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Archive for July, 2007

‘Royal’ treatment for a Queen and a country

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 31 - 2007

Royal Panama

Royal Caribbean International announced it will homeport Enchantment of the Seas in Colon, Panama; the first time that the cruise line has established a homeport at the mouth of the Panama Canal. Royal Caribbean announced 17 sailings from December 2008 through April 2009. The seven-night voyages will visit spectacular ports-of-call in Colombia and the Dutch Antilles.

Save the Queen….Delta Queen that is

Steamboats.org has been campaigning to save the historic paddlewheel steamer Delta Queen from possible forced retirement when the boat’s exemption from SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) comes up for renewal in 2008. For more information on this important campaign, please go to: www.steamboats.org/save-the-delta-queen-2007

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A cruise ship for Muffy & Skippy

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 30 - 2007

Four Seasons Ocean ResidencesThe Four Seasons Ocean Residences is selling units in their first all residential ship called, Ocean Residences.

The 719-foot ship has “112 graciously appointed homes at sea” with units starting from a few million for a tiny studio, which is a ‘paltry’ 800 sq. ft. to a 3,242 sq. ft. penthouse for $7.3 million. Oh, and let’s not forget the $500,000 in yearly fees. So, what do Muffy and Skippy get for these beaucoup bucks?

A $12,000 a year credit for food, drinks and spa services. Amenities include, spa, fitness center, a pool, a shopping promenade, four restaurants, a specialty food market, a wine cellar, a business center, putting greens and a driving range. Sailboats and motorized water scooters will be launched from the ship’s marina area, which will also be used for diving trips and shuttles to shore. Round-the-clock concierge service will be available to help arrange shore excursions, and in-room dining will be offered. Four Season’s says the first two years the ship will sail from London have itinearies that take it to Antarctica, the Amazon and the 2012 Olympics in London. During that time, it is expected that the ship will spend an average of 250 days a year in port.

Construction of Ocean Residences begins in 2009 with scheduled completion in 2010.

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Carnival’s Freedom takes on the Mediterranean

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 30 - 2007

Earlier this year, Carnival Cruise Lines introduced its newest megaliner, Carnival Freedom, a 112,000-ton vessel that can accommodate 3,700 passengers when it is completely sold out. The ship was deployed to the Mediterranean for the spring, summer, and early fall seasons (it sails the Caribbean in winter), and passengers have responded so positively that the ship will return next year with more Mediterranean sailings and itineraries.

This is Carnival’s second entry into European waters, and I was interested to see how an American “Fun Ship” would fare in the sophisticated Mediterranean cruise market, so I signed up for Freedom’s 12-day “Mediterranean & Greek Isles” cruise, with port calls in Italy, Greece and Turkey. I also signed up my two daughters, ages 10 and 13. After all, Carnival ships have a well-earned reputation for being family-friendly. I wanted to see if we could combine a great family vacation with an edifying European tour. Would it be fun and educational, or would it be hell?

It looked good from the get-go. The cruise had a promising if ambitious itinerary (Naples, Italy; Rhodes, Greece; Izmir (Ephesus) and Istanbul, Turkey, featuring scenic cruising of the Dardanelles; Athens and Katakolon, Greece; and Livorno (Pisa/Florence), Italy), and it offered 99 shore excursions, so the education and culture angles were covered. The passengers’ age range looked promising for family fun, too. A quick scan of the morning buffet line revealed that this group was decades younger than those I’ve sailed with on other Mediterranean cruises. In fact, Freedom was packed with families, and there were plenty of couples and groups in their 30s and 40s. That makes perfect sense, given the ship’s offerings.

Freedom fun

The minute you step aboard the ship, you are struck by the exuberant vision of ship interior designer Joe Farcus. The theme takes guests on a journey through the centuries, from ancient Babylonia to the heyday of disco. The shipboard activities are equally varied, offering diversions from morning until well into the night. All this unfolds against the casual, carefree and energetic vibe that Carnival is famous for.

A 4,200-square-foot play area anchors Freedom’s Camp Carnival program for kids. The facility is divided into five areas: a movie room, an arts-and-crafts center, a “soft play area” for toddlers, a gaming area with PlayStation 2 consoles, and a library of children’s books. While this setup is great for kids under nine, I found my daughters and other kids in their age range (10-14) not thrilled to be in the same room as toddlers. They felt older kids should have their own room like the amazing, 1,800-square-foot teen center dubbed “Club O2.” Designed for kids ages 15 to 17, that facility includes a dance floor, DJ, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, a nonalcoholic specialty drink lounge and a game room. A library offers teen-oriented books. The ship does have a huge arcade area for all ages, with a fun selection of games from classic to virtual reality.

Probably the most popular family attractions are the four pools (one lies beneath a retractable roof), a 214-foot water slide and the Seaside Theatre, on the Lido Deck, which has a 270-square-foot LED screen on which passengers can watch blockbuster movies while comfortably ensconced in lounge chairs under the sun or stars. In addition to pool games, dance classes and themed parties, shipboard offerings also include more sedate family pursuits like reading in the library, afternoon tea in the Posh Restaurant and extensive shopping in the Promenade.

Spectacular entertainment is also a Carnival hallmark. Elaborate sets and costumes, along with pyrotechnics and special effects, take production shows to new heights. In the Victoriana Show Lounge, I enjoyed several high-energy Las Vegas-style extravaganzas, including “The Big Easy,” a flashy tribute to New Orleans, and “Ticket to Ride,” a fun Fab Four songfest showcasing a terrific Beatles tribute band. At the center of this entertainment circus is perhaps the best cruise director sailing the seven seas: the dynamic John Heald. His wry British wit enlivens everything from his live “Morning Show” to the silly passenger participation shows, with many moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The Spa Carnival Health and Fitness facility offers a wide range of indulgent, European-style treatments and therapies. The fitness center offers fitness classes along with just about every workout machine available; it was always busy.

This was a working vacation for me, and I was glad to be aboard one of the most technologically advanced ships afloat. Freedom has bow-to-stern wireless Internet access and cellular phone service, so I was able to keep up with the news and check my e-mail on my laptop everywhere aboard ship. There’s also a 24-hour Internet café for those not lugging a laptop.

Home away from home

When you board the Carnival Freedom, a crew member says, “Welcome Home,” and your cabin truly does become your home for 12 days. Freedom’s 1,487 staterooms are defined by six categories ranging from inside cabins to penthouse suites. Our 220-square-foot outside balcony cabin afforded plenty of room for the three of us — we never felt cramped, and there was plenty of drawer and closet space. I am a big advocate of balcony staterooms, which offer a tranquil and private escape from the hectic pool area. They are always worth the extra expense. On this cruise, the balcony was especially welcome; it was like having box seats to the Mediterranean’s most amazing places.

Nice touches in the cabin included a hair dryer, refrigerator, safe, robes, plush towels and Carnival’s amazingly comfortable beds with high-thread-count linens, crisp duvets and fluffy pillows. Carnival’s cabin stewards are wizards at keeping the space tidy twice daily. We found ourselves looking forward to discovering which type of sculpture our steward would make with our sunglasses and towels. Sometimes we got a monkey hanging from the ceiling; other times an elephant or swan perched on the edge of our beds.

Dining pleasures

Carnival is great at food, and Freedom offers a wealth of menu options and wine selections, many created by the talented French master chef Georges Blanc. I found the cuisine in the Posh and Chic dining rooms to be contemporary and exciting. Freedom’s chefs produced several memorable moments, including Hudson Valley duck with sweet turnip purée and peas; slow braised osso buco in red wine sauce served over polenta with mushrooms and roasted garlic; green beans and stewed cherry tomatoes and a to-die-for mushroom risotto; and an amazing molten chocolate cake. The kids could eat pizza, pasta, chicken fingers and hamburgers to their hearts’ content — and they did. All meals were served by exceptionally attentive and professional crew members, who truly enjoyed pleasing their guests.

For an out-of-this-world culinary experience, try Sun King, the ship’s reservations-only supper club (there is a $30 cover charge), which offers superior a la carte fare including seared lobster tail over tomato confit, a huge (24-ounce) porterhouse steak, grilled filet mignon over cardamom-braised carrots, and pumpkin ravioli. I was impressed as each course was prepared and presented with consummate flair. I felt I was on a luxury liner.

For casual breakfast, lunch or dinner, the festive Lido Deck Restaurant features “Taste of the Nations,” which has a grand buffet as well as Asian and fish-and-chips specialty sections. Other food venues include the Meiji Bar (serving sushi or tapas), a grille, a deli, the Viennese Café Patisserie, a 24-hour pizzeria, as well as a soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt bar.

Euro family fun

The itinerary is so ambitious that it’s hard to enjoy everything the ship had to offer. Thank goodness for the three “Fun Days at Sea,” when I could catch my breath, sleep in, relax by the pool or stay out late. (In fact, most guests are so exhausted from touring that staying up into the wee hours often proved difficult. I managed it only once.)

The priority, of course, is to take in all those great port stops. Let’s face it: The whole point of flying all the way to Europe is, well, to see Europe. Freedom’s port-packed schedule certainly allows you to do that. Just take a deep breath first, especially if you are traveling with children.

A European cruise exposes kids to a variety of cultures along with important museums, cathedrals, ruins, architecture and other must-see attractions. My daughters experienced firsthand the Pantheon, the Parthenon, Pompeii and Ephesus. We roamed Rome, saw the Vatican and gawked endlessly at the Sistine Chapel. We observed prayer at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, got lost in the Grand Bazaar, climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa and sipped limoncello (the kids had lemon Grenache) in Positano. Fortunately, Carnival offers family-friendly shore excursions and I found these to be truly terrific, particularly in Naples and Istanbul. Of course, all this was seasoned with socializing and making new friendships on board. Yes, it was overwhelming, and yes, we’d do it all over again.

Sailing Carnival in Europe is an entirely different experience from sailing Carnival in the Caribbean. The infamous “Hair Chest Contest” made it across the Atlantic, as did some other silly Carnival fun and games. And the lines were just as long in Europe, both at the buffet and for reboarding the ship after a long day of touring, but they didn’t frustrate anyone because the crew’s system was efficient. The big difference on this cruise was the passengers: Among the 3,400 people onboard, some 20 nationalities were represented. After a round of bingo in the Victoriana Theater one evening, I talked with a woman from Japan about finding interesting treasures in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the Jacuzzi, I met a family from New Zealand who said this was the best vacation they’d ever had. On the ship’s jogging track, I met walkers from Minneapolis and Moscow; we traded tales of cold-climate walking and reveled in the Mediterranean views as we slogged around the track.

The bottom line for Carnival Freedom European sailings: They’re ideal for enthusiastic travelers who’d like a quick taste of the best of the Mediterranean on a budget. If you can handle the rigorous schedule and don’t want to waste a single minute, this cruise is for you.

If you go:

Carnival is currently accepting reservations for Carnival Freedom’s 2008 Europe departures. Prices for the 12-day voyages begin at $1,199 per person, based on double occupancy; there are special rates for third and fourth guests sailing in the same stateroom. Carnival also offers round-trip airfares from a variety of North American gateways, as well as pre- and post-cruise land packages in Rome. The ship will be based in Miami during the 2007-2008 winter season (November through the end of April), sailing seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises; prices begin at $569.

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No passport, no travel

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 23 - 2007

Stephanie Hemphill was psyched about her upcoming family cruise to the Caribbean. Her sister was graduating from Arizona State University, and the sisters hadn’t seen each other in two years. Plus, it would be a nice getaway for Stephanie and her husband, Kevin.

The Hemphills knew that passport rules had changed at the beginning of the year and that they would need passports for the trip, so they applied for their passports on March 3 — two months and 17 days before their cruise. They had to stand in line for more than five hours at the passport office in Charlotte, N.C., where they live, and the wait made Stephanie a little nervous.

“We asked the clerk if we should expedite the transaction,” Stephanie says. “The clerk said no, because we would have our passports back on May 4th. Our Royal Caribbean ship was leaving Galveston on May 20th, so we thought we were fine.”

They weren’t fine at all. When May 4 came and went with no sign of the passports, the Hemphills started to worry. Stephanie called the passport bureau’s toll-free number and was told that the passports were being processed and that the bureau would expedite them.

“We kept calling every day,” Stephanie says. “Many of the days you could not get through.”

Welcome to passport hell

The U.S. Department of State, which handles all U.S. passport applications, set records in March and April when it issued more than 3 million passports, up about 33 percent from last year. The surge in applications came after new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative regulations went into effect requiring passports for air travel to Canada and Mexico and for all air and sea travel to Bermuda and to all non-U.S. jurisdictions in the Caribbean. (Under the new regulations, U.S citizens can still travel to St. Thomas, St John and Puerto Rico without passports.)

The State Department tried to manage the overflow by hiring hundreds of new employees and allowing overtime hours for current employees at regional passport offices; unfortunately, the changes were not nearly enough to accommodate the demand. At the end of June, more than 500,000 of the 2.9 million passport applications then in process had been in the system more than 10 weeks, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The Hemphills continued to call the hotline, asking to speak to supervisors, in an effort to track down their applications. They also asked Royal Caribbean to let them sail with copies of their birth certificates for identification, but the cruise line said its hands were tied. Two days before their cruise, when they were scheduled to drive to Galveston, Texas, the Hemphills tried one last time to find their passports; again, nobody could help.

The couple gave up, and on May 20, Rhapsody of the Seas sailed off with the rest of Stephanie’s family. Three days later, the Hemphills’ passports arrived.

The processing delay cost the Hemphills their cruise and the chance to celebrate with Stephanie’s family. But there was one bright spot in all the aggravation: The Hemphills had purchased Royal Caribbean’s trip insurance, Cruise Vacation Protection, which includes a cancellation penalty waiver. Under the terms of the waiver, if a passenger needs to cancel or interrupt his cruise for any one of several specified reasons, Royal Caribbean will waive the nonrefundable cancellation provision of its cruise ticket contract and pay back, in cash, the value of the unused portion of the prepaid cruise vacation. “Passport fiasco” is not one of the specified reasons, so the Hemphills were classified as “no shows”; this meant they could not get their money back in cash, but they were entitled to receive cruise credits amounting of 75 percent of their cruise vacation costs.

How to avoid passport hell

Chaos at U.S. passport offices has left thousands of travelers like the Hemphills stuck at home, many of them holding useless airline and cruise tickets. To ease the logjam, the State Department relaxed passport restrictions on June 8. Through Sept. 30, 2007, citizens need only a government-issued ID and proof of having filed a passport application in order to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Sadly, the accommodation came too late for the Hemphills.

So how do you avoid passport hell? Here are some tips:

* Plan ahead. Apply for your passport at least four months in advance if possible. Renewals can take as long as a first issue, so check your passport’s expiration date. If the passport is due to expire soon and you are planning a trip abroad, check the passport rules for the countries you’re visiting. Many countries require your passport to be valid for three to six months beyond the date you enter the country. Also, according to new guidelines from the U.S. State Department, county clerk offices cannot process a passport application if the applicant’s birth certificate was issued within that county. This modification was enacted in response to a problem when officials discovered illegally produced a birth records. This new rule will be a major inconvenience for many rural citizens since first-time applicants and all children must apply for a passport in person – that may mean a long drive to the clerk’s office in the next county..

Applications and instructions are available at passport offices and select U.S. post offices and online at the U.S. State Department’s travel Web site. Be sure to write your trip’s departure date on the application. Passport officials say they are doing their best to get passports out in time for travelers’ departures.

* Allow plenty of processing time. The new rule of thumb is to allow at least 14 weeks for a regular application and five weeks for an expedited application. Holidays will slow down the process, sometimes considerably, so if you are planning a trip for early next year, you really need to apply for that passport now.

* Expedite the process. If you are leaving within the next three months, pay the additional $60 to expedite your application. The State Department says it will get an expedited passport to you in two or three weeks; in reality, it’s taking four and five weeks. If you are truly desperate, hire a “passport expediter,” who can get you a faster turnaround for a fee of $100 or more (that’s in addition to the $60 State Department expediting fee, which is in addition to the regular $97 fee for an adult’s passport). These companies aren’t a sure thing, but they do have standing appointments at passport offices around the country; that appointment status effectively allows them to jump the line. To find an expediter, check the National Association of Passport and Visa Services Web site.

* Keep good records. Keep all receipts, a copy of your application and records of communication with the passport office. Make sure to note your “Passport Locator Number” when you complete your application at the post office.

* Check on the status. Applicants can check their passport’s status online on the State Department’s Passport Application Status Web site. If you are traveling within the next two weeks, contact the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. If you haven’t already done so, you can request that your application be expedited.

* Call your congressional representatives. As a last resort, some travelers have been helped by their representatives in Congress. Every House and Senate member has a staffer who deals with passport problems and usually has a direct line to passport problem solvers. Call the office and speak directly to that staffer.

* Get extra copies of your birth certificate. With the delay in implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, additional passport requirements for travelers crossing U.S. land borders and seaports from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean will not go into effect until January 31, 2008 (there is talk that these new rules could be delayed until summer 2008). Until that time, you’ll be able to use a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) and a birth certificate. Since one certified birth certificate must be sent with your passport application, it is wise to obtain extra copies of the birth certificate to use for identification until the original one is returned with your passport.

* Buy trip insurance. Lastly, protect your hard-earned vacation with trip insurance. It can literally save you thousands of dollars and your sanity.

The Hemphills say the government really let them down, but they are thankful for their trip insurance. They are hoping to use their cruise credits for a Royal Caribbean cruise next year.

And their passports are all set to go.

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July 21 – July 29 — Going “Blogless”

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 20 - 2007

ExpertCruiser Blog will be on vacation from July 20-29.

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7 Wonders of Carnival

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 20 - 2007

While a recent vote has seen the selection of the supposed new Seven Wonders of the World, Carnival Cruises has announced that its own voyages take in the much more manageable “Seven Wonders of the Caribbean”.

Passengers on a cruise and stay break to the region can explore these wonders on their shore excursions, including the Panama Canal, Mexico’s Chichen Itza, El Morro Castle in San Juan, the Mayan ruins of Tulum, Trunk Bay Beach at St John, the Baths in Virgin Gorda and the Mesoamerican barrier reef system.

Other regional sights earning an honourable mention from Carnival Cruises include the Basilica at Higuey, the El Yunque Rainforest and Chacchoben Mayan ruins.

Terry Thornton, vice president of marketing planning at Carnival Cruises said: “While seeing the Seven Wonders of the World may be out of reach for many vacationers, Carnival provides fantastic and affordable journeys to the Seven Wonders of the Caribbean.”

He added that those on a Caribbean cruise are in good company, with the region being the most popular cruise holiday destination in the world.

In May 2007, Carnival Cruises announced that it had started to take bookings for its exotic eastern Caribbean cruises on board its Carnival Splendor liner for its inaugural 2008 season.

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