Cruise Guide: The sky’s the limit . . . at sea

By Michael Coleman

As the world’s largest passenger vessel was unveiled in Miami last week, I had but one question on my mind: What will they think of next?

Royal Caribbean’s highly-anticipated Freedom of the Seas is not your typical cruise ship. She features 15 passenger decks, an onboard surf park, cantilevered whirlpools suspended 112 feet above the ocean, a full-size boxing ring, ice-skating rink, teeth-whitening and massage services, rock-climbing wall, wave pool and 14-person family suite.

At 160,000 tons, she’ll carry more than 4,000 passengers when she begins her seven-night Western Caribbean itineraries from Miami this week. 

Surf park? Boxing ring? Ice-skating rink? 

You’d think the cupboard has finally run dry as industry executives fell over themselves in recent years to one-up each other. For an industry that prides itself on firsts, even the most skilled craftsmen must be running out of new wrinkles to add to the fleets of tomorrow. 

Think again. 

With new ship building techniques and a global canvas, they’ve only just begun. While I’ll take a much closer look at Freedom of the Seas in this space next week, one doesn’t have to look far to see tomorrow’s trends today. 

For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line’s 93,502-ton, 2,384-passenger Norwegian Pearl, scheduled for a November launch, will feature a bowling alley onboard. Yes, a bowling alley at sea. They’ll also take a page from Royal Caribbean’s book with the introduction of a climbing wall in their sports area. This sister-ship to Norwegian Jewel and Pride of Hawaii will also feature two deluxe owner’s suites, complete with 1,195-square-foot cabins featuring living room, dining room, hot tub and sundeck. And, oh, did I mention . . . it includes your very own private courtyard with pool. 

Elsewhere, it won’t just be glitz and glitter headlining the launch of Crown Princess next month. Instead, look for an adults-only, quiet onboard retreat to garner the attention, and it may be a future, industry-wide trend. When the Princess Cruises ship sets sail for the first time on June 14 look for “The Sanctuary,” located on the uppermost forward deck of the ship, to offer a relaxing alternative to a host of outdoor activities and entertainment options available elsewhere. Solitude seekers will be able to escape completely to this plush, outdoor spa-inspired setting with signature beverages, light meals, massages, attentive service and relaxing personal entertainment. 

“With The Sanctuary, we’re not only providing an alternative venue for our relaxing spa services, but also offering passengers the opportunity to escape to a tranquil retreat at any time, day or night,” said Jan Swartz, Princess’ senior vice president of customer service and sales. 

When not indulging in spa services, Sanctuary guests will lounge amidst lush greenery, enjoy gentle breezes, ocean waves and softly piped-in spa music, which combines to further insulate the area. Guests will relax on plush outdoor furniture including double loungers for couples, as well as deluxe chaise lounges and chairs. 

If cruise travel makes the world a smaller place for today’s modern adventurer, won’t the frequency of visits to local restaurants, museums and other points of interest become stale even for the most ardent traveler? Not so, as cruise line executives fan out over the globe to make today’s new shore excursion experience invigorating, if not unforgettable, for the new wave of active Baby Boomers. 

While there are set standards to the formula – a number of lines have offered timely summer tours to coincide with the release of The Da Vinci Code movie – look for cruise lines to soon unveil packages that would make Marco Polo and other great explorers green with envy. 

In yet another industry first, luxury cruise specialist Crystal Cruises is offering a new overland adventure to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Thrill-seekers will revel at the rare chance to climb 19,340 feet to Uhuru Peak, through an equatorial jungle and dense cloud forest to the snow-capped summit, en route to the highest peak in Africa. 

The nine-night extended land program debuts in March 2007, and is available pre- or post-cruise, in conjunction with two Crystal Serenity itineraries beginning or ending in Cape Town, South Africa. 

“This new excursion is quite literally the pinnacle of adventure, reserved for only the fittest adventure-seekers who have always dreamt of conquering Kilimanjaro,” said John Stoll, Crystal’s director of land programs. 

Proof, yet again, that when it comes to modern cruise ship travel, the sky’s the limit.

Cruise Guide: Industry rolls out global red carpet to woo cruise passengers

By Michael Coleman

Cruise ship travel continues to gain in popularity – a record 10 million North Americans are expected to step foot on a major vessel this year alone. But it’s the economic impact on local communities across the globe that is propelling the industry to new heights 

Old piers are suddenly receiving face-lifts and many new cruise ship terminals are being built in an effort to woo cruise ship passengers, and their valued tourist dollars, in ports from Antwerp to Zadar. 

Just last week, for instance, the Grand Turk Cruise Center – the Caribbean’s newest cruise facility – held its opening ceremony with government leaders from the Turks and Caicos Islands and officials from Carnival, the operator of the $42 million facility, in attendance. 

The center will host more than 130 cruise ships in 2006. It features a state-of-the-art pier that can accommodate two large Super Post Panamax vessels and a 13-acre complex that serves as a gateway to the islands. The facility features an expansive recreation area that includes an 800-foot white-sand beach, a swimming pool, cabanas, a host of retail shops and the Caribbean’s largest Margaritaville-themed bar and restaurant, owned by Jimmy Buffet. There’s even a new FM radio station on-air specifically for cruise ship passengers, offering a mix of Caribbean tunes, news and information. 

Out west, the Port of Seattle will welcome five different cruise lines through October. “This year’s cruise season is a milestone in several ways,” said Port of Seattle Commission President Patricia Davis. “We’ll see a record number of passengers and sailings, the return of all four cruise lines that called in Seattle last year, plus the return of Royal Caribbean, which had been out of the Seattle market since 2002.” 

The port’s cruise business has grown from six ships and 7,000 passenger in 1999 to a projected 200 ship calls and 740,000 passengers this year. An economic impact study conducted in 2003, when the port had less than half the current number of cruise ship calls and passengers, showed that the industry was responsible for 1,732 local jobs, $208 million in local business revenue and $5.8 million in state and local taxes. 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, more of the same. Stockholm, Sweden, is bracing for its busiest cruise season in history. The Stockholm Cruise Network is expecting an estimated 250,000 passengers from 261 cruise ships through September 16. 

“The rising popularity of Baltic cruises is just one of the many reasons Stockholm’s cruising numbers have hit a record high,” said Christel Wiman, chief executive officer for the Ports of Stockholm. “We also have a variety of port facilities to accommodate almost any ship. But the biggest draw is the city’s natural beauty, its rich culture and history, and its endless array of activities for visitors.” 

Officials are projecting a nine percent increase in passenger activity compared to 2005. And, with 29 turnaround calls, officials expect passengers to spend care free, pre- or post-cruise days in the city enjoying a lunchtime ferry through the archipelago of 24,000 islands, shopping for fine crystal, strolling through Gamla Stan (Old Town) or visiting one of Stockholm’s museums. 

In Boston, last week, cruise ships began dropping anchor. Several ships are scheduled to make port visits including Cunard’s Queen Mary II and Queen Elizabeth II. The elegant vessels will sail into Boston for a day’s visit on July 4 and September 21, respectively. Cruiseport Boston activity has increased nearly 600 percent over the last 12 years and, according to officials, passengers will pour some $18 million into the local economy this year alone. Massport’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal is located in South Boston’s lively seaport district and is only minutes from famous historic sites, downtown shops and restaurants. 

Earlier this month, Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. opened his state’s new $13 million cruise terminal at Maryland’s Port of Baltimore. Located next to I-95 at South Locust Point, the new facility will operate as a full-time passenger cruise terminal. More than 122,000 passengers cruised from Baltimore last year. This season, 30 cruises are scheduled to depart from the new terminal destined for Bermuda and the Caribbean. The schedule includes 28 direct-departure cruises from Baltimore and two port calls. 

In the past, temporary cruise buildings located on the Dundalk Marine Terminal were also used, at times, for cargo operations. The new facility is 2.5 miles from downtown Baltimore, 10 miles from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, 20 miles from Annapolis and 40 miles from Washington, DC. According to the Governor, the annual economic impact of the cruise industry in Maryland is $50 million. The 2005 cruise season produced more than 270 direct jobs, including ground operations, transportation, security and labor. 

Atlantic Canada is also bracing for record numbers. Major cruise lines are expected to call on more than 190 ports at five major Atlantic Canadian gateways. Officials are expecting some 550,000 passenger and crew visits. The cruise industry, in fact, is so important to the region that the Canadian government has provided close to $300,000 in funding to the Atlantic Canada Cruise Association for a two-year marketing plan aimed at increasing industry demand. 

Cruise ship visits to Atlantic Canada have increased 33 percent since 2000 and the total economic benefit to the region is estimated at more than $56 million annually. Even tiny Prince Edward Island has gotten into the act. Twenty five cruise ships will call on Charlottetown, the island’s capital, through fall 2006. 

The Historic Charlottetown Seaport recently announced a $15 million (US) waterfront development initiative that will dramatically expand its current berth. As a result, the city is forecasting a 100 percent growth in cruise ship passengers by the year 2010. 

Originating in Boston, New York and Southampton, Charlottetown-bound itineraries traditionally depart in September and October on 7- to 22-day voyages that allow passengers to witness the beauty of Prince Edward Island’s countryside set ablaze during its fall foliage season. The estimated economic impact of cruise passenger traffic in Charlottetown will be in excess of $3 million in 2006, up from $2.1 million in 2005.

Cruise Guide: Silversea taps Cronkite, Buckley to headline 2007 world cruise

By Michael Coleman

One of the most trusted men in America, legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. headline a who’s who list of celebrity speakers scheduled to appear on an ultra-luxurious Silversea world cruise in 2007.

The 126-day voyage, aboard the elegant, 382-guest Silver Shadow, will cross three oceans, seven seas and six continents. Guests will depart Fort Lauderdale January 15 and visit 61 ports before concluding the perk-filled odyssey in New York City, May 22.

While Silversea is renowned for pampering its guests and treating them to both intimate port calls and educational shore excursions, look for this voyage and its stellar line-up of speakers to provide an even greater onboard enrichment experience.

“Our world cruise guests expect a truly exceptional and personally enriching lifestyle experience,” said Joseph Proto, Silversea’s director of world cruise and business development. “So we searched the worlds of journalism, politics, literature, sports, film, gourmet living and academia to find just the right personalities to share their insights, passions and perspectives to complement every segment of this extraordinary seafaring adventure.” 

That they have.

ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, author Richard Reeves, photojournalist Steve McCurry, investigative journalist Judith Miller, Gourmet magazine wine and spirits consultant Michael Green, film critic Rex Reed, champion yachtsman John Bertrand and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass are also scheduled to share their insights with guests during various segments.

Clearly, however, Silversea’s effort to land both Cronkite and Buckley is a coup.

Cronkite has covered virtually every major news event during his 65-plus years in journalism – the past 54 affiliated with CBS News. He became a special correspondent for CBS News when he stepped down on March 6, 1981 after 19 years as anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. 

Affectionately nicknamed “Old Iron Pants” for his unflappable nature under pressure, Cronkite’s accomplishments – both on and off the air – have won him acclaim and trust from journalism colleagues and the American public alike. Cronkite annually topped viewer opinions polls as “the most trusted man in America” while serving as anchor.

He will speak during The Home Sea segment of the world cruise departing April 27 from Alexandria to Lisbon. The segment also features a call in Valencia, Spain, for the Louis Vuitton Cup match races to determine which yachtsmen will race Team Alinghi in the 32nd America’s Cup yachting competition.

Buckley, meanwhile, will headline the enrichment program aboard The Sea of Quiet Reflection segment departing May 8 from Lisbon to New York City. He is an author, editor, syndicated columnist, public speaker, television host and adventurer. He founded the conservative journal of opinion, National Review, in 1955 and was its editor-in-chief until 1990. He served as editor-at-large until 2004, when he formally retired.

From 1966 to 1999 Buckley was the host of the Emmy Award-winning Firing Line, the longest-running program in television history with the same host. He is the best-selling author of more than 40 works of nonfiction and fiction.


Captivating speakers

Sheer, Reeves and McCurry kick off the Silversea odyssey aboard The Empires of Time segment departing January 15 from Fort Lauderdale to Santiago, Chile.

An award-winning journalist, Sherr joined ABC News as a correspondent on 20/20 in May 1986. She has covered a wide range of stories, specializing in women’s issues and social changes, as well as investigative reports. 

An author and syndicated columnist, Reeves’ weekly column has appeared since 1979 in more than 100 newspapers and is read around the world. He has received a number of awards for his work in print, television and film, and for his contributions to journalism. 

McCurry, meanwhile, is recognized universally as one of today’s finest image-makers, having won many of photography’s top awards. His photograph of an Afghan refugee girl has been described by many as the most recognizable photograph in the world today.

Aboard Across the Sea of Books segment departing January 31, from Santiago to Papeete, Tahiti, guests are sure to gravitate to Miller, an author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter for The New York Times. She left the paper in November 2005 after spending 85 days in jail to defend a reporter’s right to protect confidential sources. Since her jail time, she has been advocating the enactment of a federal shield law to protect the relationship between reporters and their sources.

Look for Green aboard The Land Where the Sun Wakes segment departing February 27 from Auckland to Sydney. He has worked in the wine trade as educator, importer, writer, consultant and retailer for over 20 years, and has been a guest on Food Network’s Emeril Live and Cooking Live as well as CBS Marketwatch, CNN, and NPR.

Reed, an author, actor, talk show host, film critic and historian, whose name is synonymous with Hollywood, is scheduled to speak during the line’s Sailing in the Dream Time segment, departing March 12 from Sydney to Singapore. His film reviews have appeared in nationally syndicated columns for decades, making him one of the most prolific movie critics in the nation. Bertrand will also speak to guests during the same segment. He skippered Australia 2 to victory over Dennis Connor’s Liberty to win the 1983 America’s Cup, breaking 132 years of American domination and, in the process, snapped the longest-running record in the history of modern sport.

World-renowned Egyptian archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, will enthrall guests during Silversea’s Voyage to the Western Lands segment, departing April 12 from Dubai to Alexandria. He is the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of Excavations at Giza, Saqqara and the Bahariya Oasis. Hawass has lectured all over the world, most frequently in Europe, Japan and the United States, about pyramids, mummies and his numerous discoveries.

Silver Shadow’s globetrotting guests will also enjoy six-star service and world-class cuisine in a number of onboard venues, from The Restaurant (main dining room), Le Champagne, Terrace Cafe (indoor/outdoor cafe) and Poolside Grille, to 24-hour in-suite dining.

Cruise Guide: Mexican Riviera: The new ‘it’ place in the sun

By Michael Coleman

Flawless beaches, superb golf and fishing, great weather and an enriching cultural component may indeed be adjectives to describe coastal living in California or Florida but cruise ship passengers are flocking in droves to the new ‘it’ place in the sun: The Mexican Riviera. 

A major cruise association says itineraries are on the rise, thanks, in part, to an array of options in quaint to cosmopolitan west coast Mexican ports of call. As more travelers become experienced Caribbean cruisers, they now find themselves seeking new locales to bask in the sun. Enter the Mexican Riviera. 

In fact, it has grown into one of the top five cruise destinations in the last five years, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Most lines set sail from Los Angeles (Long Beach), San Diego and San Francisco en route to Monterey and Catalina Island, off California’s coast, en route to the Mexican ports of Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, Manzanillo and Mazatlan. 


Diverse voyages 

Through the end of the year, look for the major cruise lines to offer seven- to 11-day voyages. Leading the way, in terms of the most voyages to choose from, is Holland America. Look for this premium operator to explore the natural wonders of the Mexican Riviera on 32 cruises. Oosterdam and Zaandam feature seven- and 10-day cruises, traveling round trip from San Diego. Oosterdam operates 29 seven-day itineraries while Zaandam offers three 10-day journeys. 

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Pride and Carnival Spirit itineraries blend the line’s “Fun Ship” ambience with mariachi bands that perform at select ports. Carnival Pride sails year-round on seven-day voyages from Long Beach to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. Carnival Sprit offers seasonal eight-day cruises from San Diego to Acapulco, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa and Manzanillo. 

Celebrity Cruises’ Mercury features 10- and 11-day itineraries from San Diego that are available on select dates in October and November. Ports include Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa and Manzanillo. 

Highlighting luxury operator Crystal Cruises’ Mexican Riviera offering is a 14-day Christmas and New Year’s cruise out of Los Angeles on December 21 aboard Crystal Symphony. With ports of call that include San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and La Paz. This year marks Crystal Symphony’s first Mexican Riviera holiday voyage roundtrip from Los Angeles since 2002. 

Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Norwegian Star features eight-day itineraries that provide guests with full days in the ports of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas. The itineraries also offer overnight calls in Acapulco, with the ship departing the city after midnight. The sailings also include three days at sea. In all, NCL offers 25 sailings. 

Four Princess Cruises’ ships will ply the waters of the Mexican Riviera. Golden Princess makes her west coast debut with roundtrip sailings from San Francisco and a one-way voyage from Acapulco. Dawn Princess offers a series of sailings out of San Francisco. Diamond Princess operates roundtrip voyages from Los Angeles. Island Princess features a special Mexican Riviera holiday voyage. 

Luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises (formerly Radisson Seven Seas Cruises) will feature an eight-night roundtrip voyage departing from Los Angeles, aboard Seven Seas Mariner, Dec. 18. Calls include San Diego, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, spending Christmas day at sea. The cruise features Le Cordon Bleu Cooking Workshops and a Club Mariner’s children’s program. Other Regent ships incorporate Mexican Riviera ports on Panama Canal itineraries. 

Royal Caribbean International’s Vision of the Seas operates on seven-night Mexican Riviera itineraries that sail roundtrip from Los Angeles. The cruises are offered from September 24 through December 31. The itineraries call at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Shore excursions include options that enable guests to trek through jungles and plantations. 

Luxury line Silversea Cruises offers a nine-day cruise roundtrip from Los Angeles on September 17 aboard Silver Shadow. Calls include Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada. Optional shore excursions include an ATV off-road adventure through the “Outback” of Cabo San Lucas and a flight aboard a Cessna Caravan from Puerto Vallarta to a village in the Sierra Madre Mountains. 


Diverse locales 

Cruise passengers are in for a real treat as shore excursions run the gamut. Passengers traveling to Acapulco can enjoy legendary nightlife, restaurants, beaches and watch in awe as La Quebrada cliff divers leap from 130-foot rock formations into the sea below. The city is also known for excellent fishing – particularly sailfish – snorkeling and scuba diving. The pulse of the city is its main street, Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán, where travelers will find most of Acapulco’s attractions. 

Quaint Cabo San Lucas is home to gorgeous beaches and a wide range of water-related activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, marlin fishing, surfing and kayaking. The town features an underwater nature preserve, a short boat ride away from the harbor and the famous Land’s End rock formations. 

With more than 250 restaurants and a hip nightlife scene, Puerto Vallarta still maintains the charm of an old-fashioned Mexican village with cobblestone streets and blossoming bougainvillea. In addition to shops and galleries, the town boasts ecotourism activities like mountain biking though the Sierra foothills and whale watching. 

In Ixtapa, cruise guests will find spectacular beach areas, including a two-mile strip that extends along the hotel zone, Playa del Palmar. The town also boasts two 18-hole golf courses and a 600-slip yacht marina with restaurants and shops. 

Just down the coast is Zihuatanejo, an historic fishing village located in a sheltered bay only a mile-and-a-half wide. 

Manzanillo, one of Mexico’s most vibrant and active seaports, is a great place for anglers to try their skills. The landscape is truly diverse, from jungles and mountains to palm trees and beaches. 

Mazatlan’s harbor, meanwhile, is set against a mountain range and the region is blessed with magnificent beaches. A renowned fishing destination, Mazatlan is also known for excellent seafood. For the active traveler, a walk up to El Faro, the second-highest lighthouse in the world, provides panoramic views of the town.

Cruise Guide: D.C. power couple to pontificate at sea

By Michael Coleman

Political junkies need not worry about missing the latest election news from home while sailing abroad this summer.

The husband and wife tandem of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican political commentators respectively, will share their insights during Crystal Cruises’ 12-day voyage from Rome to London, beginning August 19.

As co-hosts and guests of television’s most popular political talk shows, Carville and Matalin have captivated audiences with their wit, passion and contrasting political viewpoints. The couple will also discuss new projects and experiences representing opposite sides of the political spectrum, both in front of and behind the camera. 

The cruise aboard the luxurious 940-guest, 50,000 ton Crystal Symphony departs from Rome’s port of Civitavecchia for Livorno/Florence, Monte Carlo, St. Tropez, Barcelona, Lisbon, Bordeaux (overnight), Guernsey, and London. 


Fall splendor via the Big Apple 

Crystal will also be offering a number of round-trip voyages from New York, September through October, aboard Crystal Symphony. As part of its 2006 New England and Canada season, look for five destination-rich itineraries including a new 11-day and two new seven-day round-trip departures from The Big Apple, as well as two 11-day itineraries between New York and Montreal. 

The season begins with two new week-long itineraries departing from New York on September 14 and 21. Included are visits to Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts (overnight); Bar Harbor, Maine; and, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The new 11-day cruise, also from New York, departs on October 20 and features a call at Quebec City and scenic cruising of the Saguenay River. 

At the heart of Crystal’s New England and Canada season are two 11-day cruises journeying into the heart of French Quebec, each showcasing a maiden port of call for the line. From New York on September 28, Crystal Symphony visits Halifax, Bar Harbor, Boston and Newport, calling on the maiden port of La Baie des Ha Ha, Canada; spending a full day in Quebec City; and, ultimately arriving in for an overnight stay in Montreal. The October 9 departure from Montreal features the same itinerary with a maiden call at St. John, New Brunswick. 


By the numbers 

Who’s cruising nowadays? The statistics may surprise you. 

According to the latest figures released by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) – the marketing arm of many of the world’s leading cruise lines – cruisers average 49 years of age, with above average incomes ($104,000 household per year). They are typically married (83%), have college educations (57%) and are commonly employed full time (57%). On their last cruise they typically sailed with their spouse (79%) for about 6.2 days and spent approximately $1,690 per person for their cruise and onboard expenses (not including airfare). 

More than half (56%) took their first cruise in or after 1999. When choosing vacations, cruisers are influenced by multiple sources, especially word-of-mouth referrals (38%), spouses (35%), cruise websites (30%) and travel agents (12%). 

The Internet is an important information tool for cruisers, but is not yet considered an attractive booking tool. While 86 percent of cruisers indicate that they would consider using the Internet for planning purposes less than half (49%) would be very comfortable booking a cruise through the Internet. 

Most still book through travel agents, according to CLIA.