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Update: Carnival Corporation has issued a statement saying “There is no truth to this rumour”. So that’s that… still, it was an interesting thought, and I still think that there must be a significant difference between the Cunard experience on Queen Mary 2 on the one hand, and on Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth on the other.

There are rumours today about the future of Cunard. The line is presently owned by Carnival Corporation (and has been since the early 90s), but there are suggestions today that Carnival may want to divest themselves of the line, the brand and all of its ships (or maybe just two of them? – see below) to a dedicated operator. There is a suggestion that Carnival have had difficulty competing Cunard with the truly luxury lines.

Of course, it’s also true that, at the present time, Carnival Corporation would welcome some cash liquidity, and selling Cunard line would be a small, discrete package that might generate some cash. It might be that in normal times the sale would not have been contemplated (if, indeed, it is being contemplated now – these are just rumours), but these are not normal times.

Cunard operate three ships – Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Victoria. The first of these is markedly different from the others. Queen Mary 2 is regarded as the last true ocean liner, even though she only went into service in 2004. When she did so she was the largest passenger ship ever built at 148,528 GT. The other two ships, however, are very different. They are modified ‘Vista’ class ships, with a GT figure of just over 90,000, and there are a number of these. Holland-America line has, I think, six similar ships, from the original Vista class ships onwards; P&O has one, the Arcadia (which was intended at one point to be a Cunard ship); and Costa cruises has a couple that are very similar to the two Cunarders. All these other lines are also owned by Carnival Corporation, of course.

There is one other characteristic of Cunard which is unusual, and that is the existence of what in practice is a continuation of old-style First Class. This is the ‘Grills’ class (actually, two classes, Queens’ Grills for those few passengers in the very best suites, and Princess Grill for passengers in other suites). The menus in the Grills restaurants are definitely better than in the Britannia restaurant (for non-suite passengers). It’s also the case that meals in the two Grills restaurants are cooked to order whereas meals in the Britannia are not. All of this contrasts with what generally happens in other cruise lines, in that passengers in suites share the same dining room and menu, etc, as all other passengers.

I’ve always wondered about Cunard’s policy in this regard. I can’t help feeling that passengers in the Grills classes must indeed be having a luxury experience, while other all other passengers must feel a little like second-class citizens – there are parts of the ship, and experiences on-board, that they simply don’t have access to, and that’s an odd situation today. Perhaps that’s why Cunard have found difficulty in selling their cruises as luxury cruises – for most passengers, they simply aren’t. This would be even more the case on board Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, where the environment is distinctly more ordinary than on Queen Mary 2. At least on that ship there is space and, I gather, a feeling of grandeur regardless of what class your cabin is.

But this is all speculation – we must wait to see if there’s any substance to it.

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I’ve learned (thanks to Malcolm Oliver) that Swan Hellenic are set to return, starting in late 2021. I’ve done a few posts in recent years about this line. They used to feature ‘cultural cruising’ – cruises around historic regions, with small ships, guest lecturers, etc. The line closed down in 2017 when their owners, All Leisure Group, went bankrupt. The brand and some others in the All Leisure Group were taken over by G Adventures, who promised that Swan Hellenic would return, but nothing actually transpired.

What’s happened now is that the Swan Hellenic brand has been taken over by private owners, fronted by an Andrea Zito. He apparently has a long history in the shipping and cruise industry, but very much behind the scenes. My guess would be that he is supported by a venture capital company.

That said, the plans are exciting. Swan Hellenic, like the one or two other cultural cruising lines, were previously distinguished by the considerable age and small size of their ships. Well, the revived Swan Hellenic is going even smaller with its ships – 150 passengers! – but they will be new builds. Two ships are apparently under construction (or will be, shortly), to be delivered in the second half of 2021 and early 2022. Cruises on the first one will start in late 2021. They will very much be ‘expedition cruises’ – the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Russian Far East, and destinations in the southern Pacific, including New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

It doesn’t sound as if they will be cheap – indeed, it seems as if the ships will be high-end luxury. The owner is quoted as saying that the line will be pitched at the same level as Le Ponant. The target market will be ‘very experienced travellers’, from the English-speaking world – the US, UK and Australia, plus Europe.

So this is all a bit different from Swan Hellenic’s previous incarnation. It will be interesting to see what happens. They’ve certainly got their timing right – I can’t really see any cruising happening this year, indeed not until well into 2021. The end of that year and early 2022 might be just the right time to launch a new brand, to meet the pent-up demand. I wish them good fortune. Here’s a link to their website.

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I recently did a post in which I outlined the UK Government’s advice on ‘cruise travel’. Essentially, it was – don’t. That advice has changed in the past few days. The advice now includes two additional paragraphs in which the UK Government attempts to define what they mean by ‘cruise travel’. Here are the additional paragraphs:-

Cruise ship travel means staying overnight for at least 1 night on a sea-going cruise ship with people from multiple households.

Our advice against cruises applies to international travel on a ship that is exclusively for pleasure or recreation, providing overnight accommodation and other leisure facilities such as entertainment venues or swimming pools.

That would appear to open up two possibilities. The first is that this permits uk passengers to go on river cruises in Europe. I understand that some of the river cruise lines are restarting, and I believe that many UK river cruise passengers will be happy with this change in the guidance.

The second possibility is that, read carefully, the advice against cruises does not apply to non-international travel on a cruise ship. Theoretically, a cruise completely within the UK would be within the guidance. But that’s purely theoretical – I can’t see it actually happening.

Here’s a link to the revised UK Government advice.

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There have been a couple of interesting announcements recently. First, Carnival Corporation announced yesterday (15 July) that it had sold four of Holland America Line’s (HAL) smaller ships, all dating from the mid-90s to (very) early 00s, and all of about 55,000 to 62,000 tons. Then early today, Fred. Olsen announced that they had bought two of them, the former Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The ships will undergo quick rebranding and will then join the rest of the Fred. Olsen fleet at Rosyth.

The two ships that Fred. Olsen have bought are very similar (if not identical). They are two of the four-strong ‘R’ class that was built for HAL between 1997 and 2000, with Rotterdam being the lead ship and Amsterdam the final one. They’re both around 62,000 tons, and have about 716 cabins – so a standard occupancy of just over 1400 passengers. They’re quite traditional ships – three accommodation decks low-down in the hull containing both ocean-view and inside cabins, then two entertainment decks including a two-floor theatre at the bow, a two-floor main dining room at the stern, plus of course the usual bars, shops, and (I think ) a speciality restaurant or two. Then above them are another two decks of cabins, this time with balconies, and these decks include a number of larger cabins, including suites. Finally there’s the lido deck with the usual pools and buffet restaurant, a sun deck above that, and what looks like a special Oasis area on a truncated deck at the very top. The middle of these upper decks (the one I’ve called a Sun deck) has a Crow’s Nest forward and a ‘club’ aft. Finally, both ships have a wrap-round promenade deck. All in all, a very traditional ship which seems on the face of it to match Fred. Olsen’s style perfectly.

I think this is a brave and confident move by Fred. Olsen. Over recent years I’ve been hearing many complaints from P&O’s traditional passengers that P&O was not giving them what they wanted – that they kept getting rid of the smaller ships (Artemis and the smaller Adonia come to mind), that their traditional cruise style was going (for example, the end of silver service in the main dining room), and there was an endless drive towards ever-bigger and ever-glitzier ships – which those passengers didn’t want. The departure of Oriana a couple of years ago was especially lamented, as is the departure now of Oceana. Once cruising restarts I think that all of those customers will be able to find a new home with Fred. Olsen as I’m convinced that these two ships can provide a very strong, traditional cruise experience, and Fred. Olsen have the experience to deliver just that.

There is one area of uncertainty, of course. Will the arrival of these new ships result in the departure of any of Fred. Olsen’s current fleet? Well, there’s no hint at the moment, and in any case there is so much uncertainty about cruising that it’s hard to make any forecasts at all. If Fred. Olsen can grab enough of the traditional cruise market from other lines then they might be able to keep all six ships; but if not, then something will have to go. I’ve heard a suggestion that they would get rid of Black Watch and/or Boudicca, but those ships have become so strongly associated with Fred. Olsen that I can’t see it. In any case, this is all speculation. The one thing that is certain is that Fred. Olsen have seized the opportunity to buy a couple of excellent ships. It’s only about a month or six weeks since Carnival Corporation announced that they were going to get rid of 14 older ships, so Fred. Olsen have moved quickly to seize this opportunity. Well done Fred. Olsen!

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The EU has issued a document under the title “Interim Advice for restarting cruise ship operations after lifting restrictive measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”. The date of issue was 30 June. Assuming these advice guidelines are implemented, they will have a large impact on the cruise experience.

The document is in 10 main parts, as follows:

  • Parts 1 & 2 are the Introduction and Purpose of the document;
  • Part 3 covers Essential Pre-requisites;
  • Part 4 options for preventing “COVID-19 infectious passengers” from starting their cruise;
  • Part 5 covers preparedness for responding to COVID-19 events on board cruise ships;
  • Part 6 covers options to prevent COVID-19 travellers (passengers and crew) from boarding cruise ships;
  • Part 7 covers Measures for preventing and limiting transmission of COVID-19 on board cruise ships;
  • Part 8 covers managing COVID-19 on board cruise ships and at terminal stations;
  • Part 9 is about responding to COVID-19 outbreaks retrospectively;
  • Part 10 covers cruise terminals; and
  • 3 annexes.

The document is very long – 48 pages, in fact – and it’s not possible to cover it in any sort of detail here. But (from a very brief perusal) the main measures that are being proposed include the following:

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In an update to its general travel advice, the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised “against cruise travel at this time”. The reason given is the ongoing pandemic. The full text of the advice is:-

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.

The government will continue to review its cruise ship travel advice based on the latest medical advice.

If you have future cruise travel plans, you should speak to your travel operator, or the travel company you booked with, for further advice.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office continues to support the Department for Transport’s work with industry for the resumption of international cruise travel.

As can be seen there is no timetable given as to when the advice might be changed, so the best we can say is that cruising is advised-against for the foreseeable future. This is obviously disappointing and frustrating for many people who were perhaps hoping that with the recent steady lifting of the anti-Covid-19 measures, cruising would also be able to resume soon.

Indeed, it’s ironic that this coincides with a separate announcement that international travel to certain (stated) countries is exempted from the FCO’s overall advice against “all but essential international travel”. The list of exempted countries includes all of the major Mediterranean countries e.g. Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, and Turkey, plus most of the countries of northern Europe, e.g. The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. Between them, these countries make up the majority of summer cruise destinations. Clearly the government feels that it is cruising itself that present a heightened risk and not the destinations.

As I say, we just don’t know for how long this advice will be in force – possibly until the end of the year. One further complicating factor is that the EU has issued advice and guidance on how to cruise safely at the present time – restrictions and actions that the cruise lines must implement. It may be that the UK government is waiting until it has heard from the EU that agreement has been reached with the cruise lines on the measures that will be introduced. I’ll do a post on this in a day or so.

In the meantime, here’s a link to the webpage holding the travel advice from the FCO during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Oceana berthed at Abu Dhabi

P&O have today announced that Oceana is leaving the P&O fleet. In practice, with the current pause this is happening immediately – the announcement says “this month”.

I’m not surprised by this. I have a feeling that this is all to do with Venice…. I’ll explain.

For the last several years there have been de-facto restrictions on the size of ships sailing into Venice – about 89,000 tons – and Oceana is within this limit. There’s some uncertainty as whether or not this regulation was actually still legally in force, but that didn’t matter – the Cruise Lines Industry Association announced that its members (which includes P&O) would would continue to observe the restriction, regardless of its strict legal validity.

For the last several years, Oceana has done summer fly-cruises out of Malta, some of which (about 1 in 3?) have included a call at Venice. These Mediterranean fly-cruises have proved very popular, and I’m sure that P&O would have loved to deploy a larger ship with more passengers on these itineraries, but the larger ships – Azura, Ventura, etc – are all too big for Venice. What’s changed is that in the face of the continuing protests about cruise ships, the accident involving the MSC ship last year, and possibly other issues, it looks as if the cruise lines are leaving Venice altogether. For example, Royal Caribbean announced a month or so ago that their itineraries on the eastern side of Italy would call at Ravenna in future and not at Venice, and I anticipate that they will be followed by others. I’ve been anticipating that P&O will make a similar announcement. Since in that case they would no longer be calling at Venice they could use one of their larger ships, and in the face of that Oceana begins to look a bit surplus to requirements.

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The (rather crowded) open decks at Naples

This was our first cruise so everything was new to us. However I had done my research via various websites and had therefore picked up lots of basic information. For example, we had learned about the lifeboat/muster drill; about the on-board cashless system; and about the two-sitting dining experience; and when we encountered all of these for the first time there were no surprises.

What did surprise us was just how lavish and comfortable MSC Sinfonia was. We now know that in fact it was pretty typical for ships of that era, i.e. the early 00s, but we were impressed. In particular the standard of furnishings and fittings in all the public areas made a big impression on us, with rich colours. We made good use of the bars and lounges (and see below for more on that), we enjoyed the open decks, and we also liked walking along the promenades – Sinfonia had wide promenades down both sides, although there were no wrap-round sections at bow or stern. At the time we accepted the lack of space on board, but looking back at the photos I can see that it was quite crowded. But with no sea days in the itinerary, that wasn’t too much of a problem – we were off the ship and ashore every day.

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Naples – Stazione Marittima

As I mentioned in the previous post, our first cruise was very port-heavy. A 7-night cruise, and therefore 6 full days, it had a port every day.

Here’s the itinerary:

  • Genoa: embarkation and departure at 17:00
  • Naples: 12:00 – 20:00
  • Palermo: 08:00 – 17:00
  • Tunis: 08:00 – 13:00
  • Palma: 14:00 – 01:00
  • Barcelona: 09:00 – 19:00
  • Marseilles: 08:00 – 19:00
  • Genoa: disembarkation by about 09:00.

We had also havered for a while about the itinerary. MSC at that time did two 7-night Western Mediterranean cruises out of Genoa, with slightly different itineraries, and departing on different days. My recollection is that the alternative itinerary called at Rome instead of Naples, Tunis later in the day, and possibly Valencia or somewhere in southern Spain rather than Palma. IIRC the prices were pretty much identical.

Given that this was our first cruise, all of these ports were new to us as ports. We had been to Palma the year previously on a land-based holiday to Mallorca, and had enjoyed it.Also, being our first cruise, we had no idea about docking arrangements, shuttle buses, etc – it was all new to us. As it happened, we berthed very centrally at Naples (at the old Stazione Maritimo) and also at Barcelona, within a few minutes’ walking distance of the bottom of La Rambla. At Palma we were a bit further out, maybe a kilometre or so round the bay from the cathedral. I’m not sure about Palermo, but at both Tunis and Marseilles were some miles away from the main parts of town and shuttle buses were in operation.

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Part 1 – Introduction and overview

Fifteen years ago (today, as I write) we were on our first cruise. It was on MSC Sinfonia, lasted for 7 nights/6 full days, and was a fly cruise from/to Genoa. It was very port-heavy – six full days, six ports. This was long before I’d started this blog and therefore it was never properly reviewed here. Recently I came across a physical scrapbook that I made about it shortly after the cruise finished – surely a precursor to this blog? – with lots of text and photos. Better still, I kept the text and image files from which I created the scrapbook. So I’ve decided to do a review, not only of the cruise itself, but also of my original review – has my thinking changed? Would we be as happy with that cruise today as we obviously were fifteen years ago?

This is what I said at the beginning of that old review:

This was our first cruise, and we chose MSC for a combination of the itinerary, the price, and the newness of the ship.

On reflection I don’t think that’s quite the whole story.

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