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Archive for July, 2009

Royal Caribbean Cruises CEO Richard Fain says every ship must have a good system for mustering guests in times of emergency, but the current ubiquitous lifeboat drill isn’t rocket science and is made harder than it has to be. The problem is lifejackets, they are a “pain in the ass” noted Fain in his Chairman’s Blog.

So when the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas launches in December, Royal Caribbean will be tweaking the lifeboat drill. Instead passengers will no longer have to return to their cabin during the muster drill to retrieve their lifejacket. Instead lifejackets will be stowed at Oasis’ muster stations.

“This takes up more space at the mustering stations (lifejackets are very bulky), but we have the space,” Fain said. “It also frees up a smidgen more space in every stateroom.”

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Celebrity Equinox is christened

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 29 - 2009

With a toot of the bagpipes, blessings from heaven, hugs, and a smash of champagne from a custom-made bottle by The Corning Museum of Glass the Celebrity Equinox was christened in Southampton, England. The very traditional ceremony was headlined by Godmother Nina Barough, founder of the United Kingdom-based breast cancer charity “Walk the Walk”.

The 2,850-guest Equinox is sister-ship to the line’s highly-acclaimed Celebrity Solstice. The new ship features 1,426 staterooms, 85 percent of which include a veranda.

Celebrity also continues its tradition of showcasing some of the finest examples of contemporary art aboard its newest ship that is entitled “The Essence of Equinox”. This high caliber collection consists of nearly 500 original works that are rarely seen outside major museums, art galleries and private collections. Equinox also features a selection of works from the lauded collection that graced Celebrity Galaxy prior to the ship’s transition to the TUI Cruises fleet earlier this year.

Here are some photos of the ceremony and around the ship.

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Off to the Celebrity Equinox christening

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

Celebrity Equinox sails from GermanyIn a few hours I’ll be boarding a United Airlines flight across the pond to check out Celebrity Cruises newest addition – the fabulous Celebrity Equinox. The ship will be christened Wednesday, July 29 in Southampton, England. ExpertCruiser will be among the many press covering the event.

I made no secret last year that Equinox’s sister-ship Celebrity Solstice was the prettiest ship I’ve ever been on. I am optimistic that Equinox will be equal to her big sister.

Guests sailing on Celebrity Equinox enjoy a resort-like experience with amenities and services similar to those found on Celebrity Solstice. Among the most intriguing is the industry’s first Lawn Club, a half-acre country-club atmosphere featuring real grass; there are also 10 dining venues including several created by noted hospitality designer Adam Tihany with menus pairing classic and contemporary selections created by noted chef, restaurateur and Celebrity’s Vice President of Culinary Operations Jacques Van Staden.

Stay tuned to live blogs from the ship.

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Great adult-only onboard escapes

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 24 - 2009

Spa CoupleJanice Harding calls the blasting “boom boom music” from the Disney Magic’s Goofy Pool and Mickey Pool too much to take. “My kids love it, but I can only take so much before I feel a headache coming on,” says the Los Angeles native.

She is referring to the loud music, usually accompanied by overexcited children and adults that has become the hallmark of the majority of large cruise liner main pool decks. Although Harding loves her kids she tends to bolt from the loudness; after all she wants to truly relax on her cruise so she escapes to the adults-only area on the Disney Magic.

Adult-only areas are clearly needed on ships that are full of children. When Disney Cruise Line launched in 1998 it recognized the need for adult-only areas when it designed its ships. Both Disney vessels offer several spaces dedicated for adult activities, which includes a pool area, coffee bar and nightclub. “A lot of parents onboard appreciate the adults-only area. It’s our quiet space with no loud music or cell phones ringing. It’s a godsend as we can relax and get into vacation mode,” adds Harding.

No kids allowed

Harding is not alone, and a number of cruise lines are increasingly catering to passengers seeking tranquility with the introduction of quiet, adults-only areas on their ships. Long ago Royal Caribbean International recognized the need for these places when it introduced the adults-only Solarium areas on its Vision-class ships. These peaceful spaces lie under cover of a sliding roof and feature a large pool surrounded by chaise lounges and a hot tub or two, with exotic design motifs including bronze statues, stone reliefs, tile mosaics and tropical foliage. On the Freedom-class vessels there are two large hot tubs cantilevered out 12 feet from the sides of the ship. Suspended 112 feet above the ocean, the hot tubs offer breathtaking, panoramic views. Guests willing to immerse themselves in the experience find music piped in underwater, a photo collage behind glass depicting a coral reef, and a glass wall that allows them to look into the atrium adjacent to the pool while submerged.

In 2006, Princess Cruises unveiled the Sanctuary on the Crown Princess. This adults-only, quiet retreat is located in uppermost forward deck of the ship and is covered by white awnings and populated with trees, abundant plush loungers and massage cabanas. But, this area is not free as Princess charges $15 for four-and-a-half-hour stays. The charge includes chilled face towels and Evian water atomizers dispensed by stewards while guests relax. For an additional charge, guests can order from a menu of healthy food options such as fruit skewers and lettuce-wrapped spring rolls, use an MP3 player loaded with what Princess calls “relaxation music” or get an alfresco massage in one of the private cabanas. The Sanctuary also can also be found onboard the Caribbean Princess, Dawn Princess, Emerald Princess, Golden Princess, Grand Princess, Island Princess, Ruby Princess, Sea Princess, Star Princess. “The Sanctuary has come to personify Princess’ essential philosophy of escape coupled with personal service,” said Jan Swartz, Princess executive vice president. “Passengers have told us they love this opportunity to completely relax in such a peaceful and pampering environment, so we’re delighted to introduce this special Princess feature on all our vessels.”

Carnival Cruise Lines took notice of the success of Princess’ program and launched its own Serenity adults-only area on its newest ships and re-vamped older Fantasy-class vessels. Unlike Princess, Carnival does not charge for use of the area. Located in a secluded aft area of the ship the area features a bar, plush chaise lounges and chairs, oversize umbrellas, and two whirlpools. “Our Serenity areas have been an unqualified success since they were first introduced aboard the Carnival Inspiration in 2007. Although the Serenity retreats were originally intended as part of the renovations for our eight Fantasy class ships, they’ve proven so popular that we’ve added them to our newer ships,” said Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen.

Bigger adult space on the horizon

It’s no surprise the biggest ships launching in the coming months will have the largest adult-only areas at sea.

When the 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas launches in November it will not only be the largest cruise ship, by far, in the world it will offer the most unique adults-only playground afloat. Adults looking for a retreat will find solace in the Oasis’ Solarium. Boasting a redefined layout, passengers will have the sensation of floating on air from the two-deck high, glass-paneled enclave designed with seating on various “islands” surrounded by water. The adults-only, open-air Solarium will offer a swimming pool, two whirlpools, and four cantilevered whirlpools suspended 136 feet above the ocean. The mezzanine level of the adult-dedicated area will overlook the pool deck below, offering additional chaise lounges and seating.

Launching in September, the 133,000-ton, 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream will be the largest “Fun Ship” in the fleet and will offer an amazing 11,250-square-foot Serenity area that will encompass two levels – a first for the line. The area will accommodate up to 200 guests who can select from seven different styles of seating, from plush chaise lounges and chairs to shaded sun loungers and even hammocks. Carnival Dream’s Serenity area will also feature a full bar on the lower level in a shaded area, while the upper level will offer two whirlpools providing magnificent sea views.

In late May of 2010, Norwegian Cruise Line will launch its biggest “Freestyle Cruising” vessel the 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic. Adults onboard are sure to like the party atmosphere at the POSH Beach Club, a first of its kind beach club at sea that offers an exclusive, adults-only setting at the top of the ship.

Its clear guests really appreciate adults-only retreats, which offer a tranquil and peaceful environment for relaxing with a book or just enjoying the magnificent sea view. You can bet more lines will initiate and only increase the concept as it’s a great way to enhance a cruise vacation.

Bad Fortuna: Family turned away at the pier

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 17 - 2009

It was to be the family trip of a lifetime for the Succes family of Chicago – a seven-day cruise around the Caribbean on the Costa Fortuna. The voyage was the family’s first and was made even more special since they were celebrating Christmas together with their ailing grandmother. But a missed flight and misinformation from the cruise line turned the dream vacation into a bad Chevy Chase vacation movie.

Travel hell
Corteza Succes took it upon herself to book the family vacation. Since the trip was over the busy Christmas holiday along with the unpredictable Chicago weather, she felt it was best for the family to drive two hours to Indianapolis and fly to Florida. The family’s Southwest flight from Indianapolis to Tampa was on time. However, the connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed due to weather and would not arrive until 7 p.m. That would be too late as the Fortuna was to set sail at the same time.

Corteza Succes immediately contacted Costa Cruises to find out what to do. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in contacting Costa’s customer service representatives. She even tried to contact the port –again to no avail. After arriving in Ft. Lauderdale the family took a taxi to the pier and was informed by a guard that the ship had left. He suggested they try to board at the ship’s next port, Key West.

The family then rented a car and drove to Key West where instead of getting a hotel they slept overnight in the rental car. A sympathetic port guard contacted the Fortuna’s purser to let them know the Succes family had arrived. The guard then informed the family about the Jones Act law and told them they could be required to pay a penalty if they were allowed to board the ship. The guard stated only the captain was empowered to make an exception, but he noted that other ship’s captains have done so in the past. The Succes family was prepared to pay a penalty if required, but they were skeptical – was there such a thing as the Jones Act?

Keeping up with the Jones Act
Actually, there are two laws that affect cruise passengers — the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (commonly known as the Jones Act) and another law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA). In 1886, the U.S. government enacted the PVSA law that prohibits a foreign or non US-built vessel from picking up passengers in one US port and disembarking them in another US port. However, the PVSA does allow ships to pick up and return passengers to the same US port providing they call at a foreign port in the course of the voyage. It may also pick up passengers at a US port and disembark them at another US port providing it calls at a port deemed to be distant by the government. The Jones Act law was designed to protect and regulate the American shipbuilding industry as it has cabotage provisions that restrict the carriage of goods or passengers between Unites States ports to U.S. built and flagged vessels.

In today’s world this law is very outdated — and sadly, still in effect. Anytime the PVSA or Jones Act is violated the ship operator is subject to a fine. In the case of cruise lines past fines have been approximately $300 per passenger, but to pay the fine and board has always been at the captain’s discretion.

Captain’s call
Later in the morning the Fortuna’s purser arrived at the port office to talk with the Succes family. The purser stated he was very sorry, but the captain was refusing to allow the family to board. “He informed us that he didn’t think there would be a problem and in an effort to be proactive he drafted the declaration for the family to sign agreeing to pay the $300 per person penalty. He told us the captain refused,” says Corteza Succes. The family begged to speak to the captain, but was told that was not possible. “I was in tears because our scheduled vacation for my mom was ruined.” The purser apologized and told the family that the captain had consulted with Costa’s Miami office when making his decision. There was nothing more he could do. The only other option was for the family to fly to the Fortuna’s next port of call two days later – the Cayman Islands.

For hours, Succes talked with various personnel at Costa trying to get on Fortuna in Key West or at least receive a refund for the cost of the cruise ($2,144) – she got nowhere. Seeing her mother’s disappointment at missing their first cruise she contacted Carnival Cruise Lines to inquire about a sailing that day. The family ended up booking a 4-day cruise on the Carnival Imagination – total cost $2,326.

The following day when checking her cell phone voicemail Succes had received a call from a Costa manager inquiring if the family was able to catch a plane to the Cayman Islands. She returned the call and informed the manager that after their experience in Key West they were worried that they would be turned away again by the captain and didn’t want to incur the expense to make the attempt. The manager then offered the family another cruise that was scheduled to sail on Sunday, December 28. Succes told the manager that they were unable to do it at that time because she was scheduled to return to work and the grandmother had scheduled medical treatments. Succes asked if the family could sail at another date, but the manager stated this was a “one time offer.”

The family was devastated at losing their hard-earned money.

Costa speaks
The Costa captain’s call is confusing, especially in light of the Purser’s stating he had drawn up a declaration for the family to sign. It is in Costa Cruises Passenger Services Contract (section 17) which states that passengers are responsible for paying any fines assessed when they violate laws or governmental regulations of any kind. Why wasn’t the family allowed to pay the fine ($300 each) and board the Fortuna?

I contacted Dana Dominici, director of public relations for Costa Cruise Lines North America to see if there was anything that could be done for the Succes family. Dominici felt bad for the family. However, she said the company refused to violate the Jones Act. “Exceptions to this law may only be allowed with permission from Federal officials and in general, are only permitted with extreme medical emergencies,” said Dominici.

She added, “As we are built and flagged as an Italian vessel, we would be in direct violation of federal law, for the embarkation or debarkation of guests in a U.S. port prior to visiting foreign ports and subject to fines. We apologize on behalf of the port staff that relayed incorrect information.”

Travel common sense
The Succes’ story is a sad one. But much of the misery could have been prevented if they had consulted with a travel agent. Simply put, a travel professional would have talked them out of their crazy flight planning. Driving to Indianapolis doesn’t make a lot of sense since there are far more non-stop flight options to Fort Lauderdale from both of Chicago’s airports – O’Hare and Midway.

Additionally, a travel professional would have told the family that if they were indeed worried about bad weather the best option would have been to travel the night before the cruise. That way if there were problems there would be more options and most importantly more time to get to the ship. An agent also would have highly recommended travel insurance protection for the family to cover unexpected delays or a missed cruise. Most importantly, an agent would have been the Succes’ biggest advocate in dealing with the cruise line and would have provided proper information and viable options for the family.

Sadly, the Succes’ family vacation serves as a cautionary tale as booking a cruise directly with the cruise line is always a tricky business. In fact, 90 percent of cruises are booked through travel agents, and there is good reason to do so. Agents do all the legwork with the cruise lines including dealing with problems like a missed embarkation. While booking your own cruise can sometimes save you money, you can also lose money – as the Succes family did in a big way.

My advice: Unless you are an experienced cruise traveler, it is best to book your cruise through a travel agent.

Sick passengers get the heave-ho on German cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 10 - 2009

When most people take a cruise they focus on the fun, the sun and the food. But here’s another thing to think about: sanitation. Poor sanitation can ruin your cruise. Just ask the 400-plus passengers and crew who were stricken by a suspected norovirus outbreak on a German cruise liner this week.

Transocean Tours’ ship the Marco Polo ended up terminating its scheduled 10-day voyage after only one sailing day in Ivergordon, Scotland. What’s the root cause for such an outbreak? It boils down to passenger health and the overall cleanliness of the ship.

Ship vigilance

The risk of contracting a contagious disease like norovirus illness is particularly high on a cruise ship because passengers mingle in a relatively confined space. For this reason, all cruise ships that dock in the United States and travel to foreign ports undergo regular inspections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP). Unfortunately for the Marco Polo’s passengers there is no European Union cruise ship inspection program like the CDC’s.

Cruise lines realize the best defense against viral and bacterial illnesses is constant vigilance, strict sanitation control and regular disinfection. And, they do a very good job at it. However, to keep them on their toes, the CDC conducts unannounced inspections of each ship twice a year. This cooperative effort is the chief reason there aren’t bigger outbreaks of illnesses at sea.

The CDC’s inspections are rigorous. Each inspection takes six to eight hours, depending on the size of the ship and the number of inspectors. The inspectors use a checklist to help evaluate such things as the ship’s water supply, food storage practices and food-preparation areas. Every ship starts with 100 points, then loses points for each infraction.

It doesn’t take much to lose points — anything from cracked tiles to refrigerators that aren’t quite cold enough. Inspection scores from the mid-80s to mid-90s are the most common. Ships scoring 86 points or higher are considered satisfactory; those scoring 85 and below are reinspected within 30 days.

All this inspecting is both reassuring and alarming, and wise travelers take their own precautions against picking up nasty germs at sea.

Sing to sanitation

Getting violently sick with an intestinal virus is a misery whether you’re on land or at sea. Seasoned travelers know all too well the importance of watching what they eat and washing their hands: It keeps the bugs at bay. Still, some of our fellow travelers aren’t so vigilant about hand washing, and they put us all at risk.

Poor hygiene spreads one of travelers’ worst enemies: noroviruses, also known as Norwalk virus and NLV, a group of viruses that can cause severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting over a 48- to 60-hour period. The CDC estimates that 23 million people, or 8 percent of the U.S. population, develop symptoms of norovirus each year. Less than 1 percent of cruise passengers are affected by norovirus, but you don’t want to be one of them, do you?

So, remember what your mother told you: Wash your hands. For best results, says the CDC, moisten your hands with warm water before applying soap, then rub your hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds — for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that loosens and removes the germs from your hands. The CDC also says that hand sanitizing gels are not a substitute for hand washing, but they are helpful until you can wash your hands.

That’s all there is to it — 20 seconds of insurance that can literally save your health and your cruise.

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