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Cruise Ship Review
Remembering Premier Cruise Line

by Lisa Plotnick

One evening during our first cruise, the maitre d' intercepted a waiter on his way to serve the main course to a passenger. He asked the waiter to return the plate to the dining room and bring a more presentable one in its place. The reason: The ends of the linguine were frayed.

This incident on Premier's StarShip Atlantic in 1990 is indicative of the attention to detail provided by the crew of Premier Cruise Line. Long considered to be a "budget" line, Premier illustrated that the adage, "You get what you pay for," is not necessarily true. On that first cruise ten years ago, as well as our most recent cruise this past summer on the SeaBreeze, the service was impeccable, the cuisine was outstanding, buffets were magnificent, and everyone we spoke with was having a great time.

For many, Premier was synonymous with "Big Red Boat" family cruising. For us, it was a way to experience elegant, congenial cruising on intimate, classic ships at a price we could afford.

And, it will be sorely missed.

A Bit of History

Big Red Boat OceanicPremier Cruise Line was founded in 1983, pioneering the concept of family cruising with its "Cruise and Disney week" vacation packages. As the "official cruise line of Walt Disney World," passengers could combine a 3- or 4-night round-trip cruise from Port Canaveral to Nassau with a complimentary Disney World vacation for the remainder of the week. For the cruise portion, Premier sought classic liners in order to allow guests to "feel the regal elegance of the legendary era of ocean cruising." The ships were adorned with hulls painted bright red, although it would be years until they were nicknamed the Big Red Boats.

The line began with one ship, a 25-year old liner which they refurbished and renamed StarShip Royale. Just two years later, the 20-year old StarShip Oceanic was added to the fleet. The roster changed again in 1988-89 when Premier sold the StarShip Royale and purchased two younger, larger ships: the 16-year old StarShip Majestic and the 6-year old StarShip Atlantic. (Interesting note: StarShip Royale eventually returned to Premier as the SeaBreeze.)

The 1990s saw many changes in the cruising industry. As the economy started to flourish, consumers were able to enjoy more lavish vacations. Major cruise lines marketed their products to appeal to families who typically vacationed in land-based resorts. Children's programs abounded, and other cruise lines turned Port Canaveral into their home ports to more easily cross-sell packages at central Florida attractions. Even Disney started its own cruise line. Companies built larger ships with amenities that would make passengers forget they were at sea. Ship designs pulled passengers off the promenade decks, turning towering lobbies into focal points. Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all built ships topping 100,000 gross tons and added features such as 24-hour pizzerias, miniature golf courses, and ice-skating rinks.

SeaBreeze Promenade DeckBy 1997, these changes had taken a toll on Premier. The company was down to just one ship, the StarShip Oceanic (now nicknamed Big Red Boat). Although it was no longer the official cruise line of Walt Disney World, Premier continued to focus on families. But, even an affiliation with Warner Brothers wasn't enough to keep this family-oriented cruise line afloat. Needing to refocus, Premier turned to the other concept on which it was founded -- the classic cruise ship experience. Through the formation of a new company, Cruise Holdings, a new Premier Cruises emerged. Three cruise lines were consolidated into one as the new company purchased the traditional liners of Dolphin Cruise Line, Seawind Cruises, and Premier Cruise Line. The ships were made to look more dignified, as hulls on all but the Oceanic were painted dark blue. With the new tag line, "You've got our attention," the new Premier marketed comfortably-sized ships, personalized service, unique itineraries, and free resort programs, at budget prices.

But intense competition continued. Major lines cut fares, prompting others to do the same. Many new ships were built, leaving the mistaken impression that all older ships were obsolete. Although Premier had a loyal client base, they were attracting few new passengers. They changed their focus once more, expanding the Big Red Boat concept to two more ships to bring family-style cruising to eastern Canada and Mexico. And, they introduced "Seven Star Service" to the fleet. But, it still wasn't enough. Operating costs increased dramatically as fuel costs and the expenses of maintaining older vessels were both on the rise. A series of equipment failures during the summer of 2000 proved to be too much, and on September 14, 2000, Premier Cruises was forced to cease operations.

 

The Ships, Then and Now

Neither the original Premier Cruise Line, nor the latter Premier Cruises, ever built a single ship. If anything was consistent during its 17-year history, it was the fact that the line sought out older, classic liners on which to offer passengers a more traditional cruising experience. Many of her ships were built before air travel became the prevalent form of transatlantic transportation, and were designed to accommodate passengers for long journeys. Some ships once divided passengers into two or more classes of service, and while these have since been converted to single-class pleasure cruising vessels, the ships' former histories can still be seen in features such as widely-varying cabin styles and staircases that do not access all decks.

As of September 2000, the Premier fleet consisted of six ships:

SeaBreeze
SeaBreeze

Built in Genoa, Italy in 1958 for Costa Cruise Line, she was originally named Federico C. She spent her early years making regular journeys between Italy and the eastern coast of South America, servicing passengers in three classes. In 1983, after several years cruising the Caribbean, she was sold to Premier, becoming the line's first ship, StarShip Royale. In 1988, she was purchased by Dolphin Cruise Line, underwent extensive refurbishment, and was renamed SeaBreeze. She cruised various Caribbean itineraries before returning to Premier as part of the 1997 consolidation. At 21,000 GRT she was affectionately nicknamed, "The Small Blue Boat." (Footnote: Following the sale of the SeaBreeze to one of Premier's creditors, with plans to send her to India for scrapping, she was lost in heavy seas off the coast of the United States. A sad loss, indeed.) [In late December of 2000, millions around the world watched two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters rescue the 34 crew members aboard; she was carrying no passengers on her final voyage. -- Ed.]

Rembrandt
Rembrandt

Perhaps the most famous liner in the Premier fleet was the Rembrandt. She developed a huge following during her 38-year tenure as Holland America's beloved Rotterdam V. Built in 1959 in Rotterdam, her clever design allowed for easy transformation from two-class service to single-class cruising. She joined Premier Cruises in 1997 and was one of its largest ships at 38,000 GRT. Amazingly, she underwent minimal structural changes during her 41 years. Both Holland America and Premier were proud of her past, and she was honored with the title of flagship of both lines.

Seawind Crown
SeaWind Crown

Built in Belgium in 1961 As the Infante Dom Henrique, she carried two classes of passengers on various itineraries between Portugal and Africa. In 1988, after being laid-up for twelve years, she was sold to Trans World cruises, rebuilt for cruising, and named Vasco da Gama. She was sold to Seawind Cruise Line in 1991 and offered Caribbean itineraries as the Seawind Crown. After joining Premier in 1997, this 24,000 GRT vessel became the line's most upscale ship. During the summer of 2000, she was under charter by Spanish tour operator Pallmantur.

Big Red Boat Oceanic
StarShip Oceanic

The Big Red Boat was built in Monfalcone, Italy in 1965 as Home Lines' Oceanic. She was a full-time, single-class, cruise ship traveling between New York and the Bahamas. She was sold to Premier in 1985 and sailed 3- and 4-night cruises between Port Canaveral and the Bahamas. She is also known as the Big Red Boat I, and was Premier's largest ship at 39,000 GRT.

IslandBreeze
IslandBreeze

The IslandBreeze was built in Scotland in 1962 and serviced the Southampton-South Africa route as the Union-Castle Line's Transvaal Castle. This single-class liner was renamed S.A. Vaal in 1966, and sailed for South African Marine Corporation until 1969. In 1977, she was sold to Carnival, who rebuilt her as the Festivale, and was sold to Dolphin and renamed IslandBreeze in 1996. This 32,000 GRT liner became part of Premier in 1997 and was nicknamed Big Red Boat III in 2000.

Edinburgh Castle
Built in Monfalcone, Italy in 1966, she sailed as Costa Cruise Line's Eugenio C, and like her predecessor Federico C, carried passengers in three classes between Italy and South America. She was renamed Eugenio Costa in 1987, and serviced Costa until 1994. The ship was chartered by Premier in 2000 from current owner Cammell Laird and took on the name Big Red Boat II.

Among the other ships to have serviced Premier were the StarShip Atlantic (formerly Home Lines' Atlantic, now Mediterranean Shipping Cruises' Melody); StarShip Majestic (formerly P&O Lines' Spirit of London and Princess Cruises' Sun Princess, later CTC World Cruises' Southern Cross, now Festival Cruise Line's Flamenco); and the OceanBreeze (formerly Shaw Savill Line's Southern Cross, Ulysses Line's Calypso, Western Cruise Line's Azure Seas, and Dolphin Cruise Line's OceanBreeze -- now Majesty Cruise Line's Imperial Majesty).

Closing Thoughts

SeaBreeze Top DeckAs of this writing, Premier's creditors have put most of the ships up for sale. We urge another line to purchase the ships and keep the concept of classic cruising alive. Although there's a growing contingent of passengers who are drawn to more informal, resort-like cruising, there are also a large number of us who yearn for the cruising experience of yesteryear. We want a ship that looks and feels like a ship -- where passengers don't retreat to private verandas, but mingle with each other on teak promenades -- where each deck is unique -- where the sea is the primary attraction -- where we can be treated to the occasional historical reminder, such as the "C"s in the iron fences on the top deck of the SeaBreeze, or the "secret" double staircase on the Rembrandt. And, where we can enjoy the intimacy provided by small ships without having to pay the prohibitive prices of the most upscale luxury lines.

All cruise lines experience problems from time to time. In fact, one major company had real problems with its propulsion systems on several ships, and another is sending a brand new ship into dry dock after just a few months. Unfortunately, Premier had more than its fair share this summer. But, while I am by no means attempting to minimize the ordeal of the affected passengers, the summer did have at least one bright spot. Our August 2000 weekend on the SeaBreeze was nearly perfect. We enjoyed it so much that we immediately booked another weekend cruise for the following month. Unfortunately, that never came to be, as Premier ceased operations just one day before we were to embark.

Although we have great affection for these ships and want to see them saved, our concern for the ships pales in comparison to our concern for the crew. They made the extra effort to provide the little things that enhance the cruising experience, such as an escort to our cabin upon embarkation and the elaborate culinary displays during the midnight buffets. And, concern for passengers was evidenced by the most thorough lifeboat drill we have ever had in our ten years of cruising. There was no indication of financial trouble on our sailing. In fact, the SeaBreeze looked better in 2000 than she did during our previous sailing seven years earlier.

Premier will always be special to us because it got us hooked on cruising. But, it was the hard-working members of the crew who made our cruises so enjoyable, and our thoughts are with them during this difficult time in their lives. From the maitre d' on the StarShip Atlantic who insisted on proper presentation, to the cruise director on the SeaBreeze, who said goodbye to every passenger at debarkation, and to everybody in between -- we thank each and every one of you for giving us glorious memories of Premier Cruise Line.

SeaBreeze Lobby
SeaBreeze Lobby

Source for most of the information in the The Ships, Then and Now section: Pictorial Encyclopedia of Ocean Liners, 1860-1994, by William H. Miller, Jr. Additional information was obtained from numerous brochures from Premier, Dolphin, and Holland America cruise lines, 1989-2000.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Plotnick and Premier Cruises.

Line

Lisa lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and their young son. They became cruise addicts in 1990, and have since enjoyed 2- to 10-night vacations on several lines, including Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Carnival, and Premier. They may be reached for questions, comments, or general reminiscing of the StarShip Atlantic, SeaBreeze, and OceanBreeze at lisa@sealetter.com


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