Exploring The Aida “Difference” By Allan E. Jordan
Exclusive to MaritimeMatters – posted May, 2009
With so much of the cruise industry today appearing to be mega ship clones only distinguished by the more and more amenities added, it is hard to find a truly unique and different approach to cruising. So when the opportunity presented itself to experience AIDA I jumped at the occasion.
AIDA and its concepts have drawn attention in part due to its newest ships, the Diva class, but outside the German market far less is known about AIDA. Started thirteen years ago, AIDA was a pioneer in resort-style cruising, but unlike the multi-national approach best known in the North American market, AIDA is truly a German product. The firm believes that by catering to the German-speaking passengers it creates a better environment aboard its ships and can tailor the product to the unique wants of its target market.
All images and text copyright Allan E. Jordan, unless otherwise stated
The German market, while it may not be well understood by Americans, is a thriving segment of the business. Germany is the largest source market for cruise passengers in continental Europe, with approximately 800,000 Germans having taken a cruise in 2007. Yet the market penetration is estimated at between a third and a fourth that of the North America cruise industry.
The Birth of AIDA
In an odd twist of fate, AIDA’s roots actually trace back to Communist East Germany. In 1991, Deutsche Seereederei, East Germany’s state-owned shipping company was privatized as part of the reunification of Germany and that gave birth to what would become AIDA. Deutshce Seereederei is best known for running the VOLKERFREUNDSCHAFT (ex STOCKHOLM). In the hands of West German investors, the firm operated the ARKONA (ex ASTOR) and in 1996 launched its new concept, AIDA.
After building its first ship, today known as the AIDAcara, the firm went through some difficult times including changes in ownership. In 1997 AIDA was acquired by NCL, only to later be sold back to its German investors and then resold to P&O. Today as part of the Carnival Cruise Lines empire, AIDA finds itself with the capital and resources to truly grow and expand its product. The AIDAvita and AIDAaura were launched in 2002 and 2003 respectively. At 42,200 gross tons and 1,266 double occupancy they were the second generation AIDA ships.
The third generation, the Diva class, began to sail in 2007. At 69,200 gross tons and 2,050 double occupancy, the Diva class is substantially larger than the Vita. The AIDAdiva was introduced in 2007, followed in 2008 by the AIDAbella and in 2009 the AIDAluna. The fourth generation is now under construction with the AIDAblu due in 2010 and two sister ships in 2011 and 2012. Each will be 71,100 gross tons and have a double occupancy of 2,176.
AIDA Cruises To America
As the fleet has expanded, so to has the deployment of the ships. For the first time, in 2008, AIDA based the AIDAaura in North American scheduling a series of cruises between New York and Montreal. This provided the opportunity for me to learn about the seagoing “club resort” approach as AIDA describes their product. AIDA says they focus on a youthful style and casual service and that its ships provide a host of on-board amenities and facilities that attract younger, more active vacationers.
Arriving at your AIDA ship you can immediately identify the ship because of the unique exterior “hull art” with the AIDA stylized eyes and lips. The giant red lips and bright eyes on the hull are the work of the German artist Feliks Buttner who had the Egyptian Princess Aida of Verdi’s opera in mind when he created the AIDA face. AIDA says the art embodies the playful spirit of the firm and gives the ships a “welcome feeling.”
Embarkation to an AIDA ship is a more relaxed event as passengers come and go as their schedule permits. AIDA has designed embarkation to be less stressful and if your cabin is not ready you are invited to relax in a lounge until it is prepared. While the AIDAaura does not offer it, starting with the Diva class AIDA has designed into their ships a lounge at the embarkation point to accommodate arriving and departing passengers. When the Diva is at anchor this lounge is the embarkation point for the tenders.
While the AIDAaura is not the newest ship in the fleet, once you come aboard you quickly realize this is not just another clone cruise ship. The decor is a combination of modern and whimsical and the layout of the ship is truly unique. The ships are largely non-smoking and the passengers and officers dress in a casual resort style. All announcements aboard the ship are made in a single language, German, unlike other European cruise ships which make announcements in three or four languages. Food service aboard is also geared to the German market as well as a number of the amenities, such as an abundance of drinking water taps. All of the cabins include carafes and in the companionways are taps for the passengers to get carbonated or still drinking water.
Staffing aboard the AIDA ships, like most cruise ships, is a mix of nationalities, but the officers are German. Also the department heads are German supervising the operations. One odd quirk you will also notice is that all of the ships are flying the Italian flag home-ported in Genoa. In part this has to do with Carnival’s corporate structure and also tax considerations arranged by Costa for the fleet.
Touring the AIDAaura
Aboard an AIDA ship you see what the firm calls a “youthful spirit,” which is bright in colors and a little playful in design. For example, there are palm trees incorporated into the design and art aboard the ship is also in a playful style. The decor reflects the resort-style feel of the AIDA concept.
At the heart of all of the AIDA ships is the AIDA Bar or the “star bar” as it is called due to its shape. Located mid-ship on Deck 8 on the AIDAaura the star bar provides a central hub for all the actives. Forward of the star bar is the main show lounge, aft are the shops and adjacent to the bar is the gourmet restaurant.
Looking at the star bar you quickly start to see the differences between AIDA and other cruise lines. The color scheme of the star bar is a bright mix of orange and yellow and the bar in the shape of a star dominates the room. As opposed to chairs and tables the bar is largely designed with stools and for standing reflecting the active lifestyle of the passengers and in order to encourage socializing.
On Deck 10 aft is the other main bar and lounge for the ship called the Anytime Bar. Decor is very modern in the room and it is entered via the Time Tunnel which looks straight out of 2001 Space Odyssey except for the line of Play Stations which are popular with passengers of all ages. The Anytime Bar serves as the night club and disco as well. The aft wall is glass and when the weather is good can be rolled back to create an indoor-outdoor room with an extension of the bar serving the aft deck.
The other heart of the AIDAaura is her multi-purpose sports area called Body & Soul Sport located mid-ship on Deck 9. Unlike cruise ships designed for the North American market which put the gym and other exercise facilities in a more remote local these facilities are in the center of one of the main lounge decks. On AIDAaura Body & Soul is between the main show room and one of the main dining rooms. Here you find everything from the gym’s weight and aerobic machines to the studio for aerobics and pilates classes, cycles and even mini-golf and a golf simulator. It is not uncommon to see people exercising in this space while others are heading to the entertainment or the restaurant.
At Body & Soul in the center of the main passenger deck you can exercise, play golf or take an aerobics class while other passengers go to a meal or the entertainment.
Also at Body & Soul you find the sports desks such as the dive or biking counters where you make arrangements for shore side activities. (German passengers like organized tours says the Club Director.) The cycling tours are a popular shore excursion and not just limited to the topical destinations. In New York City, for example, passengers had the opportunity to cycle around Manhattan. The AIDAaura carries 85 bikes for the passengers to use in port and these tours are always sold out.
Body & Soul also ties into the spa located on the top deck of AIDAaura. Like most modern cruise ships a full program of spa treatments is available. Parts of Body & Soul are included in the price of the cruise while a day pass is also available for other parts of the spa.
The third big difference aboard the AIDA ships are the dining arrangements. While the ships in the North American market are moving away from assigned dining times and tables, none of them have totally abandoned waiter service and set menus. AIDA never offered traditional cruise ship style dinning. Instead AIDA offers dining similar to resorts such as Las Vegas or Club Med.
There are two main restaurants on the AIDAaura, Calypso on Deck 9 aft and Markt on Deck 8 aft. Both restaurants are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner but all meals are served open seating and buffet style. You chose your table and table companions and serve yourself from a very elaborate selection of food. At dinner the restaurants each has its own theme for the evening.
There are separate buffets stations for various types of food and the food is excellent, much better than the typical cruise ship buffet. It is a wide selection of fresh foods and AIDA includes beer, wine or soda free of charge in the restaurants.
Calypso on Deck 9 has an outdoor seating area on the stern and what is called an overflow area portside forward that also connects to the Nightfly Bar. Nightfly is a traditional lounge-style bar but also has the playful AIDA decor.
Passengers wishing a more traditional table service experience can make reservations for the extra-tariff Rossini Restaurant located starboard side on Deck 9 just aft of the star barstarboard side on Deck 9 just aft of the star bar.
Rossini provides traditional white tablecloth gourmet dining in a more formal and elegant atmosphere than the rest of the ship. The cover charge is 24,50 Euro. Aboard the Diva class ships AIDA is expanding the dining options with new extra-tariff options, the Buffalo Steak House and Sushi Bar.
A few other uniquely German features on the ship include on Deck 12 the FKK area (Freikorperkultur, a German naturism movement). Passengers use this area for nude sunbathing. Also there is no casino aboard the AIDAaura (although starting the with Diva class AIDA is adding small casinos). Also out of the traffic is the small Ocean Bar aft on Deck 7. Very popular with passengers, the small area on the stern provides a good view of the ocean or port sail-aways.
Another small space on the ship is the library lounge called the Hemingway Lounge on Deck 10. The look and feel is very tropical, as if in Hemingway’s Cuba or Key West homes.
A large children’s program also goes with the focus on younger cruisers and families that AIDA offers. A full children’s facility is located on Deck 6 aft with both indoor and outdoor facilities. Another signature of the AIDA style are the large mascot characters, each with a name from one letter of AIDA.
Many of the other features aboard the ship are similar to most other cruise ships. This includes a large lido area on Deck 10 and sauna and jogging track both on Deck 11. Reflecting the active lifestyle AIDA promotes, there is golf net and even a volleyball/basketball court in the pool area.
The large AIDA Shop is found on Deck 8 amidships on the port side. Like most traditional cruise ships, the shop sells everything from resort style clothing to AIDA logo items.
The first three AIDA ships all have a traditional cruise ship theatre-style main lounge where most of the entertainment takes place. It is located forward on deck 8 and 9 on the AIDAaura. However starting with the Diva class AIDA is doing away with the theatre-style showroom and replacing it with the “Theatrium,” a new space concept that is open and combines a central meeting space and an entertainment venue. The exterior walls of the space are denoted by the large glass windows seen on the Diva class ships.
Cabins aboard the AIDAaura are similar to most modern cruise ships. A variety is offered from 62 cabins with balconies to family-style cabins and the traditional interior and ocean-view cabins. Colors are in keeping with the rest of the ship meaning they are bright and a little playful.
Finally the size of the AIDAaura and her sister ship the AIDAvita, plus the earlier AIDAcara, is one of the pleasures. At 42,289 gross tons the ship appeals to travelers who enjoy the smaller, more intimate size that is fast fading away in the cruise industry.
It was exciting to see the uniqueness of the AIDA ships and AIDA’s success is clearly spawning copies in the market ranging from TUI and its new MEIN SCHIFF to the less successful Ocean Village that P&O started in England. In North America NCL’s Freestyle is the closest to the AIDA approach.
Despite the growth in the size of the newer AIDA ships and the addition of some more traditional cruise ship features, I have a feeling that AIDA will continue to be one of the unique pioneers in cruising. At its headquarters in Rostock (in the former East Germany) AIDA’s team continues to explore future innovations. It will be interesting to follow AIDA’s development and its influence on the cruise business.
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland.Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.