Celebrity Silhouette’s final cruise in Venice

The Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

The Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy. Picture: Supplied.

AS gondolas glide among vintage speedboat taxis, the modern cruise liner looms large above all. Like a large, white palace set adrift in Venice, the ship floats along the lagoon toward the sea.

From the top deck, it’s an unbeatable view across the antique city’s jumble of terracotta roofs, dome-topped marble churches and bell towers that tilt with old age. Two thousand passengers are tightly packed around the edges, surveying the lively scene below. Cruise ship entertainment doesn’t get much better than departing Venice as it settles into sunset.

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The curtain is coming down, though, on one of cruising’s best spectacles. New laws are set to ban the biggest vessels from Giudecca Canal next year, amid concerns about environmental damage or disaster. This means 2014 is the final season for ships exceeding 96,000 tonnes to be permitted the pleasure of passing the Piazza San Marco.

The ship leaves Venice on one of its final voyages from the city. Picture: Louise Goldsbu

The ship leaves Venice on one of its final voyages from the city. Picture: Louise Goldsbury

Peering down from my position on the helipad of Celebrity Silhouette, I have a better vantage point than the hundreds of people staring back at me. Better sounds, too, as Madame Butterfly is played over the bow’s loudspeaker. The dramatic Italian opera cuts the perfect soundtrack to this almost-theatrical event.

Smaller ships will continue to be allowed into the Venetian lagoon, under the government’s new rules. This means the 91,000-tonne Celebrity Constellation, measuring 294m long, will be welcomed, while our 122,000-tonne, 319m Celebrity Silhouette will not.

Cruise companies insist their ships are harmless to Venice’s structure, but the industry – through the Cruise Lines International Association – has agreed to support plans for an alternative route.

“Venice is one of the most breathtaking ports to sail in or out of,” says the Silhouette’s master, Captain Emmanouil Alevropolous. “When the daylight comes up, you look out and think it’s not real. The city is like an art piece in the morning.”

Celebrity Silhouette’s casino. Picture: Supplied

Celebrity Silhouette’s casino. Picture: Supplied

I make a mental note to set my alarm for 5am on the last night of the voyage. In the meantime, our itinerary includes other destinations in Turkey and Greece.

I sign up for a shore excursion to see the ruins of Ephesus, a short drive from the port of Kusadasi. Partially destroyed by earthquake in 614, this pilgrimage site serves as an open-air archaeological museum dating back to 10BC.

Our local guide shows us a section excavated the week prior, as well as a gladiators’ graveyard, 22-room brothel, 24,000-seat theatre and the grand Library of Celsus.

In Corfu, I’m keen to dive into the deep blue ocean that has surrounded us for days. I strike gold at a bar with a private beach, chill-out music and showers. Swimming in the Mediterranean is such shivery bliss, best followed by a cold Mythos beer.

In Mykonos, I have one thing on my mind: Greek food. After strolling the island’s dazzling white maze of shops, I choose a waterfront restaurant where the waves slap against the balcony. The feast includes seafood, stuffed vine leaves and salads. Meanwhile, an old pelican appears on the terrace, poses for tourists’ photos and then wanders into the kitchen.

Dinner is taken on board the ship at Qsine. “Disco shrimp” comes in a dish with a flashing light; a mezze selection is presented in a drawer with 12 compartments and the sushi lollipops look too cute to eat.

The cruise liner moored off Mykonos. Picture: Louise Goldsbury.

The cruise liner moored off Mykonos. Picture: Louise Goldsbury.

Celebrity Cruises has also overhauled its evening entertainment. Moving away from the cheesy and stopping short of sleazy is the new Sin City, held at midnight, with adults-only comedy and burlesque.

Another addition is Liquid Lounge pool parties, where mermaids lie around the solarium while a DJ transforms the space into a nightclub. Pop-up performers also roam the ship, launching into dance routines or acrobatic acts.

On the last night, at the Martini Bar, our group orders three of the six-cocktail samplers. The bartender prepares the 18 mixtures and lines up 18 glasses, then joins all the shakers together, like a long silver snake, and somehow pours them simultaneously without spilling a drop. Seriously impressive.

Fortunately, the martinis don’t shake our resolve to stir at 5am for one of Celebrity Silhouette’s last returns to Venice. Rugged up in warm clothes, we head to the top deck and snuggle up against the railing on the starboard side. Standing with the dark, salty breeze in our hair, we wait for the first twinkles of the city.

The spacious pool deck. Picture: Supplied.

The spacious pool deck. Picture: Supplied.

Only a dozen other passengers have come out for the occasion, cradling cups of coffee and cameras in cold hands. Usually buzzing all day, the canal-side promenade is creepily silent, empty of people, and the tightly packed buildings appear as vacant facades.

Cruise lines digest plans to limit Venice visits

Cruise lines digest plans to limit Venice visits

By Phil Davies

Cruise lines digest plans to limit Venice visitsGlobal cruise lines are digesting the implications of plans to limited the number of large ships allowed to pass through the centre of Venice.

The Italian government announced its intention to impose limitations from January with a 20% cut, while cruise ships of more than 96,000 tonnes will be banned from the centre of the historic city from November 2014.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s office also announced plans to open up a new canal to the city to allow big vessels to enter the city by an alternative route.

The Cruise Lines International Association (Clia) yesterday attempted to view the decision in a positive light despite the likely impact on member lines which see Venice as a highlight of many Mediterranean itineraries.

Clia said it viewed the announcement from Rome as a “positive on-going commitment of the representatives of the Italian institutions to find a sustainable and long-term solution for the city of Venice. This goal is shared by the cruise industry”.

However, the organisation added: “We are in the process of determining the impact of the decision, and any estimation or evaluation at this time is premature.

“Venice is consistently rated as the number one European cruise destination for our industry and we look forward to further strengthening our role as a key contributor to the economic vitality of Venice.”

Environmentalists have long protested against giant cruise ships passing through Venice, arguing that they damage the city’s fragile lagoon.

Venice plan would reroute cruise ships away from city center

Venice plan would reroute cruise ships away from city center

By Donna Tunney

Prompted by the increasingly vocal concerns of preservation groups and environmentalists, officials in Venice have put forward a plan to reroute cruise ships away from the city center by dredging a new channel from the Lagoon of Venice directly into the busy Marittima passenger terminal.

Click on image for a larger view.Such a move would mean that cruise passengers no longer would sail into or out of the San Marco Basin and the scenic Giudecca Canal, within shouting distance of venerable landmarks such as the Piazza San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica. (Click on the image to view a map of the proposed move.)

An agreement was reached in December between the Venice Port Authority and the city of Venice to study the creation of the channel, which could be completed within 18 months. The proposal gained a new urgency following the Costa Concordia accident on Jan. 13.

Venice is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the group called on the Italian government to “act quickly to develop alternative plans for maritime traffic” around Venice.

In a letter to the Italian environment minister, Unesco assistant director-general for culture Francesco Bandarin wrote, “The tragic accident [involving the Concordia] reinforces long-standing concerns over the risk that large cruise liners pose to sites inscribed on [our] World Heritage list, particularly the Venetian Lagoon and the Basin of San Marco.”

Given the fragile structure of the medieval city, Unesco warned, the ships “cause waves that erode the foundations of buildings.”

Other groups would like to see a more radical resolution than the proposal for a new channel. Among them is a London-based group called Venice in Peril.

“The problem is that the ships keep getting bigger and bigger,” said Nicky Baly, the group’s director. “The deep dredging [required] to accommodate the draft of these ships is causing irreparable damage.”

According to Baly, the dredging is “breaking up the structure of the lagoon, and the sea level is rising. A city built in the Middle Ages is not designed to cope with the size of these ships, and they are threatening the fabric of the city, the most beautiful city in the world. The Concordia disaster is a tragedy, but it’s good that now everybody is talking about Venice. That’s very, very good.”

Crystal Serenity in VeniceThe 3,200-passenger Costa Concordia remains half-submerged off the coast of Italy’s Giglio island after hitting a rocky reef shortly after departing Civitavecchia, the port for Rome. Sixteen people died, and 16 are missing and presumed dead.

The accident happened in the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, and salvage crews are trying to recover some 500,000 gallons of fuel from inside the crippled vessel.

An official with the Venice Port Authority, while agreeing that cruise ships ought to be routed away from the city center, was eager to point out the differences in geography and navigational procedures that he said precluded a similar accident from happening in Venice.

“The safety of vessel traffic is guaranteed,” said Stefano Nava, a president assistant with the port authority. “Before even entering the lagoon, all ships must wait for two Venetian [harbor] pilots. They assist and support the commander during the navigation, and only after the pilots board the ship does it move from the sea into the Venice Lagoon.”

After a ship enters the lagoon, two tugs, one at the bow and one at the stern, “take charge” and guide the vessel until it is moored.

And, Nava said, the bed of the lagoon is mud, “so there’s no possibility of damage to a hull.”

Nava added: “The cruise ship sector is the last evidence of the special link between Venice and its historical maritime heritage. It is evident that today it seems necessary to mitigate or eliminate any [potential] problems.”

Cruise companies did not respond to queries requesting their views on the proposed route change.

Cruise ships currently enter the Lagoon of Venice from the northeast and travel west through the San Marco Basin and the Giudecca Canal to the sprawling Marittima cruise port, in the far southwest corner of the city.

Under the channel proposal, cruise ships would enter the lagoon from the south and follow the route that cargo ships use to reach the mainland port of Marghera.

Instead of turning left into the cargo port, cruise ships would utilize the new channel and turn right into Marittima, bypassing the San Marco Basin and the Giudecca Canal.

Marittima can accommodate up to seven ships, with a maximum ship length of 1,115 feet, Nava said. Two other cruise ship docks are located just inside the Giudecca Canal.

The Basilio and the Marta berthing stations have total lengths of 1,123 feet and 1,526 feet, respectively, added Nava, who said multiple smaller ships typically use them.

It isn’t clear whether the Basilio and Marta docks would remain in use if a new channel opens.

Nava said the creation of the new channel would cost at least $40 million, depending on the scope of required environmental safeguards that could accompany the project.

The Venice Port Authority also is exploring a longer-term — and more extreme — option for safeguarding the city from cruise traffic.

According to Nava, an offshore port could be built at Santa Maria del Mare, located on a narrow island southeast of Venice and outside the lagoon. But it would be operationally problematic for cruise lines, he noted, since passengers would have to be transported from the disembarkation site to ferries that would bring them into the city center.

Nava said the idea has little to no hope of becoming reality.

“At the moment, there’s no support,” he said, adding that the construction of a new port would require approvals from a slew of Italian agencies and ministry offices. No cost estimates are bouncing around, either.

But a cruise port well away from the city is exactly what Venice in Peril would like to see, even as it acknowledges the obstacles.

“It won’t happen,” Baly said. “It would cost billions.”

Baly’s group doesn’t support a new channel, either, since it requires deep dredging of the lagoon.

“This shouldn’t be just a financial decision,” she said. “The best thing would be to move the ships out. It’s really all a question of how Venice is going to manage its tourism. It already has 18 million visitors a year.”

More than 20 major cruise lines visit the city each year. In 2011, cruise ships brought 1.7 million cruise passengers into Venice.

This year, close to 200 cruises are scheduled to begin in Venice, according to departure schedules listed on Seasite.com, the online cruise database operated by Landry & Kling, a Miami-based cruise meetings and incentives firm.

Hundreds more will call at the port for a day and in some cases an overnight.