Ambition: Ambassador’s freshly upcycled ship with a noble history

As Britain's youngest cruise line, Ambassador has already made its mark on the world of cruising. Here's the full backstory of their freshly renovated ship, originally launched in 1999, and why their option of modernisation makes perfect sense

There’s a new kid on the block, and they are worth getting excited about.

Ambassador Cruise Line established itself during the industry’s post-Covid reshaping, emerging through the sector’s mayhem with a clear-cut mission to offer no-fly cruises out of Great Britain.

Based in the UK, the company’s primary focus is on “premium value”, and while London Tilbury remains the line’s proud base, cruises are offered out of six UK regional ports - Newcastle, Dundee, Liverpool, Belfast, Bristol and Falmouth. It’s a full-on Albion operation where Britannia explores the waves.

As the first British cruise line to launch since 2010, Ambassador operated with a solitary vessel throughout the first two years of activity; announcing their purchase of flagship Ambience in May 2021, before opening ticket sales the following month.

So - that’s all great, but where’s the heritage angle?

Well, that’s where it gets exciting as it also goes hand-in-hand with upcycling and sustainability. And, as we all know, that methodology fits with a changing cruise world.

MS Ambition is the latest addition to Ambassador Cruise Line, and offers a direct connection to our shipping heritage. Credit: Ambassador

Ambassador: Upcycling with style

To most people, upcycling is a dirty word; responsible for bric-a-brac images of questionable efforts showcasing the handiwork of priggish-churchy types. Luckily, some sectors successfully quash such negative stereotyping.

Classic car restorations command respect, whereas renovating age-old buildings remains firm as ‘stylish upcycling’.

Then there’s the cruise industry.

Ambassador has undertaken such a venture for the second time (following MS Ambience), bringing new life to a celebrated heritage vessel and facilitating high-quality cruises on a more accessible price band.

May 2023 witnessed the inaugural voyage of Ambassador Ambition from Newcastle’s Port of Tyne to France and Spain, except – this was not the ship’s first sailing. Far from it. Ambition has been on the go since 1999. Her sister ship, Ambience, is older still – setting sail in 1991.

Ambassador Cruise Line has taken two mature vessels and transformed them into people-pleasing beacons that capture the long-lost style of older ships, and then reconditioned both interior and exterior to facilitate contemporary demands. To us, that’s the perfect package. It’s 'upcycling' at its very finest.

Yet, some may find such an idea unappealing. After all, old ships are…well… old; rusty relics of a bygone era.

However, such an attitude is redundant in our modern world. Renovation is far chicer and, dare we say, more environmentally friendly than laying down a new keel and plundering the earth’s resources.

Upgrading the powerplant to comply with modern environmentally-aware standards, arguably, also makes better sense than constructing a new propulsion system from scratch.

Others may bemoan the loss of the heritage ship’s original identity. Some may say that such a plan is wrong, but it’s far cleverer than just restoration. It’s modernisation. All the character of the ship is still there, but with latter-day innovations.

It's akin to modernising an old house. You keep the thatched roof and the leaded glass, but you install central heating and a SMEG fridge. You wouldn’t complain about staying in Versailles after engineers installed WiFi, over the new Travelodge, right?

Ambassador's Ambience wearing her original livery as MS Mistral, photographed here in 2003. Credit: Wikicommons

MS Ambition - Success and turbulence from the past

The MS Ambition, most recently operated by AIDA Cruise of Germany (a subsidiary of Carnival), was originally ordered by Renaissance Cruises in the summer of 1996, before the order was withdrawn due to financial upheaval.

Certain media outlets proclaimed that the unnamed ship was akin to an unloved orphan; the ship’s lifespan destined to be cut tragically short.

With construction already underway at the prestigious Chantiers de l'Atlantique (birthplace of the iconic SS Normandie and later Cunard’s QM2), and ownership shared between the yard and investors through Auxiliaire Maritime, Festival Cruises then took over the build before taking delivery of the vessel prior to a new millennium.

Floated out on January 2, 1999, and christened by Claude Deschamps (wife of French footballer Didier Deschamps) on June 25, the ship was proudly named MS Mistral before her maiden voyage on July 17.

After the political strife and uncertainty, the future looked bright for Festival’s up-to-the-minute acquisition.

Sailing from Genoa to the Greek Islands, before heading for the Mediterranean, she swiftly made Cuba her home from home. However, Festival Cruises soon collapsed and most of the fleet – including the semi-new MS Mistral, was sold off in 2004.

Ambience snapped during her time as Costa neoRiviera. Credit: Wikicommons

Spearheading a new chapter for cruising

Following the demise of Festival Cruises, MS Mistral enjoyed numerous titles with different firms.

Initially sold to Alstom Group (the parent company of Chantiers de l'Atlantique) and chartered as the Iberostar Mistral to Viajes Iberojet (operated by Ibero Cruises) before being sold to Ibero at auction and officially renamed Grand Mistral, the ship then transferred to Costa Cruises and became known as Costa neoRiviera.

This was a big deal. Costa wasn’t just using their neoRiviera as a mere ship, but also as a trendsetter.

Her new owners launched a sub-product with neoRiviera at the forefront, focusing on smaller ships that made longer calls at port – offering more time and overnight stays in exotic locations with greater inventories.

Based out of Dubai, she debuted with Costa on November 24, 2013, following a £10 million transformation.

After a successful stint with Costa, she then left the fleet in October 2019 after AIDA Cruises purchased the ship in May 2018. No less than $55 million was plundered during a drydock session to bring cabins and safety gear up to state-of-the-art standards, integrating the ship with AIDA’s fleet.

Arriving in Palma de Mallorca in November 2019 for her christening by German supermodel Franziska Knuppe, the newly titled AIDAmira joined three other vessels as part of the 'AIDA Selection' – performing longer itineraries in far-flung exotic locations.

Yet, the cruising landscape changed soon after AIDAmira’s maiden voyage to Cape Town, South Africa.

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the industry hard, starting with the quarantine of 1700 passengers during an outbreak of Coronavirus onboard AIDAmira. Passengers disembarked after a plethora of negative tests, but that wasn’t the end of the problem.

The ongoing pandemic caused an operational shutdown for cruise lines, and AIDAmira suspended operations before being laid up for almost two years. That’s when Ambassador entered the picture, having been raised from the ashes of defunct CMV (Cruise & Maritime Voyages).

Credit: Ambassador Cruise Line

Ambassador takes over

AIDA Cruises sold the liner to Ambassador in January 2022, who then in turn renamed the ship Ambition before dispatch for an extensive refit in Montenegro.

Plans for her maiden voyage were quickly changed, however, to accommodate a request from the Scottish Government.

The Governmental request wasn’t for anything of a political nature per se, but instead for a six-month charter to provide accommodation for refugees of the Ukraine war.

Having arrived in Glasgow at the beginning of September 2022, Ambition joined Tallink’s cruise ferry Victoria I to jointly house thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

Frightened, exhausted and hungry, refugees enjoyed an introduction to their new Scottish home from the safety of the ship, before further accommodation across the country could be organised.

A four-week refit then commenced in Bremerhaven, Germany, to bring Ambition up to International Maritime Organization’s Tier III emission standards, enforcing a reduction in the ship’s nitrogen oxide emissions.

Work was also carried out on the rudders, stabilizers, and propulsion units, before applying a fresh coat of paint in Ambassador’s official colours. After a turbulent and exciting history, Britain’s newest cruise line offers a new chapter for the heritage vessel.

Christened in the Port of Tyne by Olympic Gold medalist Shirley Robertson, rather than beached up at the breakers' yard, Ambition now has a new mission to perform under the Ambassador brand.

Once referred to as the ‘unloved orphan', Ambition has come through the years to find true acceptance as a no-fly idol of cruising prowess.

It is heritage in motion, and unlike other historical vessels that are dry-docked for eternity as museum pieces, Ambition can be enjoyed where she belongs – upon the waves.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.