Sister, Sister

Sister, Sister

Jan and Cindy Brady might disagree, but it’s not always the oldest sister who gets all the attention. In cruising, though there’s undeniable hoopla when a new ship in a new class debuts, it’s often the sister ships that represent new innovations and enticements that define the class as a whole. To close out 2012, Porthole visited five sister ships, finding new and exciting features around every supposedly familiar corner.


Oceania’s Riviera

As Oceania Cruises’ president Kunal Kamlani puts it, “This business is in the details.” So while Oceania’s newest ship, Riviera — christened this May in Barcelona — is structurally identical to its 16-month-older sister, Marina, Kamlani calls the two 1,250-passenger ships fraternal twins. “You learn a lot from building a ship,” says Kamlani, speaking of the Marina — Oceania’s first custom-designed vessel — “and we made some nuanced changes for Riviera.”

In fact, detail-oriented Oceania founder and CEO Frank Del Rio, who oversaw all aspects of the design and construction of Marina and Riviera, has catalogued every one of those changes: 727 of them, to be exact. “You wouldn’t necessarily notice them at first just walking around the ship,” he says “but they’re the little things that make a difference. We listened to (Marina) passengers, we listened to travel agents, we incorporated their feedback, and we did it even better.” Some of the “little things” are functional, others are aesthetic.

On the functional side, Riviera’s U.S.-voltage electrical plugs are located near the bedside nightstands, not just near the desks in the staterooms. “Guests need them for their iPads,” Kamlani points out. Some storage drawers are deeper, and shelves have replaced other drawers altogether. The bathroom shower stalls are equipped with both handheld sprayers and overhead rain showers. Bathtubs have added European-style glass partitions.

In Riviera’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub, a thalassotherapy pool has replaced the two hot tubs found on Marina, and changing rooms have been expanded. In the Grand Bar area, carpeted floors have given way to stone. In two of the ship’s signature restaurants, Polo Grill and Toscana (both located on Deck 14) ceilings have been raised eight inches. “It might not seem like much,” Del Rio says, “but ceiling height is a defining feature on cruise ships.” He points to the expansive ceilings in Riviera’s showplace French bistro, Jacques. “You can see what a difference it makes here.”

Riviera’s Bon Appétit Culinary Center, while identical to Marina’s — both offer hands-on cooking classes for up to 24 people, who can learn how to pan a paella or roll out fresh pasta — now stars Oceania’s culinary enrichment director, Chef Kathryn Kelly, formerly of Marina. Kelly also leads special food-related shore excursions in ports such as Barcelona and Athens. And Toscana, Riviera’s gourmet Italian restaurant, features a special menu of olive oils developed by Cat Cora, the celebrity chef who serves as the ship’s godmother.

On the aesthetic side, lively new Kravet fabrics lure passengers to Riviera’s comfortable deck furniture. But the biggest decor change from Marina comes in the paintings and other artworks. While Marina’s art is mainly European in origin, for Riviera Del Rio selected — and in many cases commissioned — more than 100 pieces of vividly colored, original Latin American art, designed to catch passengers’ eyes as they pass by. A number of works reflect Del Rio’s Cuban heritage, including several from Cuba’s Vanguard Movement of 1927–50. But there’s a notable nod to European art as well in the 16 Picasso lithographs that grace various locations around the ship, ranging from seven in the casino bar to one, Del Rio points out with a chuckle, just outside a Deck 6 women’s washroom — a fact soon confirmed by sleuthing journalists.

At Riviera’s glittering christening ceremony in Barcelona, Del Rio chose his words carefully so as not to slight the new ship’s award-winning older sibling, but still convey his pride: “Today the baton of the world’s premier ship passed to Riviera,” he declared. “We improved upon perfection.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps, especially considering that Oceania occupies a cruise industry niche just below luxury. But within the upper premium, midsize ship categories, Riviera shines — right down to the smallest details.

—Clark Norton


MSC Divina

As I sat in the waning sunlight of a late May afternoon in Marseille, France, and listened to MSC Cruises CEO Pierfrancesco Vago declare that the just-launched MSC Divina was “the most beautiful ship in our fleet,” I found myself wincing on behalf of the European-based cruise line’s two previous most recently built vessels.

To the casual eye, after all, MSC Divina’s sisters in MSC’s Fantasia class — MSC Fantasia, which debuted in 2008, and MSC Splendida, which followed in 2010 — are very similar in appearance to MSC Divina. And to declare one more beautiful than the others seemed just the kind of statement that has been getting males in trouble since before humankind first paddled away from shore on a floating log.

Yet setting aside the kind of value judgment that any declaration having to do with beauty can incite, I did see, during a positioning cruise aboard MSC Divina from St. Nazaire, on France’s Atlantic coast, where she was built, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Marseille, where film star Sophia Loren, considered the godmother of the MSC fleet, was waiting to christen her, that she was her own ship.

The differences between MSC Divina and her slightly older sisters were not major changes that hinted of corrections to design shortcomings, but instead subtle enhancements aimed at, according to Vago, “bringing this class to perfection.”

Among the chief differences are an additional 100 staterooms, bringing the total to 1,751, with a capacity for 3,502 passengers. A reconfigured deck area that includes an infinity pool all the way aft is designed to be an oasis for serenity-seeking adults. (An infinity pool at least when the ship was in port and the water could be raised sufficiently to makes its surface appear to extend to the horizon without sloshing out all over the deck.)

Looking out on the infinity pool is Le Muse restaurant, available only to guests of the MSC Yacht Club, which, as on MSC Fantasia and MSC Splendida, is a “ship within a ship” butler-serviced premium section of cabins, whose number has been slightly reduced from 72 to 69.

The addition of two elevators makes for better traffic flow, and there’s a slightly more powerful propulsion system, new alternators, and state-of-the-art HVAC chillers, and, for reduced environmental impact, a fresh-water production system requiring 40 percent less power. Other changes include redesigns in the MSC Yacht Club, casino, disco, theater, and the Aurea Spa.

Popular features carried over to MSC Divina from her two earlier sister ships are the 4-D interactive cinema and a Formula 1 race car simulator, where, between Lisbon and Seville, I managed a very realistic demonstration of what happens if you shift from fourth gear to reverse at 160 kilometers per hour.

“The changes may not seem major,” said Rick Sasso, MSC’s president and CEO for North American operations, “but the materials, color schemes, and other design touches are enough so that passengers who went from one to another would instantly recognize that they were on a different ship.”

Another change, Sasso noted, is that while MSC remains primarily a European line offering a European experience (far fewer sometimes-jarring ship’s announcements, for one thing, and far fewer meals featuring chicken, for another), beginning in 2013, MSC Divina will sail the Caribbean from Miami, a clear market push toward North Americans. “Bringing our newest, best ship is a way to show how serious we are about that market.”

—Bob Payne


Carnival Breeze

Something you may not ever have expected on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship: A lovely hostess greeting you with “konnichi wa” at the entrance to a California-style sushi restaurant. The friendly hello comes after you’ve walked through an atrium and hallways done up in mellow yellow, for a vibe that’s contemporary, even subtle.

If you’re a long-time Carnival fan, you may be a bit baffled. Where’s the neon, the over-the-top design themes, the glitz?

That’s gone the way of, well, old Vegas. A very new and slightly more sophisticated — though no less lively Carnival — is on display with the line’s latest ship, the 3,690-passenger Carnival Breeze.

As the third and final ship in the Dream class, Carnival Breeze embraces many aspects of sister ships Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic. But it also gives a hint of where the line is going in the future.

The ship is the first with Carnival’s new lead architects, Hamburg-based Partner Ship Design, at the helm. They were told to keep contemporary fun in an ocean setting in mind. According to Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill, that’s what passengers said they wanted. “We’re changing with them more than anything,” Cahill said. “Being outside is where you want to be on a cruise.” So gone is the bang-you-on-the-head interior decor. The “wow” factor on Carnival Breeze comes instead from what Carnival is calling “branding.”

Walk around the ship and you’ll encounter more than 20 “branded” spaces, indoors and out. These include bars and food venues, each with its own distinct look, menu (including cocktail menus), handpicked crew, and even uniforms.

At the RedFrog Pub, for example, the popular bar first introduced on Carnival Magic, you’re in the Caribbean down to the accents of the waiters and can drink Carnival’s own branded ThirstyFrog Red draught beer indoors or out under fake palm trees. Carnival Breeze adds the RedFrog Rum and BlueIguana Tequila bars, which serve to energize the main pool area — and were conceived as a rivalry (you’re either a Frog or an Iguana).

Nearby at the poolside Guy’s Burger Joint, you can pretend you’re in a beachside California surfers’ hangout as you order a burger with toppings developed with Food Network TV personality Guy Fieri. Or head to the BlueIguana Cantina kiosk and get a taste of Mexico, as in tacos and burritos.

At the new for-a-fee Bonsai sushi restaurant on the Promenade Deck, the waitresses are from Thailand but they do a dance to The Vapors song “Turning Japanese.” Elsewhere, the main theater debuts Carnival’s new approach to entertainment: half-hour show productions enhanced by special effects such as animation. Also debuting is a lively new audience-participation game show created with Hasbro, which includes giant versions of board games including Monopoly. Also new aboard Carnival Breeze is the “Thrill Theater,” where you can pay a fee for a short movie experience that includes seats that move.

Sister ship Carnival Magic introduced the first ropes course at sea as part of a large upper deck sports area, and that’s back on Carnival Breeze. Also repeated is the huge WaterWorks wet play area with a massive corkscrew slide.

On sea days, a comedy brunch (part of Carnival’s recent partnership with comedian George Lopez) and Fat Jimmy’s BBQ outdoors on the Promenade are both popular — and accomplish the goal of dispersing crowds away from the Lido buffet. Revelers spill outdoors at night from the Liquid dance club as well, thanks to South Beach–style seating.

Many of the new concepts on Carnival Breeze are scheduled to migrate to other ships in the fleet, providing a breath of fresh air, specifically tropical air.

—Fran Golden


Costa Fascinosa

In May, the Costa Fascinosa was welcomed into the world in perhaps the most solemn, subdued Costa christening in history. Those who gathered for what is usually a ship’s most festive first moments instead held a minute of silence in remembrance of those who perished months earlier on the Costa Concordia. And throughout the entire inaugural weekend, conversations were respectful of the past while looking toward the future, starting immediately with Costa Fascinosa, the largest ship in the world flying the Italian flag and the final sister in what was once called the Concordia-class.

“I think when the Concordia is not there anymore, there is not even the class,” said Gianni Onorato, president of Costa Cruises, following a press conference about Costa’s newly implemented safety initiatives — a conference in which he spoke in what was most attendees’ second language (English) rather than their first (Italian), specifically so the message of safety was clear to all in attendance. These new safety initiatives, covering all facets from officer training and on-land safety-monitoring systems to more effective passenger procedures, are being implemented fleet-wide, not just on Fascinosa, which spent its first summer sailing 7-day cruises from Venice and Bari to Greece and Croatia, and will be based in South America during the 2012/2013 winter season.

While those in awe of Fascinosa’s sister ships will find many of the same features here that they know and love — the intense 4-D cinema, the divine Samsara Spa, the intensely divine Coffee & Chocolate Bar — the differentiating factor is Fascinosa’s interior themes. Longtime Carnival architect Joe Farcus took the “charm” and “fascination” directive, magically spun it through the Farcus 5000, and came up with an ambitious theme that awes and delights.

Oversized snapshots from iconic Italian films such as La Dolce Vita don the elevator and hallway walls, while the stern lido is dedicated to the more globally renowned Gone With The Wind. Fascinosa’s art collection boasts 329 original pieces and 6,987 reproductions, all inspired by or chosen specifically for the charm concept. And for any public surface still barren, Farcus has sprinkled decorations that illuminate and mystify.

Walking around for the first time, Onorato was struck by the ship’s “innovativeness. It’s very soft in color, and the layout changes that we have made are working very well.” Asked for an example, Onorato looked no further than where we were chatting: the Deck 5 corridor just outside the Cheri Lounge, which, on other ships, had been a room without efficient passage that bottlenecked with foot traffic during evening events.

Six new veranda suites with their own private Jacuzzis have been added, but for Onorato, Costa Fascinosa isn’t so much about the brochure differences as it is about the overall personality that Farcus envisioned and ultimately created.

“My favorite ship is Costa Atlantica because it was the first ship of the new era of Costa,” Onorato freely offered, “but between Atlantica and Fascinosa — I love all the ships we have in the fleet like I love all my kids. Very equal on that.”

—Phillip Crandall


Disney Fantasy

When Disney Cruise Line introduced Disney Dream in 2011, fans were excited to see what the ship would reveal. After all, it had been 12 years since the line last debuted a ship (Disney Wonder in 1999).

What Disney fans would soon discover was a decade worth of advanced technology, imagination, and magical touches. Fast forward another year, and many of the same great features of Disney Dream were also showcased on Disney Fantasy: the AquaDuck, a 765-foot-long water coaster that takes passengers on a ride down around the pool deck and even off the side of the ship; Remy, a newly introduced fine French dining experience that you have to taste to believe; and interactive artwork that comes alive before your eyes. So while Disney Fantasy has all the greatness of her sister ship, it truly boasts its own personality and character.

For starters, while Disney Dream currently sails 3- to 5-night Bahamas cruises, Disney Fantasy was purpose-built for 7-night itineraries (Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises from Port Canaveral), which meant the line had to “add more wows,” said Karl Holz, president of Disney Cruise Line. “On longer itineraries, you have to have more choices for guests,” he said. Disney Fantasy passengers will certainly appreciate the extra time to explore this impressive ship.

Disney Fantasy offers the same great rotation-style dining on all ships in Disney’s fleet (passengers rotate dining venues each night, keeping the same tablemates and wait staff), as well as the adults-only fine Italian restaurant, Palo. However, when it comes to dining, you’ll find one of the coolest new features on the entire ship: Animation Magic.

When it’s your turn to dine in Animator’s Palate, you’re invited to draw (or doodle) your own character on a blank print-out provided at each seat. The drawings are then collected and make their way behind the scenes, only to then come alive as animated figures dancing and singing on the big screens that surround the room.

“It’s fun to do the impossible,” said mastermind Joe Lanzisero, senior vice president, creative, for Walt Disney Imagineering. “There is nothing like that moment when you first see your drawings come to life.” Based on the reaction in the room, from my 6-year-old daughter to my 60-something mother, when diners watch their own “show,” it’s an amazing experience that is talked about constantly around the ship.

Other highlights on Disney Fantasy include new production shows: “Disney’s Alladin,” based on the much-loved Disney classic, and “Disney Wishes,” an original show about three teens who learn the secret to growing up. Another popular feature on Disney Dream — the Midship Detective Agency, which directs participants to the animated artwork that reveals clues to help solve a mystery — is back on Disney Fantasy, but this time features the Muppets, appealing to both new and longtime fans of Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the gang.

As on other Disney ships, Disney Fantasy boasts an adults-only entertainment district, this time named Europa, which pays homage to European nightlife via its themed bars such as The Tube, Ooh La La, O’Gills Pub, La Piazza, and Skyline, which, on Disney Fantasy, adds more space than on the same bar on Disney Dream.

When it comes time for fun in the sun, besides the AquaDuck, Disney Fantasy adds the AquaLab, a new area full of splashers, squirters, and geysers that will keep the kids happy and soaked. Adults will find their own happiness at the newly introduced Satellite Falls, a circular splash pool complete with benches and a cascading rain curtain that is one of the most relaxing spots on the ship.

Of course, we’re saving the best for last: What was previously conference room space aboard Disney Dream is now Bibbiddi Bobbidi Boutique on Disney Fantasy, where little girls can sign up for a true princess makeover and little boys can transform into their own version of Captain Jack Sparrow. Whether you’re sailing with young kids or not, be sure to pop into this space to see the fairy dust flying, the tiaras placed, and the smiles on these young passengers’ faces.

In fact, it’s these smiles and reactions that Holz says is his favorite part of the new ship. “People look to Disney to tell a story,” he said. “When you touch their hearts, that stays with you for a long time.”

—Jodi Ornstein