Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV), originally a project of the well-known Grimaldi shipowning dynasty, first entered the competitive trade on Italy’s west coast in 1993 with the delivery of the Majestic, a modern, relatively speedy and stylish new ferry with substantial freight decks delivered from the Nuovi Cantieri Apuania shipyard in the Tuscan town of Marina di Carrara.
Deployed between Palermo and Genoa, the ship made an instant impact and, over the next decade, GNV would receive a sequence of ever-larger and more immodestly named ships, almost all from the same shipyard and all of which showed a clear progression in style and scale from the previous generations: in sequence these were the Splendid, Fantastic, Excellent, Excelsior, La Superba and La Suprema.
The final pair were delivered in 2002 and 2003 and there it ended – GNV would later take a step down in terms of luxury and charter a series of fairly generic ro-pax ships which, had they been named in line with the previous policy, might have assumed such names as the Mediocre, or the Average. There were suggestions that the company had over-stretched themselves, particularly with the expensively-built La Superba and La Suprema, which had vast passenger capacities. In early 2008, the company appeared to have disposed of the pair, somewhat implausibly, to Vietnamese interests.
That this sale fell through can be considered fortunate for, whatever GNV’s financial discomfit, they have left Italian travellers with the biggest and best cruise ferries operating in Southern Europe. For the past few years the sisters have in peak season been operating out of Genoa, the ‘Superba’ alongside the Excellent on the lengthy original route to Palermo where together they can offer daily departures in each direction. The ‘Suprema’ meanwhile maintains a tightly-packed summer schedule involving daily return trips to Olbia on Sardinia – a route which is abandoned in winter.
After an evening watching the comings and goings in Olbia, in early September I joined the ‘Suprema’ for an overnight crossing to Genoa. The ship was predictably busy heading in this direction at this time of year with all cabins sold out, although the hundreds of empty reclining seats showed that she was some way off capacity. Directly competing sailings from the Moby Wonder and Tirrenia’s diminutive Domiziana presented quite starkly contrasting styles – the only thing which might attract a neutral traveller (especially one without children) on board the Moby ship over La Suprema might be her cabins, which share some aspects of best practice, through common design, with the upscale rooms on new or refurbished Stena ships. One can only observe in defence of the slow Domiziana that you would have the potential for a more leisurely night’s sleep compared to the nine hours total sailing time with GNV. Indeed the key to La Suprema’s timetable is her fast service speed of up to 28 knots which enables one round trip to be carried out in a 24 hour period.
On board, La Suprema not unexpectedly bears a strong familial resemblance to earlier GNV ships, most notably the most recent predecessor class of Excellent and Excelsior. Foot passengers board over a ramp on the port side, adjacent to the huge vehicle deck ramps, from where an escalator whisks one to the instantly impressive main lobby on Deck 6.
The reminder of Deck 6 is given over to passenger cabins – the ship has 567 cabins in total, including 31 suites and 6 ‘Presidential suites’. None of which were within the budget for me on this occasion, as I was travelling with a reclining seat, of which there are no less than 940 spread across the ship, including on Deck 9 in the large auditorium ostensibly designed for conference use but also in lounges on the two decks below and aft of the main lobby. The latter area also includes some dedicated facilities for truck drivers.
Moving upwards, Deck 7 contains the main eating areas on the ship with, aft and accessed from the upper level of the reception lobby, ‘Le Chevalier’ restaurant and, just forward, the ‘Mistral’ self service. Passenger flow heading forward, past the self service, is via a narrow port-side alleyway which also fronts a ‘convertible’ area of restaurant seating, named ‘Spaghetti’, which could be used as a separate restaurant if required but in practice just tends to be treated as part of the self service seating area. The food in the self service looked fine and the menu in the main restaurant very appetising; however my preferred option when sailing out of Olbia – if time permits – is to take a meal in the pizzeria atop the passenger terminal with its views over the ferry berths.
Forward of the restaurants is the open-plan ‘Victoria Cafe’ piano bar area, with casino (out of use), video games and boutique shops including the photo shop, where passengers can purchase the photographs taken of them as they boarded. This windowless area is not untypical of more recent Italian ferries, providing a busy walk-through space where passengers can sit, drink coffee, talk (loudly), see and be seen.
Forward of the Victoria Cafe is perhaps the ship’s single most impressive feature, the four-deck high forward hallway, complete with a panoramic glass elevator and curving staircases which connect all of the main passenger decks and provide an easy link up to Deck 8 where the ‘Suprema’ show lounge is located.
Back on Deck 8, the forward ‘Suprema’ showlounge is the main entertainment venue, although the acts on display on this crossing were decidedly risquÃ© for the mostly-family audience. Slightly tiered to give better views, the lounge remains open until late but was curiously devoid of passengers – perhaps everyone on this end of holiday overnight crossing just wanted to get an early night?
The remainder of Deck 8 is given over to cabins but just above (Deck 9) is an area set aside for conference use, but seemingly little-used for this purpose. The main space, over the centreline and to port, is a large auditorium which effectively serves as a huge reclining seat lounge. On the starboard side are a couple of smaller conference rooms also filled with reclining seats, and the traditional card room and library whilst, right forward, is a little-used observation lounge (‘La Terrazza’) .
Aft of the forward lobby area at this level is the ‘Copacabana Cafe’ with a children’s play area and beauty salon on its port side. Aft again is a large lido deck with swimming pool; a further deck area with jacuzzis and views over the stern can be found aft of the funnel. The outside decks were not in great condition, particularly in the areas designated for the use of passengers with dogs, whilst the jacuzzis did not seem to have seen use for quite some time.
The final passenger space is directly above the Copacabana cafe, on Deck 10; ‘La Dolce Vita’ nightclub remained closed throughout, as it had been on my last crossing on this ship in 2007.
It is to be hoped that GNV can make La Suprema and La Superba pay as they are wonderful, big and bright ships, even in the slightly bedraggled, end-of-season state of the ‘Suprema’ on this occasion. GNV certainly work their ships fairly hard but, even at the very peak of the summer season, the ship’s passenger capacity seems to be too large and some areas appear to be nearly permanently closed-off. GNV, now in private equity hands, may therefore still be interested in a sale and, just in case those Vietnamese come calling again, it may be worthwhile to line up a trip on one or both of this impressive pair of ferries sooner rather than later.