A reader recently bemoaned the trend toward bigger ships and said the alternative--small luxury ships--was out of his price range.
Well, good news is on the horizon. P&O Cruises has purchased three small ships of the former Renaissance Cruises fleet and announced that they will be sailing late this year and in early spring on affordable itineraries.
Two of the 688-passenger ships, the former R3 and R4, will sail under the Princess Cruises flag; the R8 will replace Swan Hellenic's Minerva and become the Minerva II. R4 will be renamed the Tahitian Princess and will sail on various itineraries from Papeete, Tahiti. The R3, renamed the Pacific Princess, will split the year sailing from Tahiti under the Princess Cruises banner and in the South Pacific under the P&O Australian Cruises flag.
Few changes are expected to be made on the R3 and R4, besides painting the blue hull white and attaching new logos on the stack. The 30,277-ton ships, which carry a crew of 373, will feature many of the Personal Choice options found on larger Princess ships. There will be 24-hour dining in the Lido Cafe and alternative dining programs in Sabatini's Trattoria and the Sterling Steakhouse besides the traditional dining room experience.
The ships have 282 standard cabins, ranging in size from a windowless inside one, with 156 square feet to outside cabins with balconies at a comfortable 216 square feet.
Fifty-two mini-suites are 322 square feet and 10 suites have 786 to 962 square feet. Cabins have twin beds that can be combined into one queen-size bed, a breakfast table, sofa, desk/dresser and bath with shower. Suites contain extra chairs, mini-bar and bath/shower combination, and the top suites have a separate living room with an entertainment center, a CD player and a bathroom with Jacuzzi tub plus an additional half-bath for guests.
The initial holiday cruise of the Tahitian Princess will leave Papeete on Dec. 24 for a 10-day sailing that will call at Bora-Bora, Moorea and Raiatea. After that will be 34 French Polynesia/Cook Islands sailings with overnight stays in Papeete and Bora-Bora; eight French Polynesia/Samoa cruises, which include visits to Pago Pago and Apia; and eight itineraries in the Marquesas that will visit Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa along with the Polynesian ports of call. Promotional pricing for the 10-day sailings begins at $799 per person, double occupancy.
South Pacific itineraries for the Pacific Princess are being developed, with the first sailing scheduled from Sydney, Australia, on Nov. 18. It will begin sailing in Tahiti in spring, then go to San Francisco for 10 Alaska cruises next summer, each 11 days long, before returning to Tahiti and Australia.
Swan Hellenic Cruises, also part of the P&O group, has planned many changes to the former R8 to bring the ship more in line with its cruise line "experience," says Carolanne Dieleman, the line's sales and marketing director. Passengers will be limited to 600, although the ship can hold 696. Open seating in the dining room will continue, but the line will add two alternative restaurants, one featuring ethnic dishes based on the ship's itinerary, the other a grill room serving simple food, steaks and chops "without fancy sauces."
But the real staples of the Swan Hellenic experience are on-board lecturers, in-depth shore excursions, classical music recitals, art classes and performances by local music and dance groups. The expansive spa on the new Minerva II will offer alternative therapies and exercises, including tai chi and yoga classes.
The casino aboard the former R8 will be remade into the Wheeler Bar, and the Observation Lounge will become the Orpheus Room, a venue for classical and jazz concerts and an occasional mini-production from London's West End theater district. Other areas on the made-over ship: an Internet room, fitness center and spa, and a pool deck with two whirlpool spas.
Cabin decor will reflect the ambience of an English country house.
Minerva II's maiden voyage, from April 16 to 26, will leave from Valletta, Malta, for visits to Greece and Turkey, sailing via Katakolo for historic Olympia and Gythion for Mistra before berthing in Piraeus for Athens. Additional calls will be at Delos, Heraklion and Rhodes, ending with visits to Kusadasi and Ephesus. Prices begin at $3,218 per person, double occupancy, and include air fare to and from London to the ship, shore excursions, entrance fees, transfers and gratuities, both on board and ashore.
Next summer there will be a series of round-trip sailings from Britain, including a four-day "tester" cruise from Dover to Amsterdam and to Antwerp, Belgium, on Aug. 30, and to Guernsey and St. Malo on Sept. 3. Prices begin at $961 and $755, respectively.
During the 2003 Christmas holidays, the Minerva II will sail in the Caribbean, ending in New Orleans in its first U.S. visit. From there the ship will depart for Mexico with a transit of the Panama Canal. The 15-day Christmas/New Year cruise begins at $3,824, the Central America cruise at $4,384.
For a Princess Cruises brochure see a travel agent, call (800) PRINCESS (774-6237) or visit www.prin cesscruises.com. For a Swan Hellenic brochure, call (877) 219-4239 or visit www.swanhellenic.com.
Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice a month.