Friday, 31 July 2009

From Shining Century to Admirable Equinox

Southampton has played host all week to the new Celebrity Equinox, the second of the cruise line's Solstice-class ships and the first to be named in the UK.

And the initial review, feedback and gossip all suggest one thing - this is a HUGE success for Celebrity that brings them firmly back into the front rank of cruise ship hierarchy once again. Back in the limelight, and loving it!

I vividly remember all the hype and hoopla around their Century class ships back in 1995/96, when then Celebrity chief John Chandris led various press trips to the superb Meyer Werft shipyard at Papenburg, Germany.

The Century itself, quickly followed by the slightly larger Mercury and Galaxy (the latter of which is now sailing for TUI Cruises as Mein Schiff), proved to be something of a revolutionary vessel, breaking the existing mould of other new-builds at that time which were either horribly traditional and dull (P&O, NCL) or outrageously garish (Carnival).

For the first time, here was a new, European-styled cruise ship which was completely modern and stylish but also kept things in perspective, maintaining a solid cruise tradition with some revolutionary touches like their AquaSpa, expansive Sky Suites and a grand, two-level main Dining Room that offered a truly classic touch.

The Century was a beautiful ship to sail on, big enough to provide a choice in almost evertything you did but small enough to be comfortable and highly quality-conscious. You never felt you were on a vessel of 70,000-plus tons, and her two sisters were equally impressive.

The follow-up Millennium-class quartet slightly lost the plot, however. They weren't massively bigger at 91,000 tons compared to 71,000/77,000 but there was something horribly bulky and blockish about their design. The smooth, refined service which was a notable feature of the Century-class vessels wasn't quite so smooth and the standout feature of their main dining and alternative dining didn't measure up the line's Chandris-era standards.

Celebrity needed a game-changer to put them back at the forefront of the current welter of new-builds (greater quality from Carnival; more glitz from Costa; huge diversity from NCL; extra glamour from Holland America; and more of everything from Princess) and they opted to go for the bigger-still policy.

November 2008 saw the advent of the 122,000-ton Celebrity Solstice, a kind of combination of the original Century series and Royal Caribbean's massive Voyager-class. But this time, instead of just enlarging the blueprint and losing the focus, Celebrity kept things sharply in line, adding new features like their AquaClass staterooms and manicured Lawn Club (a surprisingly attractive novelty) and a truly indulgent alternative dining line-up.

Now, without allowing any grass (ho, ho) to grow under their feet, the line has made sure their new series is showcased firmly for the UK audience, hence the 7-day Southampton prelude to her first full inaugural sailing.

And it really looks like they have a massive hit on their hands. The travel trade has been suitably wowed, the grand Southampton naming ceremony was a complete headline-grabber and a 'taster' cruise for an assemblage of cruise and travel writers also seems to have been wamly received.

There is a good reason for this, of course. In April 2010 the third of these glamorous new-builds, Celebrity Eclipse, will hove into view and take up semi-permanent residence in Southampton for a seven-month season, becoming a 'British' ship in all but name (Equinox is off for a summer season in the Med shortly).

Celebrity badly needed Equinox to blaze an impressive trail for Solstice to follow. And, by the look of the past 7 days, they have achieved all that, and more besides.

An admirable Equinox indeed.