This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver looks at recent announcements by Seabourn Cruise to build two new ships.
October: Seabourn Cruise Line announced today that it will build two new ships for delivery in spring 2009 and 2010. Seabourn, a division of Miami-based Carnival Corporation & plc has signed a letter of intent for the project with shipbuilder T. Mariotti S.p.A. of Genoa, Italy. Each of the 32,000-GRT ships will accommodate all guests in 225 suites, ninety percent of which will offer private verandas. Combined, the two vessels will more than double Seabourn's current fleet capacity of 634 berths.
In an era where cruise ships just keep on getting bigger and bigger, the construction of two new 'small' ships is an incredibly rare event. Lets not forget that in 1996 Carnival gave us the biggest ship in the world with the 101,353 gross ton 'Carnival Destiny' and again in 2004 with the 151,400 gross ton Queen Mary 2. Both ships have has since been superseded in size by other cruise ships, but the QM2 is still the worlds biggest ocean Liner and likely to be for years to come.
Although there were unfounded rumours that Carnival was looking to sell Seabourn, their faith in the brand is clearly demonstrated by the order for two new ships. The two yacht-like vessels will have an external appearance, which is not dissimilar to the existing 10,000 gross ton Seabourn triplets (Pride, Spirit and Legend). Interestingly, the Seabourn newbuilds will be the smallest Carnival ships ever built, as their first purpose built ship, 'Tropicale' in 1981, was 36,674 gross ton.
In August I took a cruise on Fred. Olsen's 'Boudicca', a vessel of modest size at 28,000 gross tons. Now although I enjoy big new mega-ships, and their variety of cabins, public rooms and facilities, there is something very special about cruising on a more intimate ship. In fact I think that around 28-35,000 gross tons is the perfect size for a ship. It's small enough to be intimate, yet big enough to have the space for adequate public rooms and facilities.
The first major advantage of a smaller ship is that you are not sharing your vacation with 2000-3000+ other people. 'Boudicca' carries around 800 passengers. This is particularly noticeable during embarkation and disembarkation. Mega-ship may take eight hours to achieve both. On a small ship the whole process is much quicker. In fact you may well get on and off within an hour or two. The lines for onboard services such as buffets, the Pursers desk, tendering, or even meeting the captain are normally much shorter on a smaller ship. Dining rooms, show lounges and bars etc. are also more intimate. Food can be cooked freshly and put straight onto your plate within a small dining room. On a mega-ship much of the food has to be prepared in advance. You should also experience a more personal service form the staff on a smaller ship.
A second advantage of the smaller ships is that it does not take 10-15 minutes to get anywhere by foot, as it can on a bigger ship. You do not have fourteen decks to climb and descend or endless corridors to navigate, which is particularly important if you have mobility problems. Even if you do not, it is nice to be able to look out of your cabin porthole or window, see something interesting to photograph and be on deck a few minutes later. There is also less chance of getting lost or losing your travel companions,
A third advantage of small ships is that they generally have a better 'connection with the sea' than the mega-ships do. I recall standing on the stern of one particular mega-ship thinking just how far away I actually was away from the sea. On a small ship you are rarely far from a sea view or the chance to get the wind in your face.
Fred. Olsen has actually struggled in recent years to buy small tonnage, as the second-hand ships coming onto the market, are getting progressively bigger. However, there are still passengers out there that would not dream of booking a cruise on a big ship. For example many Olsen regulars actually think 'Boudicca' (28,338 gross tons) and 'Black Watch' (28,492 gross tons) are a little on the big side, preferring Olsen's 'Braemar' (19, 089 gross tons) and 'Black Prince' (11,209 gross tons). The Olsen faithful book these ships precisely because they do not have a thousand plus cabins, and do not offer ice rinks and climbing walls.
In terms of a luxury experience, the Fred. Olsen cruise line is a few notches down the scale from Seabourn Cruise Line. However, they still provide a charming 'small ship' experience, which is becoming increasingly rare. I am overjoyed that the likes of Fred. Olsen still believe in small ships and that with their recent order for the new Seabourn twins, even the world's most successful cruise line has acknowledged that there is more to cruising that just the mega ships.