Pullmantur, Spain's largest cruise line, offers high-value, high-quality cruising with a spicy Spanish-Mediterranean flair. And while it markets mainly in Spain, the company welcomes international passengers -- the onboard product is largely bilingual with printed materials and the like in English. It's an intriguing option for those looking for a change from the usual English-speaking mass-market cruise lines.
Yet this five-ship operation was virtually unknown outside its native country until late 2006 when Royal Caribbean made the stunning announcement that it had purchased the company.
Since then, many more foreigners have taken notice as they've found that favorite ships -- like Celebrity's Zenith, and Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas and Sovereign of the Seas -- have been transferred to Pullmantur from RCI.
Pullmantur's hold on the Spanish cruise market began when the Madrid travel agency and tour operator of the same name, founded in 1971, chartered Premier Cruises' Seawind Crown in the late 1990's. The company experienced moderate success, and when Premier went bankrupt in 2000, Pullmantur bought that line's largest and most modern ship, Oceanic, and founded its own cruise line. Pullmantur began operating cruises from Barcelona in 2001. At the time, few could have imagined the impact the new company would have on cruising in Spain and the cruise industry as a whole.
In 2001, Spain was just beginning to discover cruising, mostly on foreign cruise ships, with many leaving from foreign ports. The formation of Pullmantur Cruises, with Oceanic's weekly departures from Barcelona, jolted Spanish cruising into overdrive. With low, all-inclusive fares, smart marketing and a quality product, Pullmantur had an effect in Spain that can be compared to that of Carnival in the United States: Suddenly, a company was making cruising affordable and popular to the masses.
Expansion came quickly. In 2002 the company bought the one-time Pacific Princess, the famed "Love Boat", from Princess Cruises. 2003 brought yet another new ship: Holiday Dream, formerly Star Cruises' SuperStar Aries and originally Hapag-Lloyd's uber-luxury Europa. (It was replaced in 1999 with the current ship of that name.) After buying three ships of its own, and still desperate for more capacity, Pullmantur chartered the R Five in 2004 from the creditors of the bankrupt Renaissance Cruises, marketing the ship as Blue Dream. In 2005, R Six, marketed as Blue Star, joined the fleet.
Later that year, R Five left Pullmantur to become Oceania Cruises' Nautica, and Pullmantur bought R Six outright and named her Blue Dream (confusingly, the marketing name previously assigned to R Five). Meanwhile, the charterer of R Seven, Delphin Seereisen, had gone bankrupt, so in 2006 that ship too was bought by Pullmantur and renamed Blue Moon. That same year, in its final acquisition before being taken over, Pullmantur bought P&O Cruises Australia's Pacific Sky, formerly Princess' Sky Princess and before that Sitmar's Fairsky. The ship was renamed Sky Wonder. Then, a few months later, came the announcement that Pullmantur -- including its tour operator and airline sister companies -- had been scooped up by Royal Caribbean, the world's second largest cruise line. It now had the backing of a much larger, wealthier company to help continue its expansion. The deal gave Royal Caribbean a strong presence in the European market.
Over the past five-plus years, Royal Caribbean has left its mark on Pullmantur's fleet. After innumerable ship swaps, 2011's fleet consists of Empress (formerly RCI's Empress of the Seas), Ocean Dream, Zenith (Celebrity Zenith), Sovereign (Sovereign of the Seas) and Pacific Dream.
The Pullmantur ships offer all the trappings of a traditional cruise -- with a Spanish accent. This means two-seating dining: early seating dinner is at 8 p.m. and late seating at 10:15 p.m. (one example of the Spanish preference for evening meals), production shows, a spa and gym, casino, shops, youth programs and pretty much everything else you'd expect of a typical mass-market cruise experience.
Needless to say, the main onboard language is Spanish, but since the ships are also marketed in Northern Europe, printed materials and such do come in English, and international passengers are welcome. That said, non-Spanish speakers are certainly in the minority, so this is a cruise line best for those who speak Spanish or don't mind being around a lot of people with whom they don't share a common language. (The crew, however, speaks English.)
While Pullmantur is certainly not a luxury cruise line, most passengers seem happy with the product and appreciate the good value it represents.