review: Olympic Voyager

(CruiseMates' contributing editor spent three nights in Greece aboard Royal Olympia's Olympia Voyager shortley after it entered service. His report follows. Note that the company and ship later changed names to Olympia from Olympic. )

Standing at the stern, my eyes were focused on the most amazing wake I had ever seen. Far from the normal bubbling and uprisings produced by most 18 knot cruise ships, Royal Olympic's brand new Olympic Voyager had two massive and furious streams of water jetting out from under the hull. Meeting in the middle, they formed a tremendous tumbling, crashing and breaking wave that seemed to continually chase us. It was a scene of massive energy and power, drawing ogling passengers throughout the day.

I was so entranced by the turbulent ocean, however, that I could not understand why I was hearing the ship's whistle blowing. I had looked around on deck only 15 minutes before and seen only one other ship miles ahead of us. To my amazement, that far off ship was now right off our starboard beam and quickly slipping astern of us. Within the next hour, we would overtake two more cruise ships in similar fashion, leaving them all quite literally in our wake.

Cruising at this same speed, we soon arrived off the small Greek island of Tinos, where we saw again the pride the nation feels in their new, technologically advanced flagship. Everyone who boarded in the first few days, from the President of Greece who christened the ship to the launch drivers in Mykonos, clearly understood how novel and important this ship was. As the Bishop of Tinos came out from the harbor in a small boat, he brought with him a large entourage to bless the ship. He stayed onboard for a good hour, chanting away to ensure this new marvel would be as well protected as possible. In more ways than one, the Olympic Voyager, and the future of Royal Olympic Cruises, had truly arrived.

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With Royal Olympic known mostly for their fleet of older, hand-me-down ships that criss-cross the Mediterranean on destination focused cruises, the Olympic Voyager represents a new direction for the company and has infused them with a new, upbeat spirit. She is the fastest cruiseship built since the QE2 in 1969, enabling her to do some innovative, port rich itineraries that conventional cruise ships simply can't match. Never meant to compete with the newer, larger resorts at sea, she offers a culturally rich experience (crowned by a superb onboard lecture program) that appropriately highlights her Greek heritage. After all, who better to show you the Mediterranean than the locals?

What exactly makes the ship's "Fast Monohull" design so unique? Simply put, the ship's hull at the stern looks like it has been scooped out on either side by two large ice-cream scoops. This essentially forms a half tunnel in what would otherwise be a flat hull. These tunnels actually allow more water to flow into her larger than normal propellers and thereby allow more water to be moved. Along with some other unique design features, it allows the ship to be both fast and efficient.

The results are staggering, producing a true thoroughbred of a ship. Long and low with an attractive deep blue hull, she looks sleek and speedy from any angle. Here, form does follow function, and the ship is low enough to the ocean that you can feel the speed through the water in a very personal and direct way. In fact, the ship feels more like a speedboat than a cruise ship. The sensation of speed onboard is unmistakable and exhilarating- whether overtaking other ships or simply staring at her wake, it's exiting to be underway on Olympic Voyager.

Because Royal Olympic has always offered cruises that focus on the culture and history of the destinations, they have wisely built a modestly sized, comfortable ship perfect for many of the smaller Mediterranean and South American ports she will visit. "She is not going to be one of those ships that carries more people than the population of the town she is visiting," said Cy Hopkins, Royal Olympic's North American Vice President. With only 836 passengers onboard, the ship is not overwhelming in size or bustling people and the ship quickly feels comfortable.

Olympic Voyager's interiors compliment her sleek profile, creating an upscale but not stuffy feeling throughout. Looking very much like Celebrity's Century class ships, the extensive use of cherry wood paneling and illuminated glass presents an interior that seems modern and fresh, while still recognizing some classical ship heritage.

Both the Dining Room and the Buffet are situated aft and feature excellent spacing between tables, and the dining room is well divided to make the room seem intimate and quiet no matter where you sit. In fact, the buffet is so attractive, with curving banquettes, large windows and a rich red carpet, the room can virtually double as a casual lounge during the day! The Disco, perched above the bridge, doubles as a 270 degree observation lounge during the day and a night club at night. There is an attractive Piano Bar, the ship's main social hub, along with a moderate one-story show lounge. There is also a small smoking room, library, card room, extensive spa and small casino onboard.

My only real complaint was somewhat limited deck space, however, as the ship's side promenades are basically obscured by the lifeboats, making the space both unappealing and essentially useless. Surrounding the disco is a good observation space, but when at speeds approaching 28 knots, it can be fairly windy. There are, however, two sheltered side areas that provide room for sun worshippers and further aft there is a very attractive pool area partly covered by a canvas covering.

Standard cabins seem somewhat smaller than on most new ships (140 sq. feet) but are well laid out and functional with TVs, safes and minibars. However, 16 Bay Window suites are wonderful, providing an alcove projecting out over the sea framed by three large floor to ceiling windows. At high speeds, it literally feels like you are flying over the water when sitting in these cabins with a view. There are also 12 veranda suites on the top deck, featuring very roomy and deep balconies which accommodate not only the requisite tables and chairs, but also two large deck chairs for sunning.

As one would expect from a 28+ knot ship, there is some vibration evident. However, it is remarkable mostly for how little vibration you can feel throughout given your speed, especially in the public rooms. Only when lying down in a few of the after cabins on Neptune and Dionysus decks do you consciously notice it. Because noise from the engine room can also be a factor in those cabins (in fact, the noise might be more of a factor than the vibration) try and book a cabin farther forward if possible.

Royal Olympic has put the ship's speed to good use, and her first season in the Mediterranean will be spent doing 7-day "Three Continents Grand Cruises." Perfect for those wanting to get a good look at and learn something about several different Mediterranean countries in a relatively short time, the ship will sail from Piraeus every Saturday. From there, she will visit Santorini, Greece; Alexandria; Egypt; Ashdod, Israel; Rhodes, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Mykonos, Greece.

In the winter, she will be based out of Ft. Lauderdale and sail on some longer 11, 12 and 17 night round trip voyages. In fact, she will be the only ship offering regular roundtrip voyages from the US to the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, an exotic destination that normally requires a long flight to South America.

In deciding to explore this new technology, Royal Olympic was taking a big gamble that could either make or break the company. What they have created is one of the most unique and innovative ships afloat that should have a strong following and remain a deserved source of national pride. As each new set of passengers discovers that captivating wake as the ship clears the breakwater in Piraeus and comes up to speed, it will become more and more evident that their gamble has paid off in a big way.

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