There are more newbuild vessels on the books than ever before. However, the cruise industry is also investing plenty of time and money into the refurbishment industry. Refurbishment and refitting can inject new life into a cruise ship, whether it’s a light refresh to bring a vessel in line with the newer ships in the fleet or a complete rebrand as a ship joins a new cruise line. With seemingly endless opportunities for refurbishment, how long can a cruise ship last? On average, a healthy, well-built cruise ship can last for around 30 years, including regular services and design refreshes. But some cruise ships last for much longer. We take a look at the oldest cruise ships still sailing the seas and chart some of the different stages in their lifespan.
From pirates to queens, these ships have seen it all…
Hebridean Princess, 59 years old
Who could have foreseen that the car ferry RMS Columba would one day act as a privately chartered cruise ship for Queen Elizabeth II… twice! In fact, in prescient circumstances, she and her sister ships Hebrides’ and Clansman’s interiors were designed by John McNeece, who would go on to make his name as a designer of simple yet opulent interiors for a series of cruise ships and private yachts. Built in 1964, the then-named Columba was destined for loftier heights.
After being refitted at George Prior Engineering in Great Yarmouth, the Hebridean Princess became an exclusive cruise ship. She was further refitted in 1991 to remove her car-carrying capacity and allow for more cabins, although, with only 30 cabins and a 50-person capacity, Hebridean Princess remains exclusive.
She is decorated throughout with warm elegance and all cabins are individually designed. In 2006 Queen Elizabeth II chartered her to celebrate her 80th birthday and evidently enjoyed herself, as she chartered her again in 2010 for a further two weeks.
Hebridean Princess is still very much in operation, sailing as a cruise ship around the Scottish Highland and the Scottish Isles in addition to being available for charter.
Funchal, 62 years old
Unlike the other vessels on this list, MS Funchal has always sailed under the same name. Designed in Portugal, she was built in Elsinore Shipyards, Denmark and sailed on her maiden voyage as a liner in 1961.
She had the reputation of being a beauty in her early years, with a sleek silhouette and magnificently outfitted interiors. Many of her public spaces were clad in luxury woods such as teak and rosewood, including a famous four-floor glass staircase supported by polished rosewood timber.
She was first refurbished in 1972 in order to improve her engines and to prepare her for work as a one-class cruise ship. She changed hands several times, including a stint as a Classic International Cruises alongside another ship on this list, the Astoria (then Athena).
During this time she was again refurbished, this time to bring her in line with the 1997 SOLAS requirements, which saw much of her wood interiors stripped and replaced. Following a series of stricken cruise lines, Funchal would continue to be refurbished, including in 2013 where she was updated to new SOLAS regulations while also being stylistically returned to more classic-style interiors.
Having not been at sea for some years, Funchal has now been bought by Signature Living who have recently floated plans to sail her to Liverpool where she will be again refitted, this time to serve as a floating hotel in the UK.
Astoria, 77 years old
Astoria was launched in 1946 as Stockholm for the Swedish America Line. She’s had a storied life, including being involved in a notorious collision in 1956, serving as a barracks ship for asylum seekers in Norway during the 80s and being attacked by pirates in 2008.
Astoria is in good shape despite her age and many adventures, partly aided by several large refurbishments. She was stripped virtually to her hull and reconstructed in 1994 – additions included a sponson to assist with some of her previous challenges, somewhat altering her silhouette. She was later further revamped in 2013 in a shipyard in Marseille. Although she’s a small vessel, Astoria’s cabins have a reputation for being relatively roomy due to her origins as a transatlantic liner.
Passengers can still spot a handful of original features, including rows of portholes in what was the original main dining room and a display of the original Stockholm bell, rescued from the bottom of the ocean.
In her mid-seventies and still much-beloved, Astoria sailed with Cruise & Maritime Voyages until 2020 when the company suspended operations and she was sold.
Sea Cloud, 92 years old
Commissioned in 1931 as private yacht Hussar, Sea Cloud now operates as a cruise vessel and charter yacht. One of the few sailing cruise ships in operation, she retains much of her original glamour.
Her first large scale refurbishment came in 1978 when she was extensively repaired and reconstructed at the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG after a period of neglect in the hot and humid harbour at Colón. She was again refurbished in 2011 to bring her, with her original wood interiors, up to new SOLAS regulations. Work included the replacement of wooden staircases with metal staircases and a complete dismantling of the interior wooden panels to be coated and underfilled with fire protection insulation.
10 of her 32 cabins are from the original layout, with the remaining cabins restructured from the original crew quarters. The original cabins were restored to their original 1930s splendour, including a faithful reconstruction of the interior design and antiques according to the vision of the original owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Sea Cloud has been restored to much of her original glory and has been modernised for commercial use. Today, she is still operating as a cruise ship.
Are you interested in learning more about the cruise ship refurbishment and interior design industries? Cruise Ship Interiors Design Expo Europe is a two day exhibition and conference dedicated to the niche cruise interiors industry in Europe. Find out about the next event here.