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Archive for May, 2009

Postcards from St. Petersburg, Russia

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 31 - 2009

St. Petersburg was founded 306 years ago when Peter the Great laid the cornerstone of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built as a seaport, Peter regarded it as a ‘window on Europe’ and the city quickly flourished as a cultural center. Peter modeled the city after Amsterdam, but its Baroque golden palaces and enormous cathedrals are more along the lines of extravagant Italian architecture. St. Petersburg was actually the capital of Russia between 1710 and 1918. However, when the Bolsheviks came to power Moscow became the capital once more.

Former Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin is from St. Petersburg and has been the catalyst in restoring the city to its former glory after decades of Soviet-era decline. With its freshly painted facades, there has never been a better time to visit the city.

The city sits on more than 40 islands in the Neva estuary, near the Baltic Sea. Because of its sixty-six canals and rivers, St. Petersburg is sometimes called the “Venice of the North.” The network of canals and rivers reflect a constantly changing sky and gives the city a different look and feel throughout the day. Nevsky Prospekt, inspired by the Champs-Elysées, is the central artery in the city for cars and other vehicles. However, it is touring by boat that offers the best views of the city. You will see numerous palaces and mansions along the canals and rivers highlights like the Stroganov Palace, the Summer Garden, and the mysterious Michael’s Castle, where the Russian Emperor Paul I was murdered.

One of the most famous sites in the city is the hauntingly named Church of the Spilt Blood, a colorful ornate onion-domed extravaganza. The church was commissioned by Alexander III to memorialize the tragic death of his father, Alexander II, who was killed on the site in 1881 by a terrorist’s bomb. After decades of neglect, this impressive building has been restored to some of its Orthodox glory. Another restored church is St. Issac’s Cathedral, with its massive granite edifice and gilded dome it dominates the skyline. Another church that is hard to miss along the city’s skyline is the St Peter and Paul Cathedral. Set in the heart of the Peter and Paul Fortress, this is where Peter the Great and his Romanov descendents are buried.

Also along the Neva River is the Cruiser Aurora, launched in 1903. The Aurora fought in the 1904-05 Russian-Japanese War and World War II, but is best known for her role in the Bolshevik Revolution. At 9:40 p.m. on October 25, 1917, the Aurora fired the shot that signaled the invasion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace was the tsars’ official residence and has been the setting for more than its share of tragedy. It is now one of the five buildings that house the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art museums. No visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the Hermitage. In this writer’s opinion, the Hermitage is better than touring the Louvre. No other museum in the world lets you come so close to some of the world’s greatest art masterpieces.

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Disney Cruise Line’s princess surprise in St. Petersburg, Russia

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 31 - 2009

Catherine’s Palace is located twelve miles south of Saint Petersburg in Pushkin. Named for Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine I, the estate is now a museum housing art, furniture and weapons from the 16th-19th centuries.

The building’s white, blue and gold Baroque facade stretches nearly a thousand feet, topped by the chapel’s five golden domes. Although the Palace was destroyed after WWII, its restoration continues even today. The Palace’s world-famous Amber room, stolen in its entirety and lost at the end of WWII, has recently been restored in all it’s glory.

Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Magic will be calling upon St. Petersburg, Russia in the spring/summer of 2010. This week Disney Cruise Line invited a select group of journalists to preview their shore excursions in Tunis, Tunisia; Florence, Italy; and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Here is a tour of Catherine’s Palace where Disney will have a Signature Tour offering a “Princess Ball” in the palace’s ballroom. Imagine all the little girls dressed up in their Belle, Cinderella and Snow White costumes dancing in a real palace with Disney princess characters. How cute is that?!

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Surprise flight changes separate cruising family

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 31 - 2009

Steve Simmons and his family booked the trip of a lifetime – a South American sailing from Buenos Aires onboard Celebrity Cruises Infinity. The trip was meticulously planned two years in advance and included custom air arrangements for all four family members to make sure they were on the same flights. One month prior to sailing Steve Simmons received the cruise documents and airline schedule. To his dismay, it had changed dramatically.

South American air samba
The flights to Buenos Aires had remained the same. However, the flights home had separated family members – of most concern was Simmons’ elderly mother whom he did not want traveling alone. “We paid a total of $1,039 for custom air fees to Celebrity Cruises to get exactly what we wanted. We are all extremely upset that Celebrity has changed them at the last moment,” said Simmons.

Simmons immediately contacted his travel agent to find out why the flight had been changed and to demand that Celebrity fix the situation. Unfortunately, the agent and Simmons were unable to resolve the problem despite speaking with Celebrity numerous times. Completely frustrated Simmons contacted Tripso for help.

Celebrity Cruises responds
I spoke with Michael Sheehan, associate vice president of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s parent company, about the Simmons’ issue. Sheehan told me that the company had a difficult time pinpointing what exactly happened with the family’s flight itinerary. Over a period of a week, cruise line managers mined data from the Amadeus reservation system to pinpoint the problem. Sheehan deemed it a “CSI” type of investigation.

What they uncovered was a flight schedule change on Simmons’ mother’s return flight home to Kansas City. When that flight change occurred, the reservations system automatically generated new reservations for the entire family that were different from what they originally booked.

Celebrity says there was also an issue with the Simmons’ travel agent, in that, after the company had notified the travel agency of the flight change, another travel agent from the agency confirmed the flights with the cruise line without notifying the Simmons. Steve Simmons only found out about the flight change when he received his final documents one month prior to the cruise. “Due to the passage of one month, and the fact that the flights were during the busy holiday season, very few options were available,” said Sheehan.

Sheehan noted that Celebrity isn’t responsible for the airline or schedule changes that may occur, but the company prides itself on being customer service oriented and wanted to be fair and reasonable to help resolve the situation. “As a gesture of goodwill we have waived the fees for the flight changes, custom air fees, and we have offered each family member a $100 future cruise credit.” Overall Celebrity provided the family with $1,000 in compensation. “We hope our gestures of goodwill demonstrate our desire to assist the family with this difficult situation,” said Sheehan. Steve Simmons is happy with the arrangement and told me the family appreciated Celebrity’s assistance in the matter.

Cruise air
Most cruises offer a complete package including airfare to and from a passenger’s home city. When the cruise line books the airfare they pick the airline, flight times, and number of connections. Guests wanting more control over their flight plans like the Simmons can pick their airline and flight connections — it is called a custom air arrangement. While such a package offers the convenience of not having to book your own flight or worry about how to get from the airport to the cruise ship, that convenience comes at a cost.

Cruise lines buy their airfare packages in bulk from the airlines in advance so the price quoted by the cruise line doesn’t vary throughout the year like normal airline pricing does. Sometimes the fares are lower than the open market, but for someone keeping a good eye on airfares and checking the discount sites it will generally be higher. Many travel agents advise their clients to book air travel with the cruise line since booking a la carte can be risky if one doesn’t know what they are doing.

On the plus side to booking air through the cruise line – if you do miss the ship, the cruise line has a responsibility to get you to the ship. If you book on your own, you are literally on your own.

If you book your own flight, leave a big cushion between when your flight arrives in your port city and when the cruise actually embarks so you can get to the ship. In some locales, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the port is a quick ride from the airport. But in other places, such as Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome’s port city) the airport is a good two hours away from the port.

Lastly, if you do book your flight on your own, seriously consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that will reimburse you for your costs if you have to catch up with your ship once it has left port.

Filled Under Ombudsman, What's New?

Cooking school in Tuscany offered by Disney Cruise Line in 2010

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 31 - 2009

pasta Disney Cruise Line will be returning to Europe in the spring/summer of 2010. This week Disney invited a select group of journalists to preview their shore excursions in Tunis, Tunisia; Florence, Italy; and St. Petersburg, Russia. The winery/cooking school of Torre A Cenaia will be offered to guests when the Magic docks in La Spezia, Italy.

eggyokefunThis shore excursion is more for adults and shows the other side of the cruise line, which caters to a large number of adults without children.

The best part about cooking school in Tuscany – eating what you’ve created.

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Lucca medieval parade

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 27 - 2009

Lucca is a magnificent medieval city, surrounded by completely intact Renaissance walls. The best way to take in the sites, sounds and smells of the city is to take a walk or bicycle round the top of the walls. It is also the perfect setting for a medieval reenactment.

Disney Cruise Line in conjunction with their tour operator and Lucca officials have created a shore excursion that will not be offered anywhere else — a medieval parade complete with drummers, troubadours, dancers, flag throwers, and a cross bow contest. This is a shore excursion that’s sure to please kids of all ages. Watch for yourselves:

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Meet the Duchess and paint a fresco

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On May - 27 - 2009

If you are a fan of medieval history, come to Florence. The Renaissance in Florence is one of the most intriguing cultural manifestations in Western history, in which religion, philosophy, and politics played an important part in the development of the arts. So, how do you get an 8-year-old interested in all this? Disney Cruise Line has developed a tour in conjunction with their Italian tour operator to take kids beyond just talking about history — they will actually experience it.

The cruise line is offering an exclusive “Disney Experience” at the 14th century palace — Palazzo Vecchio.
“This tour is something no other cruise line has ever done in Florence,” says Disney Cruise Line’s creative director David Duffy. The tour is actually part of a program aimed towards Italian students, but Disney was able to work with the museum to come up with an English-speaking version.

The tour will allow kids to enjoy works of art Michelangelo, wander through secret passageways, talk with actors portraying Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici or his Spanish wife Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, try on medieval clothing, and paint a fresco. Cool!

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