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Archive for October, 2008

Cruise West’s very spirited voyage

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 31 - 2008

It’s 7:00 am and anyone who is still asleep has just been awakened by this morning’s announcement. A polite good morning call that announces it is a “nippy” 39 degrees outside, and a reminder that the bus for the winery tour leaves in one hour. Not that anyone is in bed — no one wants to miss a thing. The fall foliage was just setting in making the scenery along the Columbia River Gorge more spectacular. Add the backdrop of the Cascade Mountain Range with snow-covered Mount Hood and it’s even more breathtaking.

Expedition cruising aboard Cruise West’s Sprit of Discovery, as you might have gathered, is quite different from your one week cruise around the Caribbean. For one thing the ship is small and there is no casino, lounge acts, bingo contests, disco, spa or fitness center. There’s no dressing up since the atmosphere onboard is very casual — jeans, khakis, sweaters and fleece jackets are the norm. Accommodations are basic – cabins have no television, radio or telephone, and get this, no locks on the doors. Still everything is secure, safe, clean, and the all-American crew is friendly and eager to please.

Spirit of Discovery

One of the hottest trends in cruising today is the almost insatiable interest in cuisine. Food and wine have always been an integral part of the cruise experience, but in recent years, the interest has become more refined to include special cruises dedicated to specific cuisine. When it comes to wine many cruise lines offer wine tastings, but few have the ability to take you right to the source.

Cruise West, a company long known for its educational eco-cruises to adventure destinations like Alaska, Costa Rica, and Asia may seem like an unusual fit for a wine cruise. But the company is known to focus on the destination rather than the cruise itself, and sailing along the Columbia River with access to Washington and Oregon’s growing wine region offers an amazing experience for wine lovers.

Spirit of Discovery, launched in 1976, was purpose-built for cruising off-the-beaten track waters. It is small carrying just 84 passengers and functional, with a dining room, lounge, bow viewing area, sun deck, but little else. The downside is that cabins are compact with twin beds (queen beds in higher class cabins) and tiny shower area, the sink is located outside the bathroom in the cabin. The good news is you won’t spend a lot of time in the cabin since shore excursions take up most of the day.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the intimate, open-seating Grand Pacific Dining Room. Meals are at set times, and since there is no 24-hour room service or alternative dining, you eat when you are supposed to or you will miss out. For early risers there is a Continental breakfast spread in the lounge, the same area where all the lectures take place. A sit-down breakfast follows in the dining room. Lunch is scheduled around the shore excursions. Dinners are the highlight where the chef uses local ingredients from the Pacific Northwest. Menu choices are somewhat limited, but the cuisine with the highlighted wines offered was excellent. Standouts included Wagyu Shortribs, Kurbata Pork Prime Rib, and Wild Pacific Sturgeon and Grilled Salmon and amazing breads like Walla Walla Onion Cheddar and Curry Egg. Coffee, tea, and sodas are complimentary – the only extras are cocktails and wines not part of the tastings.

Onboard entertainment consists of enrichment lectures by two Cruise West Exploration Guides who lecture on the history of the Columbia River. Come evening, there are activities in the Discovery Lounge – mainly wine tastings and talks by the ship’s guest “Wine Guy”, Frank Baldassare. He lectured on how grapes are grown and how various regions produce different wines, how to properly taste wine and pair it with food, and how Washington and Oregon became wine regions.

All shore excursions are included in the price and Exploration Leaders separate passengers into two touring groups. This made it easier to spend time exploring and not overwhelming the destinations visited. We hiked through pear orchards in Oregon, onion fields in Washington, toured the giant Bonneville Dam with its huge power generators and salmon fish ladders, jet boated to the Hanford Reach Monument where we witnessed abundant wildlife and glimpsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (birthplace of nuclear energy), watched seafood cooking demonstrations in Astoria, and in Walla Walla and Richland drank barrels of wine – literally.

Swirl, smell, sip

Prior to the winery tours the first lecture was Baldassare educating us on the Four S’s of wine tasting: see, swirl, smell, and sip — a valuable way to experience and understand each wine from first to last taste. This practice would be essential to make the most of this cruise with all its abundant wine samplings.

Surprisingly most all the passengers on this trip were over 65 years of age, I am 43 and I was by far one of the youngest. But let me tell you these seniors were sprite and could run laps around you, not to mention being able to swill wine with the best of them.

The first winery tour was Three Rivers Winery just outside of Walla Walla. The visit coincided with the October crush season when grapes are harvested and placed into wine vats to cure. Jan Wessel, a retail manager for Three Rivers, gave a group tour of the vats and told how making fine wines is a blend of science and art. “It is the result of a host of varying environmental factors and, typically, the combination of several different grape varieties, each in varying quantities, overseen and orchestrated by master vintners to create a unique and excellent vintage,” he said. Tastings included a number of red and white wines where my personal favorite ended up being the 2005 Syrah.

Since gourmet food goes hand-in-hand with good wine our group stopped for lunch at Walla Walla’s Backstage Bistro and dined on an amazing three-course meal. During the meal more wines were sampled and one in particular stood out – a 2003 Nicolas Coles Cellars Camille, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. I just loved this wine so much I had several glasses and was feeling no pain. Baldassare laughed at me and told me to “pace” myself. The reality is there are five S’s in wine tasting – the last being spit, which I quickly learned to do or I would not remember a thing about this trip.

After lunch it was off to visit two more wineries. At Beresan Winery the farming aspects of growing grapes was discussed, and our group was able to pick and eat Merlot grapes right off the vine – yum! The next winery was Basel Cellars set atop a hill, not only did we drink wine but we drank in the beautiful scenery as well.

The next day the ship docked in Richland and it was off to visit three more wineries. The first stop was Coyote Canyon Winery located high above the Yakima Valley in the remote area of Horse Heaven Hills. The owner Mike Andrews gave a tour of the 500-acre vineyard and afterwards indulged our palates in a number of excellent vintages. Next it was off to the Red Mountain area and the Terra Blanca Winery with amazing landscaped grounds and sweeping views of the Yakima Valley. More tastings and lunch was followed by a tour winery’s vast cave system storing thousands of barrels of wine. Our last stop was another winery in the Red Mountain area, Kiona Vineyards. Kiona was the first vineyard in the area and has cultivated a stellar reputation for producing amazing vintages. The Vivacious Vicky wines are not to be missed.

For Baldessere, educating others about the joy of wine is simply not a job, it’s a passion. “It’s all about exploration and the process of discovery, and rediscovery of tastes,” he says. This, as it turns out, is an essential ingredient to creating a memorable travel experience.

If you go:

This cruise is best for intellectually curious travelers interested more in culture and nature than splashy big ship amenities. The eight-day, seven-night “Taste of the Pacific Northwest” cruises on select dates in April, September and October 2009. All trips depart from Portland, Oregon. Rates range from $3,299 to $4,399 per person, depending on cabin category. Prices include taxes, port charges, airport transfers, shore excursions, and gratuities. Visit Cruise West’s Web site for all the details.

Filled Under Destinations, Reviews

It’s the LOVE BOAT – Vows to be exchanged on Ruby Princess

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 28 - 2008

Princess Cruises said a wedding will be incorporated into the naming ceremony for Ruby Princess when a California couple exchanges vows on Nov. 6.
The ship’s godparents, reality television celebrities Trista and Ryan Sutter, will serve as attendants and former Love Boat captain, Gavin MacLeod, will give away the bride. An official from Princess’ Department of Romance, Phil Roberts, a minister, will perform the ceremony.

The couple, Danielle Vurpillat and Kip Hickman from Dunsmuir, Calif., were invited to share their nuptials with passengers on board after entering the Princess and USA TODAY ‘Romance on the Ruby’ contest. In their submission they said it would be their dream to wed on the new ship.

ExpertCruiser will be blogging live from Ruby Princess starting next week.  Send in your questions here.

Filled Under Blog

Royal Caribbean profits get out there, but warns all is not well

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 28 - 2008

Royal Caribbean Cruises today announced that its third quarter profits were “beyond expectations”; however, the company warned of “dramatically changed booking environment” in recent weeks.

The company stated that lower than expected operating costs allowed record profit of $411 million or $1.92 per share, up from $1.84 a year ago.

“While we are pleased with our third quarter results, the operating environment has changed dramatically in recent weeks,” said Royal Caribbean International chairman and ceo Richard Fain. Royal Caribbean said there has been a significant deterioration recently in new bookings due to economic and financial turmoil. The company expects fourth quarter yields to decrease in the 4 to 5 percent range.

Read more about Royal Caribbean’s third quarter conference call at Royal Caribbean’s investor Website.

Filled Under Blog

Tipped off – computer glitch stiffs couple

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 27 - 2008

Utah residents Kris and Steve Johnson had always dreamed of an Alaska cruise. Earlier this year, the Johnsons began scouring online cruise sites and agencies for their 2008 itineraries and prices. They came upon the perfect itinerary at the right price on Cruise.com, the largest Web site specializing in cruises on the Internet.

The cruise was a 7-day Inside Passage aboard the Celebrity Infinity from Seattle. The total cost for the Johnsons was $2,075, which also included a promotion with prepaid gratuities. The prepaid gratuities amounted to $147 that would be paid in advance and apply to the normal gratuity left for the room steward, head waiter and assistant waiter.

The Johnsons made their payments, received booking numbers via e-mail and then printed out all the details for the reservation including the prepaid gratuities. Everything seemed perfect, or so they thought.

Missing gratuities

On most cruise lines today, tips are “automatic” and charged to one’s account. The practice became the norm when set dining times were relaxed and specialty restaurants were introduced. This meant that passengers might not have the same dining room waiter more than once or twice during a cruise. To make the tipping process easier, cruise lines implemented tipping guidelines with suggested amounts per day, per passenger that can be added to a guest’s onboard account. At the end of the cruise the tips are pooled and distributed among many different crewmembers.

The Johnsons were having a great time until midway through the cruise when Steve Johnson inquired about the gratuities. The Purser’s Desk informed him that Cruise.com had not prepaid the gratuities. A flustered Johnson then called Cruise.com from an Alaskan port where he was told there was no record on the reservation about prepaid gratuities. “I told them I had an e-mail receipt from them showing the tips were to be included,” says Johnson. The representative told Johnson to fax the document, which he did from the ship. An optimistic Johnson hoped Cruise.com would clear up the mess before the cruise disembarked in Seattle. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

When the Johnsons returned home to Utah they again contacted Cruise.com. A few days later they received an e-mail from a supervisor. The supervisor admitted that there had been a technical problem when the Johnsons booked their cruise reservation online as the system did not place the gratuities on the invoice. Then the supervisor said they would reimburse the Johnsons only if they could provide proof they tipped the crew.

Steve Johnson was livid since he was not informed that he needed to get receipts for all his tips. “I paid cash tips according to the ships published guidelines. How does one get a receipt for cash tips paid?”

He told the supervisor that he did not have receipts and the supervisor stated that Cruise.com would not reimburse him for the tips. After getting nowhere with Cruise.com the Johnsons contacted Tripso for help.

Cruise.com speaks

The whole situation seemed wrong since the Johnsons had paid for a cruise that included tips. I contacted Cruise.com on the Johnson’s behalf and spoke with Jeanne Wyndrum, a senior vice president with the company.

Wyndrum acknowledged that there was indeed a “glitch” in Cruise.com’s Web site reservation system at the time the Johnsons booked their stateroom. “The gratuities showed as being applied on our side but the ship did not show it,” says Wyndrum. She noted it is company policy to ask for receipts from customers for reimbursement as it helps to satisfy the auditors. “In this case, while it was requested out of normal procedure, we then realized that we promised the Johnsons the gratuities regardless of how they paid and verified with Celebrity that they were not automatically applied. At that time the check request was submitted.”

The Johnsons were elated to finally receive a check for $147 from Cruise.com last week.

Protect yourself

Reservation mistakes are nothing new in the cruise industry, but such errors seldom turn out in the customer’s favor. In the Johnson’s case, Cruise.com admitted its mistake and honored the fare with prepaid gratuities.

So, how can you protect yourself against online reservation glitches? Follow the Johnson’s example: Document the advertised fare and your booking information by keeping track of e-mails and taking screen shots from the Web site and then printing them out for your records.

Clearly, this is one case where vigilance and persistence really paid off.

Filled Under Ombudsman

Dutch treat for teens in Alaska

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 10 - 2008

Guests on deck aboard HAL\'s Oosterdam as she sails Alaska\'s Hubbard GlacierMention Alaska and people’s eyes light up. America’s last frontier offers some of the most spectacular natural scenery anywhere and there’s no better way to experience Alaska’s Inside Passage than from the deck of a cruise ship.

Onboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam the seven-day “Alaskan Explorer” itinerary from Seattle offers the best of the Inside Passage including the amazing Hubbard Glacier. It’s a dream destination for many families, but can it pass muster with the most finicky traveler of all – the teenager? The answer is a resounding yes.

Family friendly Oosterdam
Traditionally a line catering to older clientele, Holland America has made great strides in recent years to appeal to families and cruisers of all ages. Indeed, the word is out. I observed hundreds of families sailing together during my late July trip. In fact most families had teens in tow, which was a great relief for my two teenage daughters.

With Oosterdam, Holland America attempts the difficult trick of melding traditional elegance with a modern touch, and mostly succeeds. Throughout the ship extensive use of crystal, marble and inlaid woods adds traditional elegance. Conversely the ship’s layout offers a more modern ambiance with numerous public areas that feel like private clubs or lounges; it’s easy to forget you’re aboard an 82,000-ton vessel because it never feels crowded.

Launched in 2003, Oosterdam is the second in the series of Vista-class ships and is scheduled for a huge makeover next year. The ship will enter an extensive dry dock from April 2-23, 2009, which will include the latest Vista Class upgrades. The transformation will include 34 new guest staterooms, the addition of an Explorations Café, a larger Pinnacle Grill restaurant, the addition of a new Pinnacle Bar and increased seating in the Lido Restaurant.

HAL\'s Oosterdam anchored in Juneau, Alaska photo by Anita Dunham-PotterCurrently, Oosterdam’s 1848 passengers will find comfortably appointed staterooms that run the gamut from 170 square feet to two Penthouse “Verandah” Suites measuring 1,312 square feet. Eighty-five percent of the ship’s staterooms have ocean views and 67 percent feature private balconies. All staterooms provide the line’s “Signature of Excellence” premium amenities of plush Euro-top Mariner’s Dream beds, deluxe bathrobes, plush Egyptian cotton towels, flat panel TVs, DVD players, make-up mirrors with halo lighting, massage shower heads and hair dryers.

The massive two-level Vista Dining Room is the main dining room onboard and offers an enjoyable atmosphere with attentive service. When traveling with teens it’s often difficult to get everyone ready in time for assigned dining times. Thankfully, Holland America recently introduced ‘As You Wish’ dining in the main dining room. This innovative program allows guests to choose from the best of both worlds; either traditional pre-set seating and dining times, or a completely flexible dining schedule.

Casual dining options include the Terrace Grill near the pool which offers hot dogs and hamburgers and the Lido Restaurant with multiple serving stations and attractive seating areas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also a 24-hour Italian eatery, a great option for ravenous teens craving a late night snack.

Parents wanting to escape to a more intimate dining experience can dine at the Pinnacle Grill at the Odyssey Restaurant, with its bright white linens and striking Bvlgari place settings featuring fine Pacific Northwest specialties and wines – dinner is $30 per person, lunch is $15 per person.

Family-friendly shipboard entertainment is highlighted by a Las Vegas-style production in the 867-seat Vista Show Lounge. On selected nights there are alternating shows that include a stand-up comedian and magician – a big hit with kids of all ages. Rounding out the entertainment are a movie theater, shops, arcade, piano bar, disco, casino and sports bar.

Another popular recreation venue is the Culinary Arts Center with its demonstration kitchen. Complete with flat panel TVs around the room, it shares space with the cushy Queen’s Lounge and typically two free cooking demos are hosted per week. Another innovative activity spicing up standards like ballroom dance lessons, trivia games, and wine tastings, include a self-guided iPod tour of the ship’s art collection. During Alaska sailings Holland America adds little touches like an onboard naturalist, an in-residence artist. The line even serves thick Dutch split pea soup to passengers watching the Hubbard Glacier calving and sending showers of icebergs into the sea.

The Greenhouse Spa and Salon offers an abundant menu of spa treatments along with an appealing hydrotherapy pool and lounge area; it’s a perfect place to de-stress from a day of hard of Alaskan sightseeing with the family. Those wishing to keep fit will appreciate the well-equipped gym and exercise classes. Athletic teens are welcome to use the equipment; however, a parent must accompany them.

Heading to the outside decks, the mid-ship pool area on the Lido deck offers a retractable roof, a great option when sailing Alaska’s cool climate. For guests wanting to get in touch with their inner polar bear there is an additional pool at the stern, where the pool and deck chairs are privy to the open sea and the ship’s wake.

Club HAL offers bright play areas for kids ages 3 to 12 with dedicated youth coordinators that run full days of events for each age group. Teens like to be with their own kind so Holland America created The Loft area. Akin to an artist’s loft in New York City with a comfy living-room setting it comes equipped with TV, video games, dance floor, juice bar, jukebox and karaoke, along with computers that have Internet access. Typical activities throughout a cruise may include a special dinner in the main dining room, a free night in the video arcade, attending a show, movie or dancing in the disco.

Excursions without the bore
Teens have a low threshold for boredom so it’s important to find excursions that are high energy. When planning the Alaska excursions I let my daughters pick the tours – it was the smartest thing I could have done.

In Sitka we kayaked along the shore while bald eagles rode the winds above and sea lions popped their heads quizzically out of the water. In Victoria we took an evening Orca whale watch tour where we watched several pods of whales feed on salmon. As great as those tours were, two flightseeing tours ended up being the most memorable.

In Juneau the kids chose the Taku Lodge floatplane tour. The historic lodge originated as a hunting and fishing camp in 1923. The three-hour tour included 50 minutes of flying time that included amazing views of five glaciers and a salmon bake at the lodge. During our lodge tour we had the added bonus of a lengthy visit by three black bears who came to lick the grill after the salmon bake.

Another highlight was the flight tour of Misty Fjords National Monument from Ketchikan. This 2.3 million-acre area is home to some of Alaska’s most dramatic scenery with sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, river valleys and lakes. The 90-minute flight buzzed around the mountains and fjords and landed in a gorgeous lake where we stepped out onto the pontoons to take in the sights and smells of this gorgeous place.

Months after the cruise my teens are still talking about their Alaska experience. Getting close to the whales, bald eagles, bears, and majestic glaciers was an amazing family experience. Add to that the convenience of doing it all from a cruise ship, which afforded great amenities along with activities that forged new friendships. The cruise may be over but the memories will linger on.

Filled Under Reviews, What's New?