hoped that this charming, intimate ship will find another owner, and hopefully within the UK market at that.

One possible interested party could well be Cruise and Maritime Voyages, which operates the Astor on a winter programme of fly/cruises to and from South Africa and Australia over the autumn and winter. Saga Pearl II is the near identical sister ship to Astor, and there’s no doubt that the two ships would make a great working duo. And, by then, it has to be reckoned that the veteran Marco Polo might well be coming to her final sell by date around that period. The slightly smaller Saga Pearl II would make an ideal replacement, with her outdoor terraced decks and similar, intimate styling, so the logic is inescapable here, too.

Against that, Saga Pearl II has a passenger capacity of just over 500- significantly less than the 800 carried by the adults’ only Marco Polo. And the trend lately at CMV has been to buy more bigger, second hand ships than before. The line first acquired the 45,000 ton, 1,300 passenger Magellan, and then upped the stakes significantly this year with the introduction of the near 64,000 ton, 1,400 passenger Columbus. Though relatively intimate compared with the modern big ships of P&O and Cunard, these two ships are still respectively double and treble the size of the Marco Polo. And, though intimacy remains at the heart of the CMV philosophy, the size of the ships is moving inevitably upwards.

A similar, upward gradient has also taken hold at Fred. Olsen, whose last addition- the 43,000 ton Balmoral- is almost twice the size of the 24,000 ton Braemar, and much larger than either of the stable, popular 28, 000 ton sister duo of Black Watch and Boudicca. It’s interesting to note that all four of the Fred. Olsen ships have been ‘stretched’ with the addition of a new mid section. In fact, both Braemar and Balmoral endured the process when already under the Olsen flag.

Like CMV, Fred. Olsen has nailed it’s colours firmly to providing a more intimate, British oriented travel experience, aimed at the older passenger. And, while both lines have succeeded and gained much success with this approach, it’s difficult to see how they expand in the same market; quite simply, the availability of major tonnage is now becoming an ever increasing problem.

Fred. Olsen has failed to add any new tonnage since the Balmoral back in 2009 and, while all four of the fleet’s ships are undergoing significant refurbishments to keep them fresh and attractive, the line is clearly in need of a new ship, or perhaps two. For a long time, the line has cast a covetous eye on the 38,000 ton Prinsendam of Holland America Line. Up to now, the Dutch line has proved very reluctant to part with it’s widely admired ‘Elegant Explorer’. But that might be about to change.

Holland America itself is in the throes of a retrenchment, geared towards providing the line with larger, more luxurious and family friendly vessels. Two of the 50,000 ton, 1990’s built Statendam class vessels- Ryndam and Statendam herself- were recently sold off to the Carnival subsidiary of P&O Australia. The two remaining in Holland America’s portfolio-Maasdam and Veendam– are clearly on borrowed time, especially when Holland America takes delivery of the stunning Nieuw Statendam in 2018.

If those two do, indeed, go- and it is pretty certain that they will- then Holland America might also, finally, divest itself of the Prinsendam. Any of these three fine, well cared for vessels would make great additions to  Fred. Olsen or, indeed, to Cruise and Maritime Voyages.

Elsewhere, other potential pickings are slim. I’ve already mentioned the lovely little Saga Pearl II, but the 19,000 ton Celestyal Nefeli- the original twin sister of the Braemar– might also be in the mix. Her two year charter to Celestyal Cruises comes to an end this year and, thus far, the Greek line has shown no commitment to renewing it. It has returning tonnage of it’s own to hand at the end of this year, coming back from Thomson Cruises. But the latter line’s decision to retain the popular Thomson Spirit for one more season might yet cause Celestyal to rethink again about the Nefeli.

Other than the ships cited above, it seems that the only new route open for both lines is that of dedicated new builds. Indeed, this is the route that Celestyal itself is heading towards, with plans for a pair of new, 60,000 ton cruise ships. And, with the current, on going boom in the number of small sized expedition ships now under construction, builders are beginning to appraise the viability of more general purpose, smaller sized cruise ships, albeit to a limited degree.

That said, none of this is written in the sky, never mind set in stone. It’s food for thought rather than a set menu. But, as the next two years or so play out, the moving of chess pieces here and there should be fascinating to watch.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

 

 

 

THE SAGA EXPERIENCE-GROWN UP TRAVEL AT SEA

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SAGA SAPPHIRE

For lovers of grown up travel, Saga Cruises is an option that should certainly be on your personal horizon. With just two ships- Saga Sapphire and Saga Pearl II- the line offers a level of elegance and inclusivity aboard their brace of intimate, well served ships.

With just 720 and 500 passengers respectively, Saga Sapphire and Saga Pearl II are sold exclusively to UK passengers over the age of fifty. They feature many single cabins, and public areas that are more refreshingly genteel than screaming glitzy; they have tone, rather than torrents of on board diversions. Your search for a rock climbing wall will disappoint you in the end.

Instead, the line puts the emphasis firmly on good food that is actually outstanding at times, and on low key, high quality live musical entertainment at night. Expect a pleasant piano bar rather than a pounding disco, and cool, late night jazz instead of a frantic casino. This combination of high quality food and live music runs through both ships like a continuous thread.

Saga also offers the marvellous boon of free, chauffeur driven travel from your home direct to the ship, or the options of free rail, coach or even air connections to the port. This seamless packaging of essentials comes as standard, and is an inestimable boon to the line’s prospective guests. The line also offers free travel insurance for each trip, or a per person fare reduction for those already in posession of their own; again, quite forward and thoughtful thinking.

Saga also offers free wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner each evening, as well as free wi-fi and paid gratuities. Taken as a whole, this all amounts to something of a comfort blanket for people that might not otherwise be happy with the idea of voyaging off into the relative unknown, and it’s certainly a key factor in their success. When I visited Saga Pearl II recently on a sold out sailing, more than fifty per cent of the passengers were repeat guests.

interestingly, both ships feature small, indoor pools- a rare treat these days. The upper decks are sprinkled with gorgeous wooden loungers with royal blue padding, and there’s no shortage of umbrella shades tables and chairs. In such an intimate setting, it’s all conducive to raising relaxation to the level of an art form.

And- coming in 2019- is a new flagship, in the form of the currently building Spirit of Discovery. The new ship comes in at around 60,000 tons, and looks like nothing so much as a retro throwback to the great transatlantic liners of the 1930’s, with it’s proud, raked bow, gleaming back hull and a single staunch, graceful funnel. With tasteful, airy interiors more reminiscent of a grand country house rather than a glittering Vegas resort at sea, this new ship looks set to raise the bar on this style of cruising, offering the best of modern luxury in a setting that’s restful, retro indulgence at it’s best.

The one downside is that her introduction will see the departure of Saga Pearl II from the fleet after a final, glorious, fifty four day foray out to South Africa and back.

I’ll be looking at the Saga product in more depth during a short cruise on Saga Sapphire next month, and you’ll be able to read about it right here. As ever, stay tuned.