The news has broken today that Thomson Cruises, part of the global TUI brand and the third largest cruise line in the UK, will rebrand as Marella Cruises later this month.
The name- a derivative of the Celtic word for ‘Shining Sea’- will be retrospectively applied to all four vessels that will fly the company colours by next summer- Marella Celebration, Marella Discovery, Marella Discovery 2 and Marella Explorer.
With the new name comes a serious expansion of the brand’s global reach; for winter 2018-18, Marella Discovery will embark on a series of fourteen, seven night Far East itineraries calling at such vibrant destinations as Singapore, Langkawi, Phuket and Vietnam- the first time that the operator has employed a ship in these waters for well over a decade.
And the line will also offer a first ever, two ship winter sailing out of Barbados over that same season, as Marella Celebration and Marella Explorer sail a series of seven night fly cruises to the highlights of the Caribbean, all of which can be combined with a seven night pre or post cruise stay on Barbados itself.
All of this marks a significant attempt by the tour operator to muscle in on the UK accented winter cruise market. With all inclusive fares, multiple dining options and the ability to join a Caribbean cruise from a whole range of regional airports across the country, the newly minted Marella is looking poised to make a significant impact on the contemporary cruise market.
After her return from Thomson Cruises this coming November of 2017, it had been intended to send the 40,000 ton, 1400 passenger Celestyal Majesty (currently still sailing as the Thomson Majesty) to Cuba after a short refit. That plan has now been sunk.
Instead, it seems that the ship will lay up for the first two months of the year, before entering service on the three and four day run out of Athens to the Greek Islands and Turkey in late March.
Three day cruises will sail from Piraeus each Friday, offering a call in Mykonos that same evening. Next morning, passengers can choose between an early morning visit to Samos, or a shorter call into Kusadasi, before an early evening visit to Patmos.
Next day finds the ship at Heraklion in the morning, with an early evening visit to Santorini, before arriving back into Piraeus on the following Monday.
The four day, Monday sailings follow an identical route, except for an added, full day call into Rhodes after the Patmos call. In this guise, the Celestyal Majesty is offering the pretty much tried and tested ‘short run’ options that have proved so popular for several years now.
But it’s the following, seven day Idyllic Aegean itineraries that are really making waves. Beginning on April 30th, the Celestyal Majesty will offer a seven night cruise running through to October that offers no less than three overnight stays in two of Greece’s most compelling high spots.
Sailing in late afternoon, the Celestyal Majesty arrives at Mykonos just before midnight that same day, there to begin a two day and night stay in the platinum chip people watching capital of the Dodecanese. Passengers can come and go from the ship as and when they wish during this extended stay- the only one of its kind-at the Aegean’s most hedonistic hot spot.
The ship then sails on to further calls at Ios and Milos, before a third full overnight stay in Santorini. There is an afternoon call into Crete’s capital of Heraklion, before a final day that again offers the options of either an early start to Samos, or a longer day in Kusadasi, before the ship returns to Piraeus the next day.
These new cruises- similar to the ones being offered aboard the smaller Celestyal Nefeli this year- have really upped the ante in the Greek local market. While still very port intensive, the included possibility of three full nights ashore (though it’s not likely that the ship would run all night tender service into Santorini) on a larger ship, really marks a significant notch up in the local product offering.
Shore excursions in the ports, as well as an all inclusive drinks package, are offered to UK passengers as part of the overall cruise price. And, while Celestyal does not offer a fly cruise programme, flights and transfers to Athens are easily arranged independently.
From London, Manchester and Edinburgh, Easyjet has direct flights to Athens. Ryanair flies to Athens from Stansted. Air France and KLM serve Athens from twenty one UK airports via their respective hubs at Paris and Amsterdam.
Celestyal Majesty herself is the perfect size for cruising to the smaller, more secluded ports of the Greek Islands, as well as the ‘Greatest Hits’ ports such as Mykonos. While she does not have numerous balcony cabins or multiple restaurants, she is a pretty ship, both inside and out, that will offer her passengers an authentically intimate, local Greek style experience, with food and entertainment crafted to fit the environment through which the ship will be sailing.
Standard inside and outside cabins are of roughly the same size; not huge, but big and comfortable enough for a week where passengers will be spending much of their time ashore. And, while wardrobe space might be tight, you won’t need a huge amount of formal wear for what is a very footloose, free and easy kind of cruise experience.
Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines yesterday confirmed a second consecutive season of sailings from Newcastle’s Port of Tyne on it’s flagship, Balmoral.
The 43, 537 ton ship accommodates some 1,350 passengers across some 710 cabins. Beginning in May of 2017, she will offer some thirteen departures from Port of Tyne, sailing through until the end of September.
Highlights of the 2017 Balmoral programme will include a five night departure to western Norway, an eleven night ‘Swedish Waterways’ round trip, and a fifteen night ‘Authentic Andalusia’ sailing that will highlight seven ports of call in Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar.
The news, announced last night, comes as a welcome boost following the recent announcement of the return of Thomson Cruises to the Tyne for 2017- their first such sailings since 2014. That company will offer a series of Norwegian and Baltic itineraries. And, with the continuing presence of Cruise and Maritime Voyages for several Newcastle sailings next year, the placement of Port of Tyne as one of the premier regional departure ports in the UK seems assured.
Located just eight miles from the centre of Newcastle, Port of Tyne boasts easy, accessible links from London and the north west via rail, road and air travel, and a dedicated cruise and ferry terminal that offers a seamless embarkation process overall.
For 2016, the Port of Tyne season commences with the arrival of Cruise and Maritime’s Magellan for the first of a series of seven night sailings to the Norwegian Fjords.
A short, four hour flight delivered me smartly from the depths of a grey British winter, and into the warm, welcoming embrace of twenty eight degrees of sunshine on balmy Tenerife. As the plane climbed from grey skies into blue, my spirits soared with it.
A while later, I was greeted by the welcome, familiar sight of the Thomson Majesty, sitting serenely at dockside in the port of Santa Cruz. Boarding her at once brought back a whole host of memories from other cruises on this ship, all of them good. Safe to say that my mood had improved by leaps and bounds since leaving home.
Over the next week the 40,000 ton ship would make a stately circuit around a slew of sun splashed Canarian favourites. There was bustling Gran Canaria, where surfers braved the broad Atlantic rollers that drummed the beach at Las Canteras. Indulging in a few glasses of wine on the broad, umbrella shaded promenade that winds above that beach is a simple, timeless treasure whose therapeutic effects cannot be overstated.
There was sparse, stoic little La Gomera; a seldom visited treasure trove where a restored, fifteenth century watch tower stands guard among rows of pastel hued houses that stand in serried rows against a background of looming limestone cliffs. A long, slowly curving beach of black volcanic sand, sprinkled with palm trees, was almost deserted in the first hours of a Sunday morning. I suspect that this little gem is probably the most authentic and unspoiled of all the Canary Islands.
Next came Madeira; long a personal favourite, and the only Portuguese hold out in this otherwise Spanish accented region. It feels a million miles different in temperament and pace from its near neighbours.
Mountainous and effortlessly majestic, Madeira lacks the vast swathes of sandy beaches and resort life so typical of the Spanish islands. In the pretty harbour of Funchal, beautiful botanical gardens frame the seafront in a riot of hibiscus, oleander and wisteria. Winding, cobbled streets give are flanked by rows of white and ochre coloured houses, with window shutters of polished teak, and flower boxes brimming to overflowing with fresh blooms.
Cafes and bars spill right down to the waterfront, stretching right along the entire expanse of the broad, beautiful lido. Despite this being technically a capital city, the pace of life in Funchal- not a small town by any means- seems somehow more laid back. As a place to simply kick back and indulge in some platinum chip people watching, Funchal is equalled only by the French Riviera and, perhaps, Sorrento.
In between all of this, there is a welcome sea day aboard the Thomson Majesty herself; a blissful opportunity to recharge the batteries, and simply catch some very welcome winter sun. The upper deck has a pair of centrally located pools, with sun walks up above lined with rows of sun loungers. As with many ships, those loungers fill very quickly, and finding a little ‘quality space’ of your own is always difficult with fourteen hundred passengers on board.
It’s also very noisy when the entertainment staff organise the afternoon deck games; an overly amplified, ear splitting series of banal ‘party’ games. But, to be fair, most of the passengers do seem to love them.
Two decks down, a full promenade runs right around the ship on Seven Deck. Few people seem to find it during the day, and the rows of sun loungers down here are a far more pleasant place to just chill out and soak up that benign Canarian sunshine than upstairs.. The contrast is like the difference between night and day.
Inside, the Thomson Majesty remains a pert, pretty ship; one largely unchanged since her Norwegian Cruise Line days. There are interior boulevards lined by walls of floor to ceiling windows that are prefect for just relaxing with a coffee, a book, or a beer. Even all three. Throughout the ship, stained glass ceilings and beautiful, blond wood panelling frame a series of intimate, elegant public rooms that make the Thomson Majesty a warm, perennially appealing alternative to the other vast, far more impersonal vessels sailing these same waters.
Both indoor and casual dining varies from good to excellent. The addition of an upper deck enclosed eatery- Piazza San Marco- eases the congestion in the usually crowded Cafe Royale, up forward on the topmost deck. The room itself, however, is pretty spartan, and has the feel of a hastily thrown up wedding marquee. Some plants around the edges of this room would soften it a lot, and add some real warmth that is currently lacking.
Downstairs, the two main restaurants are on Deck Five, and both have windows overlooking the sea on at least one side. The menu is typical cruise fare, tailored inevitably toward the British market. For the likes of steak and lobster, there is a surcharge.
There is a smaller, more intimate restaurant- Le Bistro- bookable at a surcharge. It offers upscale food and service, and needs to be booked in advance. In cabin breakfasts also come with a surcharge.
Cabins themselves come in inside and outside categories. A small number of the eight deck cabins- together with the suites and mini suites on Deck Nine- come complete with nice balconies, though these are not very private.
Standard cabins are small, with separate beds that can convert to a double. They come complete with shower and WC, and limited storage space. That said, the Thomson Majesty is a fairly casual ship in terms of dress code; think resort casual, and pack accordingly.
Entertainment wise, the intimate size of the ship precludes the lavish floor shows of the mega ships, but that is not to imply a lack of fun when the sun goes down. Far from it.
Live bands and smaller, more intimate Broadway revues vie with a good sized casino and a large, aft facing disco for your custom. There are quieter venues for drinks and conversation, some with piano background music, and some without. Others enjoy simply sitting outside on the upper decks with a bottle of wine, taking in the starlight and the warm breeze.
This cruise is a pretty regimented, though well organised, run to some very appealing little idylls in the sun. The Canaries may not be dramatic and studded with must do things, but they do offer a vibrant, compelling and convenient alternative to the bone numbing banality of a European winter. The lifestyle is good, and you should never, ever underestimate how good that warm winter sun can feel.
Add to this a comfortable, appealing, pretty little ship that still has all the bells and whistles that you could possibly want, and the appeal becomes obvious. Seventeen years after I first crossed her gangway, the Thomson Majesty remains one of the prettiest ships afloat. I’d definitely do this one again.
Elegant luxury travel on sea, land and by air, past, present and future