Classic Aegean on LOUIS OLYMPIA, Part One

Peter Knego embarks on a classic four night journey from Piraeus to the Greek Islands and Turkey aboard Louis Cruises’ LOUIS OLYMPIA, the former SONG OF AMERICA.

Louis Cruises

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2013 unless otherwise noted.

Monday, June 17, 2013

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MV SONG OF AMERICA at Los Angeles in 1993.

When I first stepped aboard Royal Caribbean’s SONG OF AMERICA during the ship’s only season of cruises from Los Angeles way back in 1993, she was in her American-based prime. The one-of-a-kind vessel was the bridge between RCI’s SONG OF NORWAY trio of first generation cruise ships and the SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS triplets, which were the first purpose-built mega cruise ships. Boasting two pools surrounded in an acre’s worth of deck space, a full wrap-around promenade, loads of forward observation and sunning space, a dedicated movie theater, a state-of-the-art showroom and cabaret lounge and, of course, the line’s trademark Viking Crown, SONG OF AMERICA was the antithesis of what was then considered a classic cruise ship. And yet she boasted no rock climbing walls, wave runners, water slides and other distractions from the sea-going experience. Go figure.

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SONG OF AMERICA departs Miami for the final time in 1999.

By the late 1990s, the SONG OF AMERICA could no longer compete with an armada of balconied newbuilds, most more than twice her 38,000 gross ton size. Still sleek, popular and profitable, she was just not profitable enough for RCI’s accountants. In 1999, she was sold to U.K.-based Airtours and renamed SUNBIRD. In subsequent refits, a deck of balconied suites was added above the bridge and several public rooms were modified. In 2004, she was sold to Cyprus-based Louis Cruises and chartered to Thomson Holidays as the THOMSON DESTINY and in 2012, began sailing for Louis as the LOUIS OLYMPIA.

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Reception, facing aft.

My longing but myopic “ship eye” in 1993 was focused on seeking out burled woodwork, etched glass and classic artwork as there was plenty of it to go around at that time with dozens of 1950s and 1960s-built ships still plying the seas. Because of that, I had vastly underestimated the SONG OF AMERICA’s charms…

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Reception detail.
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More Reception detail.

It was a pleasant shock to board the former SONG OF AMERICA and get swept away with just what a jewel of a ship she once was and now still is. Her spacious Reception area boasts a gorgeously angular fixture with blown glass insets that reveal her onetime Scandinavian roots.

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The rather tartanic LOUIS OLYMPIA Suite 7003, facing starboard.

When SONG OF AMERICA entered service, my Deck 7 mini-suite was actually in the ship’s top tier of accommodation but today there are new suites with balconies on Deck 9 to steal its thunder. Intelligently designed, Stateroom 7003 would be a very comfortable haven for the next four days, providing me with plenty of storage space and electrical outlets, a queen-sized bed, flat screen television and even a stocked mini-bar. I particularly enjoyed the two picture windows that looked out onto the promenade and the tartan soft fittings (presumably added for her U.K.-based cruising years) added an incongruous but warm charm.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA Suite 7003 wc.

The bathroom had marble flooring, a wide counter, full tub with shower (unfortunately, I never got around to using the tub) and, again, loads of cabinet space.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA Suite Amenities.

Louis even provides bottled amenities such as shampoo, bath gel and moisturizer in its upper category cabins.

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HELLAS LIBERTY at Piraeus.

Immediately following boat drill, the LOUIS OLYMPIA made her way out of Piraeus, passing the preserved HELLAS LIBERTY on her starboard side. It was nice to see another Liberty ship preserved but I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like if the original plans to save REGAL EMPRESS (ex OLYMPIA, CARIBE I) ever came to fruition.

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Passing Perama and Keratsini.

Off in the distance of Keratsini and Perama, I could spot some laid up ferries, including several NEL Lines vessels, but no significant cruise ships. As the LOUIS OLYMPIA made her course into the sapphire blue waters of the Aegean for Mykonos, I unpacked and then headed down to the Seven Seas Restaurant for lunch.

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Seven Seas Restaurant, facing forward.

Again, I was pleasantly shocked to see, other than pleasing gold and blue soft fittings and furniture, how little had been changed in the Seven Seas Restaurant. Even the trio of ancient maps depicting Africa, Europe and Asia were still on the aft bulkheads (they’ll show up in a future Decked!).

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Greek culinary display.

Louis has wisely embraced its culinary roots and has begun promoting Hellenic cuisine on board its ships. That means genuine Greek recipes with fresh herbs and veggies that are locally sourced. As a huge fan of Mediterranean food, I would be in heaven for the next four days.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA table setting.
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Olive oil and balsamic.

All the breads (and pastries) on the ship are freshly baked, all the better with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip them in.

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Genuine Greek at the buffet.

Lunch featured all-you-can-eat horiatiki (Greek salad), dolmathes (grape leaves), homemade pilafs with oregano and other spices — and don’t get me started on the desserts!

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LOUIS OLYMPIA Gym, facing starboard.

I paid my penance for engorging as best I could with a quick workout in the ship’s small gym. If I am to be fair, I have to say that the gym was a disappointment with little space to stretch in and both elliptical machines on the fritz. Hopefully, at least the ellipticals can be replaced as they are truly needed with all that good food.

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From Romeos to Mykonos.

Captain Stathis Romeos is the ultimate Greek mariner, both a master of the sea and the captain’s table. The veteran captain has helmed countless legendary ships, including the STELLA SOLARIS, APOLLO IX, ORPHEUS, WORLD RENAISSANCE, APOLLON (ex EMPRESS OF CANADA), CALYPSO, etc.. I was thrilled to get his invite to LOUIS OLYMPIA’s bridge to watch our sailing into Mykonos that evening but when I arrived, despite his warm welcome, I could see he was a bit miffed, and for good reason. The massive CELEBRITY EQUINOX had not left her berth on time, setting back our arrival by at least 30 minutes, which on these short Aegean jaunts, can create all sorts of scheduling challenges.

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CELEBRITY EQUINOX finally departs.
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ORIENT QUEEN awaits at Mykonos.

As the EQUINOX slid past us, the LOUIS OLYMPIA’s gorgeous little fleetmate, the 1968-built ORIENT QUEEN (ex STARWARD, etc.), glistened in the afternoon light. The two ships spend a lot of time together, both in port and overtaking each other at sea. Currently, the OLYMPIA is offering four night cruises and the ORIENT QUEEN seven night cruises, calling at the same havens, although the ORIENT QUEEN takes the extra days to include Istanbul.

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Aft from wing of LOUIS OLYMPIA.
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LOUIS OLYMPIA arriving at Mykonos.

The good captain manned the controls at the wing, calling orders into the wheelhouse that were subsequently relayed by his cabal of officers to the engine room. With thrusters and screws engaged, the LOUIS OLYMPIA spun around like a svelte Ferrari, defying the Mistrals by easing into her berth at Tourlos. And while we’re on that wing, note the brass instruments — even brand new ships don’t glisten like this!

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Sky Bar, facing port/forward.

As fellow passengers filed off to watch the sun set from a myriad of Mykonos’ cafes, I took advantage of the empty ship to begin my documentation. I started at the top with the Sky Bar, formerly the Viking Crown Lounge, and worked my way down from there.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA, aft along Deck 10.

There is so much deck space on the LOUIS OLYMPIA, including an abundance of forward observation platforms, making her a perfect ship from which to photograph arrivals in places like Santorini and Mykonos. On most new ships, forward observation has sadly gone the way of the wrap-around promenade.

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SONG OF AMERICA builder’s plate.

It was so nice to find SONG OF AMERICA’s Wartsila builder’s plate at the base of her radio mast. Rather recently, someone cared enough to take it down, polish it, and put it back in place.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA pool deck, facing aft from Deck 10.

Those twin Deck 9 pools, framed in a sea of freshly scrubbed teak, were still so inviting.

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Golden glow in the Lido Cafe.

As the sun bathed the ship in long shadows and a golden glow, I headed to the Lido Cafe on aft Deck 9 where another Greek feast awaited.

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Heavenly hummus and tip-top tzatziki!

Finding good hummus or tzatziki in California is a major challenge, so I did not waste any time in dolloping huge amounts of both on my plate.

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Vegetarian Moussaka!

There was even a vegetarian moussaka, which something I can usually only dream about.

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Thiples station.
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Maria serves up the thiples.
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Thiples, up close and delicious.

I really did not want dessert but then I saw Maria frying up a spectacular confection called thiples. Why Americans eat doughnuts when they could be savoring these honey-drenched, cinnamon and powdered sugar-dusted delights is beyond me.

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Twilight of the gods.

By the time I disembarked to take some photos of the LOUIS OLYMPIA and ORIENT QUEEN, the sun was setting. Perhaps next week, when I was on the ORIENT QUEEN, I could enjoy it from one of those little cafes with a drink of something special but for now, I was very content to watch the day fizzle out in the shadows of the LOUIS OLYMPIA.

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LOUIS OLYMPIA at Mykonos.

I lingered long enough for the OLYMPIA’s lights to flicker on, then headed back on board for a good night’s rest. My latest Greek marathon had just begun…

End Of Classic Aegean Aboard The LOUIS OLYMPIA, Part One.

Much More To Come…

Very special thanks: Martin Cox, Nicholas Filippides, Captain George Koumpenas, Michalis Maratheftis, Captain Stathis Romeos, Nic Spanoudes

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego
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