SS United States and Crystal Cruises: A luxury match

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Crystal Cruises — which specializes in luxury travel — might renovate and relaunch the SS United S

The people who plan to restore the SS United States to its opulent glory already know a few things about how the rich like to travel.

Crystal Cruises, which has signed an option to purchase the Newport News-built ocean liner, operates two cruise ships and a new yacht. Plans are in the works to launch a separate fleet of river yachts and a pair of luxury jumbo jets for around-the-world air excursions.

The amenities go beyond free peanuts.

Consider life in a penthouse suite onboard the 1,070-guest Crystal Serenity, the largest of the two cruise ships. Around-the-clock personal butler service includes packing and unpacking upon request. Guests can venture out on a private veranda and write notes on their own personal stationary.

The top-of-the line penthouse is 1,345 square feet, larger than many two-bedroom apartments. The bathroom floor is heated.

Besides its two cruise ships, the company now offers trips aboard a 62-passenger luxury yacht that comes with its own submarine. The sub can carry two people plus your personal captain.

Thirty-minute rides go for $599 per person. Want an underwater wedding? They can arrange that.

Such lavishness would not faze passengers who traveled on the SS United States in its1950s heyday — OK, a mini-sub might have raised a few eyebrows — so this marriage of ship and company could be a match made in five-star heaven.

Daniel Radcliffe, 87, was a sheet-metal worker on the SS United States while it was under construction in the Newport News shipyard. He remembers the ship returning to Newport News for annual maintenance, its majestic stacks illuminated under bright lights. He always watched as it left the yard.

"It was thrilling," he said. "I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."

He worked on the SS United States portholes — "I see them in my sleep at night," he joked — and the prospect of returning the ship to its former glory is exciting.

"I'd like to see it going back and forth to Europe again," he said. "I always wanted to go onboard. I thought about it all these years. But I could never afford it."

That last part might still hold true if the SS United States sails again. It won't be for people on a tight budget.

'We can do it all'

The CEO of Crystal Cruises is Edie Rodriguez, the only woman to lead a luxury cruise line. In a December interview with Fortune magazine, she defined the company's mission statement this way:

"If you're from Australia, as an example, and you get eight weeks vacation a year, you have the time and money to do it all, we can do it all for you."

The California-based company was launched in 1988 by the Japanese cargo company Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK). Last year, it was purchased by Genting Hong Kong and launched an ambitious expansion program, according to information the company provided to the Daily Press.

This year and in 2017, Crystal plans to launch five new river yachts to sail through Europe. The first of these, the Crystal Mozart, will embark this year. Itineraries of this new luxury fleet will cover Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and France.

Plans are also in the works for luxury travel by air. This year, the company plans to launch a private charter jet service to transport guests to their ocean, river or yacht voyages. In 2017, the company will add two more aircraft — a Boeing 777 and a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner that will fly 14- and 28-day around-the-world itineraries.

For the SS United States to sail in this sort of company, it must clear a feasibility assessment, which the company expects to finish by the end of this year.

Leading that effort will be retired Coast Guard Adm. Tim Sullivan. He commanded Coast Guard cutters, served as senior military adviser to the secretary of homeland security and commanded the Eastern Regional Recruiting Command in Norfolk, among many other duties.

Making the ship seaworthy again won't be easy. Since 1996, it has been pier-side in South Philadelphia and showing signs of decay.

Crystal Cruises plans to refurbish the ship so it can accommodate 800 guests, featuring 400 luxury suites that measure about 350 square feet. Some features of the SS United States will be retained, such as the Promenade and the Navajo Lounge.

A surprise

Through its long-running drama to raise money and save the ship from the scrap heap, organizers talked in general terms of transforming the ship into a waterside attraction. A return to sea-going service was never publicly discussed until last week's press conference in New York announcing Crystal's involvement.

William A. Fox, a naval architect and author of "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships," said the restoration project will be "a huge undertaking."

"I was very surprised that the plan is to return her to service," he said in an email to the Daily Press. "Everyone was expecting a land-based project on the Brooklyn or Manhattan waterfront. The NNS-built carrier USS Intrepid is a successful major attraction there."

That said, he's pulling for the project to succeed. Initial reports put the cost of renovation at $700 million to $800 million, although those are preliminary estimates.

At the press conference, Rodriguez said the purchase option signed by Crystal lasts nine months. The only possible deal-breaker, she said, would be environmental concerns. The company hasn't decided where the ship would be re-fitted, but if all goes well, the SS United States could sail again as early as 2018.

That may be optimistic, Rodriguez said, but then again, her nickname is "Speedy Edie."

Fox noted that Norwegian Cruise Lines bought the SS United States some years ago but could not return the ship to service. Rodriguez was asked about that failure during the press conference .

What makes Crystal Cruises different?

"Failure is not an option," she replied. "This is a different day and age."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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