When Royal Caribbean International received the Empress of the Seas back from Pullmantur Cruises early this year, hopes were running high that the U.S. was on the cusp of a new era in its relations with Cuba.
Now it looks like it will get a chance to deploy the 1,590-passenger Empress as intended, following the news that Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. has received Cuban governmental permission for cruises there.
Until last week, the ship had been stuck in limbo waiting for a decision that had been expected much earlier in the year.
Royal has spent $50 million on renovations to the Empress of the Seas — known as the Nordic Empress when inaugurated in 1990 — and on a tour in July I found the ship to be a pleasant change from the style of vessels currently being built.
Empress of the Seas gets a makeover
Start with the top deck, where the pool area feels more airy and open than the current designs. Instead of another whole deck running around the pool to provide shaded areas, there are canvas canopies stretched on a framework, making the feel lighter and brighter than on modern ships.
The airy feeling continues inside the ship, which was designed with lots of exterior glass to enhance the connection to the sea.
The effect is noticeable throughout but particularly in the two-deck main dining room, which unlike today's designs is located in the aft, with double-deck windows in the rear.
Part of the reason the Empress feels different from modern ships is its use of materials.
The architects employed shiny chrome surfaces as liberally as the car designers of the 1950s, particularly in the stairwells and staircases.
In other spaces there's more wood than you would see on a newer ship, such as the trim around cabinets, vanities, dresser drawers and door frames in the staterooms.
In many cabins, travelers will find the old-style, fold-down third and fourth berths fastened to the walls, instead of concealed in the ceiling. Also notable is the paucity of balcony cabins: only 71 were included in the original design.
In upgrading the cabins, Royal has paid the most attention to the suites, which got new furniture, carpeting, drapes and linens. The suites are also the only accommodations that have bedside USB outlets.
Other improvements include the ship's lounge, which has been updated as a Boleros, the Latin-themed bar and dance space found on three other Royal ships. A Chops Grille steakhouse has also been added.
At 1,590 passengers and 48,563 gross tons, the Empress is about a quarter of the size of Royal's largest ships, giving fans of smaller vessels a chance to experience the Royal brand attributes without the crowds.
"It truly is our boutique ship," said Mark Tamis, Royal's senior vice president for hotel operations. "So many of our guests love the intimate smaller spaces. This is the ship they grew up with."