Adventure began for Portuscale, the brand new line created in order to experience the Classic International fleet. Funchal ended her first cruise in North Sea, she is now navigating bound to Lisbon. Her itinerary between Sweden and Portugal includes several calls in France, in Normandy and in the Bay of Biscay. Last Thursday, she stopped in Honfleur, for her first French passage with her new colors. We had the chance to assist to the exchanges between the company and its future French partners, and also visit the vessel and meet the main characters currently managing Portuscale.
Funchal arrived on Thursday morning at about 7, more than five hours before the expected time of arrival. A strong near the England Coast prevented the ship to reach Tilbury. Her historical shape stands out from the cruise vessels we see usually in Honfleur : built on 1961, the superb ship is 152 meters long but can only welcome 500 guests. We board at noon and are welcomed by Rui Alegre and Lucien Laloum, who is the owner's main French partner in charge of development and commercialization. The tour on board begins by a speech made by Rui Alegre himself, an occasion to discover this uncommon businessman. Forty-five years old, shirt unconventionally open around the neck, with a friendly smile, he is the opposite of the typical authoritarian financing man. The line's management shows it : even if they are about itineraries, crew or ships themselves, easy ideas are applied as soon as their efficiency convinces the headquarters. The company's owner and founder says it himself : "I am here in order to make intelligent business with intelligent people. Not to create problems." Portuscale is his first maritime society, and Rui Alegre puts a lot of blind trust into the captains he hired from the ex-Classic International crews, and whose experience about the sea (and of the four ships) represents an infinite and essential help.
But the challenge is huge for a newcomer in the maritime industry : a lot of people expected that the end of Classic International would mean the end of CIC's fleet. Even if Princess Daphne has not been purchased, due to her critical condition, Portuscale's four vessels have to undergo a large readjustment, both on technical and on structural aspect. More than 20 millions euros have been invested in Funchal. In addition, the wear of motors and hull have had gotten as the ships are stopped from the judicial seizure, on last spring. To predicated costs, several bad surprises has been added. Rui Alegre explained that he discovered the vessels in a much worse condition than announced. This explains the two weeks delay for the Funchal's refit, which lead to the cancelling of the first two cruises. Moreover, on the commercial department, everyone had to be extremely efficient : June is pretty late to create a cruise line, while the competition has already announced the program of the next year (some having already schelulded two years ahead). Itineraries for the end of 2013 and 2014 have been decided in only two months time, thanks to an efficient and close collaboration between the commercial teams and the captains.
Even the most skeptic visitors were convinced as soon as they discover the incredible renovation work made on board. This was in fact one of the main challenge for Rui Alegre : Funchal was said old... and old-fashioned. In the magnificent book he published in order to celebrate the vessel's rebirth, Rui Alegre does not hesitate to explain he wanted "to restore the vessel's dignity and greatness." From the carpets to the top painting, including of course the wall's colors, the atmosphere of every passenger area was recreated, changed from scratch by the President himself. The speech of this last, mostly using the first person singular, shows how he personnaly engaged in the challenge. The staterooms lost their dull cream ambiance for a melt of blue, white and dark wood. Every public area has been rethought, both in terms of layout and colors, and is now fitted with a unique atmosphere.
The promenade deck is where most of the changes took place. The Gama Lounge, occupying the fore part, has a new display, including lights green furnitures, bright wood walls and a black and beige floor. A mirror top adds a feeling of largeness to an already spacious area. On the same deck, several rooms has been removed, to get more surface of to be adapted to the guests needs. Among the new places, we notice one dedicated to children with some video games. Portuscale is obviously more adapted to welcome young passengers than CIC ever was : the new compagny aims at welcoming both seniors leaving on holidays as well as their grandchildren. The Porto, the ship's main bar, a concept to be present on the four vessels, has definitely become one of the line's new symbols. Rui Alegre chose to devote every unit to a specific country, in order to adapt as much as possible both welcoming methods and ships decorations. However, as he likes to say himself, "Portugal is one of the rare countries to not have any enemy. Everybody likes Portugal." Therefore, every vessel will be devoted to a culture... with a Portuguese touch. For example, on board of the Lisboa (ex-Princess Danae), the Portuguese wines will be put forwards, thus allowing passengers to discover no-French varieties. Portuscale, as the only Portuguese cruise line (with 70% of crew hired in the country), is thus a true maritime ambassador for its country.
Concerning outdoors, Funchal is fitted with the space and the comfort which are the strengths of the old cruise vessels. The size and the divers thematic display of passengers' areas balance out with the absence of private balcony in the cabins. The two upper decks are surrounded by a promenade, and the sundeck provides a large view on the stern and on the stem. Its surface has been increased on the aft part, in order to create a balcony hosting the Lido and overlooking the pool area. In addition, this change allows to reduce the quantity of deckchairs around the pool, and to ease the access to the extreme aft for passengers wanting to watch the ocean.
Funchal now continues sailing to the Azores and Mediterranean. She will end the year 2013 with a cruise around Madeira, which will permit the guests to watch from the exterior areas of the MS Funchal the legendary fireworks shot from the city of Funchal. Those fireworks are said to be the nicest of the world. Concerning Lisboa, the renovation began : she will make her first French cruises on February. The itineraries will be revealed in the coming weeks, but we know already that Portuscale will organize new cruises in France, including North Europe departures in winter, and a lot of thematic cruises which will take famous speakers on board. French passengers will thus rediscover a ship, which already managed to seduce a large audience, as a more familial and human way to cruise than massive modern ships.