Since its launch in 1996, AIDA has earned a reputation for its unique product and rightfully so. Unlike so many of the “me too” cruise lines, AIDA has distinguished itself by focusing on the German speaking market with its “Das Clubschiff” approach modeled on the popular German vacation clubs.
My first opportunity to experience AIDA was with the AIDAaura.
All images and text copyright Allan E. Jordan, unless otherwise stated
It clearly highlighted the uniqueness of the ships. While the AIDAaura is a second generation design, she is very similar to the original AIDA. When you board you are immediately struck by the use of bright, tropical colors, playful designs, public spaces designed to encourage passenger interaction, the self-service open dining concept and the prominent placement of the sports and exercise facilities on the lounge deck.
Recently I had the opportunity to compare one of AIDA’s largest ships, the 69,000 gross ton AIDAluna, to the earlier designs. The third member of the Sphinx class, the AIDAluna is nearly twice the size of the first three AIDA ships and AIDA’s first design after the brand became part of the Carnival Corporation. So, of course, I was interested to see how they handled the increased size and if there were any signs of the global corporation influencing AIDA’s product.
AIDA’s History of Innovation
AIDA’s origins date to 1991 and the privatization of Deutsche Seereederei, East Germany’s state-owned shipping company. The new team began to explore adapting the popular vacation club concept to a cruise ship. They considered purchasing and lengthening the SALLY ALBATROSS (today sailing as Louis’ CRISTAL). While that did not proceed that ship influenced the designs of the AIDA ship including the exterior look and the small swimming pool.
Working with Partner Ship Design of Hamburg, a 38,500 gross ton, 1,180 passenger ship was designed that was resort oriented, casual and catered to an active lifestyle. The order was placed in 1994 and the first AIDA ship (today known as the AIDAcara) went into service in 1996. After a rocky first few years, and a brief stint owned by NCL, AIDA was acquired by P&O in 2000. The second ship, the AIDAvita, was introduced in 2002, and in 2003 shortly after the merger of P&O Princess with Carnival, the AIDAaura was introduced.
The order for the Sphinx class was placed in 2004 with the first of the ships, the AIDAdiva, being introduced in 2007. She was followed by sister ships the AIDAbella in 2008 and the AIDAluna in 2009. Starting in 2010 with the AIDAblu, the design was enlarged from 69,000 gross tons to over 71,000 gross tons with the addition over the bridge of 39 spa cabins similar to the cruise ships in North American. In 2011, the AIDAsol was introduced, and she is to be followed by the AIDAmar in 2012 and AIDAstella in 2013.
Unique Open Ship Design
There is an old saying about wearing your heart on your sleeve and there is no question that the Sphinx class does exactly that. Looking at the exterior of the ship you see the massive three-deck high windows in the center of the superstructure. Called the “Theatrium” AIDA promotes it as the heart of the ship which combines the atrium and show lounge into the crossroads of the ship. While it is the signature concept of the design, it is but one of the elements that makes these ships distinctive.
I asked the AIDAluna’s Club Director Harald Bernberger what makes his ship unique, and he responds that it is an “in your face ship,” of course in the nicest way. With that phrase he points to the communal spaces, such as the large tables in the dining rooms and AIDA’s signature star shaped AIDA Bar, as well as the prominent placement of the public spaces with the cabins placed lower in the hull. Bernberger highlights these elements as a way to get the passengers to interact during their cruise.
While all of this is expressions of AIDA’s relaxed, casual atmosphere, as you move about the Sphinx class you see some significant differences versus the earlier ships. While some of the changes may be due to the increased size (1,180 vs. 2,050 passengers) there are also clearly signs of the cruise industry’s efforts to maximize revenues from the passengers with more add-ons beyond the traditional all inclusive cruise fare. Yet overall the AIDAluna remains true to the spirit and even expands on the styles of the AIDAcara.
Touring the AIDAluna
Unlike the North American cruise ships where passengers generally board into soaring atriums, on all the AIDA ships your first experience is a smaller space. On the Sphinx class one point of embarkation is to the open promenade on Deck 5 near the small, but efficient, reception desk. With the cabins, including the suites, grouped below the lounge decks, embarkation on Deck 5 brings you on to one of the main stateroom decks.
The other primary embarkation/debarkation point is another of the signature elements of the Sphinx class. Called Pier 3, it is on Deck 3 and you immediately feel like you have stepped onto a street on a Caribbean island. Between the colorful decor and trees are places to sit, especially important when waiting for tenders, as well as a small bar, vending machines, restrooms and the ship’s information screens are prominently displayed. A wide access corridor leads to the elevators, while the shell doors can be opened to provide French balconies with a view of the port.
The cabins are another area where you see the uniqueness of AIDA. For a ship of her size, 69,000 gross tons with 1,025 cabins, only 18 cabins aboard the AIDAluna are suites. Almost all of the cabins are standard sized with either balconies or portholes (due to the hull placement) or they are standard insides. AIDA has a higher density than many North American cruise ships.
The cabins are nicely appointed. Many of the outside cabins have a foldout chair that can become a third lower bed and some also have a fourth upper berth that comes down in front of the window or balcony door. The cabins continue the bright color scheme reminiscent of the tropics and many have a cloth canopy over the beds, a design that originated with the AIDAcara. It’s said that management did not like the original cabins and Partner Ship added the fabric over the bed to bring more color into the space and continue the tropic feel. Another unique feature is a cloth hammock on the cabin balconies.
The inside cabins are pretty much the industry standard box but also employ AIDA’s bright color schemes. All of the suites are located either on the front or the back of the superstructure providing them with large private deck spaces and good views. The suites generally are smaller than those in North America and are without the features such as hot tubs or dining rooms found on some of the newest ships.
One difference on the Sphinx class versus the earlier AIDA ships is the elimination of the drinking water taps in the companionways. On the first three ships each cabin was provided a carafe so that passengers could get drinking water for their cabins from the companionways. Club Director Bernberger said the system is difficult to maintain and hence it was eliminated on the larger ships.
To encourage passengers to get out and about on the ship the cabins are functional and comfortable but not designed to spend your day in your cabin. AIDA also offers no room service meals to the cabins again to encourage people to socialize.
A Wide Variety of Fresh Foods
When it is meal time on the AIDAluna, passengers head to one of three self-service buffet restaurants. Each of the three rooms has its own distinctive design flair. There is Bella Vista with its grand views, large tables, counters with stools and the most traditional of the buffets. Weite Welt has food stations offering cuisines from difference parts of the world ranging from Asian and Mexican to Argentine style beef and Scandinavian style fish. Markt has the feel of walking a Mediterranean market with food stations including meats, cheeses, fruits, a bakery and the first fish smoker at sea. While there is variation in the food between the three restaurants, it is all very fresh and the selection is wide and varied, far better than what is found on the typical buffet on a North American cruise ship.
Seating in the dining rooms is a mix of large communal tables and smaller tables. Markt has two seating times when the ship is busy but even then it is open seating during the service hours. Table wine, beer and soft drinks are free of charge in the dining rooms with passengers helping themselves to draft beers on tap. The AIDAluna carries over 6,000 liters of beer in large tanks and piped for distribution on tap around the ship. She also loads large barrels of wine to serve the dining rooms. There is, of course, also a list of vintage wines for sale.
In addition to the dining rooms there is the Pizzeria Mare on Deck 11. It is a typical pizzeria serving pizza, pasta and Italian cuisine with communal tables (but they do have a knife and folk stand on each table). The Pizzeria is included in the passengers’ fare.
For those passengers that might wish to have a more formal meal with table service, the AIDAluna offers three à la carte dining options. When AIDA was introduced, the Rossini Restaurant was included in the fare. Today the à la carte restaurants charge prices rivaling those found on shore.
As on all the AIDA ships, AIDAluna features the elegant Rossini Restaurant for gourmet meals. Prices in Rossini vary by the day and the number of courses you select or you can order individually priced à la carte items. Examples of the different menus, include the tasting menu which is 24.50 € for three courses, six courses for 28.50 €, the 8 course farewell menu for 36.00 €, an 11 course gourmet dinner for 39.50 € or a lobster dinner for 49.00 € per person.
New to the Sphinx class is the Buffalo Steak House, an interpretation of a traditional American steakhouse featuring wood floors and an open kitchen layout. The menu offers beef or buffalo steaks, clam chowder, jerk chicken, and the traditional sides of baked potato, salad and vegetables. Prices here are all à la carte with steaks for example ranging between 14.50 € and 39.00 €. Seating at both the Buffalo Steak House and Rossini is at smaller tables to highlight the gourmet atmosphere.
Off the Theatrium on Deck 9 is found another new option, the Sushi Bar. It is a traditional styled Sushi restaurant with a large counter and a few communal tables. Again the prices are all à la carte with Sushi and Sashimi ranging between 2.50 to 4.50 € plus beverages. The Sushi Bar is open to the Theatrium and has video screens that highlight the stage shows.
In a similar position one deck higher is the Café Mare that serves coffees, teas, pastries and chocolates. It is also open to the Theatrium. On the opposite side of the deck is the Vinothek (Wine Bar) offering a wide variety of vintage wines.
On AIDA you will not find the typical lido restaurant and poolside food service. There is no hamburger and hot dog grill but you can dine outdoors on an open deck aft of the Weite Welt Restaurant or outside the Pizzeria.
Entertainment and Lounges
While AIDA is proud to say they eliminated the main show lounge on the Sphinx class, the Theatrium serves this purpose. Spanning decks 9, 10 and 11, it has a central stage with amphitheater seating. Seating is far more limited in number than a North America cruise ship has in its main lounge as AIDA expects passengers to wonder in and out or to view the stage shows on TV screens in the adjacent spaces.
The Theatrium’s unique design features large glass windows looking upon the sea on all three levels (over approximately 400 m² according to Meyer Weft), exposed structural elements, and a glass dome. A mix of seating styles also highlights the mixed use nature of the space.
The open plan of the Theatrium also incorporates venues including the Internet stations, the tour and sports desks, the broadcast studio and even the flower shop and a pool table. Starting with the AIDAluna they also have a 4-D experience theatre room near the Theatrium replaced the golf stimulator found on the earlier ships.
The Theatrium is also open to the Time Out Bar (Deck 11), The Luna Bar (Deck 9) and a small casino (Deck 10). AIDA added casinos, not traditionally found on German ships, starting with the AIDAdiva. Possibly a sign of the Carnival Corporation influence this was made possible because the AIDA ships all are registered in Italy.
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.