The occasion? The ceremonial float out of U.K.-based P&O Cruises' newest superliner (that's British for mega-ship!), Azura, which is due to launch April 2010 in Southampton.
A float out, in basic terms, is the process of introducing water to the dry dock in which exterior construction of a vessel is taking place. It's not an instant rush of water; over a period of hours, Azura's dock is slowly filled, and the 116,000-ton, 3,080-passenger vessel eventually rises, floating for the very first time -- officially becoming a ship!
Azura will then move from the dry dock to another part of the yard where work will begin on its interiors. (The dock won't be empty for long: Next week, another new-build from P&O parent line Carnival Corp. will be born there as the keel is laid for Cunard's Queen Elizabeth.)
As is usual maritime tradition, pomp and ceremony surrounded the float-out. In honour of the Italy-based shipyard chosen to build Azura, Carnival U.K. CEO David Dingle made a speech entirely in Italian -- he sounded pretty fluent though the language is clearly not his native tongue! The ship was also blessed by a priest (who, looking dapper, had been wearing sunglasses prior to his big moment on this hot, sunny day).
Captain Keith Dowds' wife, Amanda Dowds, served as the "madrina," or godmother, for the ceremony, smashing a bottle of Prosecco against the hull of the ship for good luck (this ritual is also common for ship christenings). Both the Italian and the British national anthems were played to cheers.
Before the float out, Cruise Critic had the unique opportunity to take a tour of the under-construction ship. It's still very much a building site -- picture metal and wires poking out everywhere. We were able to walk through Deck 7, the ship's main promenade.
Present for the tour (and the ceremony) were Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, who will oversee an Indian fine dining restaurant, Sindhu, here, and wine expert Olly Smith, who is working on a wine bar and restaurant, The Glass House. Both were able to see the works-in-progress spaces that their venues will eventually occupy.
Next stop: Deck 15, which is already visibly coming together as the lido deck area (the space for the pool is already cut in, and we'd have loved to jump in and cool off). Already, we can see a big difference in this ship from Ventura, whose pool is covered by a magrodome. Azura's pool will be open to the sky.
On Decks 16 and 17, the Oasis Spa and adults-only retreat are works-in-progress. The retreat doesn't look like much now, but a picture on an easel showed a rendering of the space with its large cabana. While atop the ship, Dingle, Amanda Dowds and other VIP's were a given a chance to try their hand at welding.
Nigel Esdale, managing director for P&O Cruises, tells us that Azura will bring back some of the cruise line's more traditional elements -- things that its core passengers love. This ship won't be as geared to families as Ventura was, and it's aimed squarely at P&O's fans and past passengers rather than first-timers. Among the features that will appeal to traditional P&O cruisers are a dance floor in the atrium and a reading room.
At the same time, Azura is adopting some Princess Cruises-like qualities -- Princess is a sister line -- from an adults-only retreat to a big poolside movie screen.
This is also the first new-build for P&O that will feature single cabins -- all but extinct among today's modern cruise vessels. Esdale says that this component is already a hit; the 18 single cabins onboard have already sold out for next year, and though there are no other P&O new-builds on tap at this point, solo staterooms will definitely be considered for future ship orders.
We'll keep you posted on Azura's progress as the ship preps for its debut next spring. In the meantime, stay tuned next week for our slideshow of images from our shipyard tour!
--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor