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.
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.
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.
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’……
The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that Pullmantur cruises is closing it’s South America office at the end of March.
The Spanish cruise line- an offshoot of Royal Caribbean International- has been sailing troubled waters for some time now.
Last year, the intended transfer to Pullmantur of Majesty of the Seas was put on indefinite hold. The ship- the third of the original, pioneering Sovereign class of mega ships- was earmarked to rejoin her sister ships Sovereign and Monarch in the Pullmantur fleet.
Instead, it was decided to keep the ship at RCCL instead and, after a substantial refurbishment, she is due to start a new series of three and four day cruises from Port Canaveral for the parent company.
Then came the news that the 1990 built Empress (ex Nordic Empress, Empress of the Seas) would be leaving the Pullmantur fleet and returning to Royal Caribbean as- Empress of the Seas. The ship is currently being refurbished in a shipyard in Cadiz, before returning to Royal Caribbean after some eight seasons with Pullmantur.
All of this should have been enough to set alarm belles ringing, especially after the end of the rival Spanish cruise operator, Iberocruises. This offshoot of Costa had also been struggling for quite some time.
Thus far, Pullmantur is planning to have one ship in South America over the coming winter of 2016/17, and the likelihood is that she will be chartered and sold by one of the local market operators, such as CVC.
The South America market as a whole is witnessing some enforced contraction, with MSC, Costa, and even Royal Caribbean itself downsizing their winter deployments there. Interestingly, only Norwegian Cruise Line is bucking the trend right now, with a deployment this winter of the popular Norwegian Sun down South America way.
As for 2016, Pullmantur has the Monarch in the Baltic, marking the first ever deployment of a Sovereign class mega ship on any Northern European itineraries.
Part of the problem for Pullmantur is that, while Sovereign and Monarch are still fine ships, they have far too many small inside cabins, precious few balcony cabins, and few of the bells and whistles of the rival Costa and MSC ships. They also lack the raft of alternative dining options offered by the competition. Those likely so sail down South America way are more likely to be attracted to these newer vessels in many cases.
Pullmantur does have the theoretical advantage of being an ‘all inclusive’ product compared to the competition, but current events would seem to suggest that is not enough to even the scales.
It would be a shame to see this spirited little Spanish operation go to the wall. Let’s hope it does not come to that.
As ever, stay tuned for updates.
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