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.

Venice to reroute biggest ships but will maintain terminal

By Tom Stieghorst

Changes afloat for Venice cruisesTo reduce the impact of big cruise ships in Venice, Italian ministers have decided to route the largest ships away from the center city, while still allowing them to dock there.

Cruise traffic would enter the Venetian lagoon on the southwest end, transiting the Malamocco channel, which is already used by cargo ships.

As a first step, an environmental study has been commissioned to evaluate the dredging of a cut-off canal leading from the cargo channel to the existing Venice cruise ship terminal.

Activists say that the dredging will harm the Venice lagoon by deepening it and creating more wave action, while at the same time disrupting sediments and water life in the area.

But a committee of Italian ministers said the plan mitigates the effects of increasingly large ships on Venice while preserving their positive contribution to the economy.

“It seems to me to be a balanced solution,” Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said in announcing the decision.

Some parties had pushed for a more radical option, such as relocating the cruise terminal to the industrial port at Marghera, a plan favored by Venetian Mayor Giorgio Orsoni.

Venice hosted more than 1.8 million cruise passengers last year, making it the third-busiest cruise port in Europe, after Barcelona and Civitavecchia, near Rome.

An increasingly vocal group of activists has protested that modern cruise ships have grown out of scale with Venice and are causing damage to the city’s foundations, an assertion disputed by the cruise industry.

As part of the new plan, the committee of Italian ministers reinstated a ban on cruise ships of more than 96,000 gross tons from using the current route through the Lido and down the Giudecca Canal.

That route takes cruise ship passengers through the heart of Venice and past Piazza San Marco, its biggest attraction.

Cruise lines, through CLIA Europe, emphasized the importance of Venice and the Venice Passenger Terminal to the entire cruise industry.

“While we believe that the passage of cruises through the Giudecca Canal is safe, we agree that a sustainable solution for Venice requires a new alternative route for ships, and so we are pleased that the Italian government is working very hard to find a sustainable solution,” a CLIA statement said.

A study last year found that the cruise industry in Venice created an annual economic impact of 345 million euros (about $462 million).

Individual cruise lines have been planning for Venice’s mandated reduction in ship size. Celebrity Cruises, for example, next year will sail a 91,000-gross-ton, Millennium-class ship on Eastern Mediterranean itineraries from Venice, while moving its 122,000-gross-ton, Solstice-class ship to Baltic itineraries.

The Italian government had originally banned cruise ships of more than 96,000 gross tons from the current route effective Jan. 1, but that ban has been stayed by a regional Italian court, pending a decision on an alternative route into the city.

The decision to move forward on the environmental study of the back channel addresses the court’s objection.

The plan calls for deepening the Contorta Sant’ Angelo, a 4-kilometer channel between Marghera and Venice that was cut in the 1960s for fuel barges, from a depth of 1.5 meters to 9 meters.

Authorities estimate the dredging project will take about two years and cost about 115 million euros (about $154 million).