Bob & Nancy on September 18th, 2014

Food has always been challenging for cruise lines, which have developed an amazing ability to handle just about everything. In the early days of cruising, the challenge was to make sure the customers didn’t refer to “cruise ship food” the way patients refer to “hospital food.”

From those pre-historic culinary times, you can now dine in restaurants that are often the equal of the finest of fine dining in big cities, and that’s become pretty much industry-wide.

But there are always glitches.

Today’s world includes more food allergies than ever before, and cruise lines have to cope. It doesn’t matter what makes the customer unhappy with their food so, while the onus is always on the person who is allergic, cruise lines want happy, satisfied clients. A big one these days is gluten…or more specifically, no gluten.

A couple of decades ago, it sounded like a word lifted from a German dictionary. Today, grocery stores have sections of gluten-free food. Restaurants in growing numbers serve gluten-free food — and that means food that has not so much as touched anything containing gluten. The reaction can be devastating for the sufferer.

We’ve started to notice more and more gluten-free items on cruise-ship menus, in part because we have a granddaughter with Celiac disease. It’s the old story, isn’t it? You don’t pay attention to things like this until it touches you.

The same goes for cruise lines. Years ago, they probably would have thought gluten might be from a German dictionary, too.

Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Celebrity Reflection
7 nights
December 13, 2014
Miami (return): San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Maarten
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71
www.celebritycruises.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 17th, 2014

Kudos to Holland America for moving into the 21st century…make that the 20th century. For the first time since 1873, a Holland America ship is getting an original name.

It’s the ms Koningsdam.

The ship will arrive in 2016 and be the biggest in Holland America’s aging fleet. Of the 15 ships currently still part of the fleet, four are at least 20 years old and all but three are at least 10 years old. The last new ship will be age six by the time the Koningsdam arrives. ms KoningsdamThe comparable in people years would be about age 33…so imagine being 33 and getting a new sister!

Koningsdam?

The name means “king” in Dutch. The timing is ideal because it pays tribute to King Willem-Alexander, who last year became the first king of the Netherlands in more than 100 years. The last male Dutch male baby was Prince Alexander, who was born in 1851…and that’s today’s history lesson.

Clearly, Holland America was waiting for another king to come up with another original name for a ship. Hmm, wonder if this ship will have a “godfather” when its name becomes official?

The Koningsdam will carry 2,650 passengers. The average Holland America ship carries 1,650 and the Nieuw Amsterdam — the last new ship in 2010 — has a capacity of 2,106. By today’s standards, all are far from being classified as “mega ships.” In advance of the Koningdam’s arrival, two other Holland America ships — the Ryndam and the Statendam — will be departing (in 2015) for Australia to sail under the P&O flag.

The familiar three-letter suffix at the end of all Holland America ships remains intact. One thing nobody’s been able to say about this cruise line for a long time is that it’s adding another “dam” ship.

Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas
7 nights
November 30, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Coco Cay, St. Thomas, St. Maarten
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71
www.royalcaribbean.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 16th, 2014
Elton-1

 

A few nights ago, we were entertained by Elton John, who has been entertaining his fans for longer than most people have been alive. He wasn’t as good as he used to be…he was better. Where else can you find somebody who makes music on 88 keys and 67-year-old vocal chords for two and a half hours without stopping?

Ah yes, 88 Keys

That’s the name of one of the shows on the Carnival Freedom. It’s a group that doesn’t make either headlines or much money. Seeing and hearing them is free once you’re on the Elton-2ship (you could take a short cruise for what it costs to see Elton John), and yes, it is hard to equate dollar value when there’s no charge.

The performers in 88 Keys were good, of course, because you don’t play for hundreds of people if you aren’t good, even when the audience is captive by a vehicle with not as many options as on land. As the title implies, it’s a piano show accompanied by a lot of singing and dancing, since there are eight participants and only one piano.

What we found especially interesting was the warm-up act. Usually, there aren’t warm-up acts for shows like this on cruise ship, but this one had Seth Gibson. He, too, played the piano and sang and warming up was a plug for his own show, at a piano on another deck. He was very good, perhaps better than the talents in 88 Keys, good enough that we later headed to the piano bar.

While 88 Keys featured the music of Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles, Carole King and much more…Seth Gibson played what his listeners asked for, the way dueling pianists do when they are two. Something else made his show especially compelling. All eight members in 88 Keys showed up, just as part of the audience, and joined him for a song or two. Whether it was staged or impromptu, it was a nice touch.

During his show, Gibson played and sang songs from many artists who are infinitely more famous. And in setting up one piece, this is what he said:

“There are many great piano players…but Elton John is the best piano player in the world.”

Gibson should have been where we were on Saturday night. He’d have been able to say something else…

“I told you so.”

Today at portsandbows.com: Cruise news and views

Carnival Victory
5 nights
December 8, 2014
Miami (return): Freeport, Little Stirrup Cay, Nassau
Inside: $199
Cost per day: $39
www.carnival.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 15th, 2014

In a travel conversation this weekend with two family members who recently visited the Eastern Caribbean, the question was asked:

“What was the most memorable thing about St. Maarten?”

The answer was unanimous.

The planes.

On the outskirts of Philipsburg is Princess Juliana International Airport. At one end of the runway is a beach called Maho Bay. That’s literally at the end of the runway. People go Philipsburgthere to watch planes land.

For us, it was last year, so we passed the recommendation on to our son and daughter-in-law. We’d arrived on the Explorer of the Seas. They’d arrived by plane, which meant flying over the heads of people they would soon join.

Hundreds of cruise passengers regularly gather on the beach (or in the bar on the beach) to wait for the next plane to arrive. Nobody bothers to check a flight schedule. It’s the Caribbean way.

Sure enough, here comes a jet and…whoosh…just like that, it has flown over your head faster than the shutter speed of your camera, which inevitably misses the mark. No problem. Wait for the next jet. Whoosh again…empty air again.

This is billed as “the closest you’ll ever come to a plane in flight without being on the plane” and it is hard to imagine being any closer. Big and small, the planes look like they’re going to land on the beach or, worse yet, on you. The jets are especially low because they have to be…touch down is  right there on the other side of the road.

Maho Bay is about a half hour from Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch half of the island known as St. Maarten in the south and Saint-Martin in the north, where it is governed by the French. The half-hour bus ride costs $2. Lunch in the beach bar is about ten times that, just for the food.

Whatever the costs, it’s worthwhile. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be writing — and you wouldn’t be reading — about the subject of a weekend family discussion.

Today at portsandbows.com: Oceania ramps up for 2015-16

Norwegian Breakaway
7 nights
September 28, 2014
New York (return): King’s Wharf
Inside: $479
Cost per day: $68
www.ncl.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 12th, 2014
Crystal ship

 

You have a routine. The alarm rings at the same time, day after day. Your trip to the shower is short enough you could use a hand towel to dry off. Breakfast has to be eaten quickly. There’s a bus to catch or traffic to face or a clock to punch, literally or otherwise.

Deadlines. That’s what life us until…

Vacation.

Then you set your schedule, at last, be it for a week or two or longer. You decide what time you do virtually everything.

Cruises are vacations, aren’t they?

So what’s with these shore excursions that leave at the crack of eight o’clock so that you can spend all day touring around and get back, sometimes exhausted, before the ship leaves without you? What ever happened to sleeping in on vacation?

Crystal Cruises has the answer, or at least an answer.

Shore excursions called Crystal Adventures will have a special, effective a week from today. It’s called Late-Risers Adventures. Shore excursions that require you to be ready by sometime between 11 a.m. and noon. Crystal still gives passengers enough time on shore to see Anne Frank House and Van Gogh’s Museum in Amsterdam…to see a cathedral and a palace in Oporto, Portugal…to visit the Navy Yard, Boston Common, the Freedom Trail and the pre-revolutionary Old State House in Boston.

It’s a test, of course, because such innovations always are. That means it’s on “select sailings” — starting with Boston to Quebec on the Serenity next week — and much of the evaluation will come from the passengers who try it out. They’ll be asked for their unvarnished opinions, good or bad.

Just don’t call before 11.

Today at portsandbows.com: Uniworld’s unique itinerary

Holland America Eurodam
7 nights
October 26, 2014
Fort Lauderdale (return): Half Moon Cay, Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Key West
Inside: $409
Cost per day: $58
www.hollandamerica.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 11th, 2014

CellermastersIn case you were wondering…

* * *

Celebrity has, arguably, the premier wine reputation among cruise lines. We won’t argue the point. Our best and most complete wine experiences have been on Celebrity ships, starting with a knowledgeable sommelier from (of all places) Mumbai. Knowledgable sommelier…aren’t they all?

Anyway, the Wine Spectator has enhanced the reputation by awarding 10 Awards of Excellence — of a possible 12 — to Celebrity for its wine lists. It’s an instant replay.

Last year, Celebrity also won 10.

* * *

Cruise lines are being encouraged to equip their ships to use shore-based electricity in port and burn less diesel fuel. However, the left hand doesn’t always know what the right is doing with regards to the ports.

When the Carnival Miracle stopped in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, it was unable to hook up to shore power even though the ship is equipped for it.

The reason?

The ship’s hook-up is on the starboard side. The Port of Vancouver assigned the Miracle a port side connection. Consequently, the ship was forced to burn diesel during its stay in one of the world’s most ecologically sensitive cities.

* * *

When Quantum of the Seas leaves on its two-night, pre-inaugural cruise after arriving in North America in November, it will be making special wishes.

The Make-A-Wish chapters from New Jersey and New York are selling passage on the new ship to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, long an active charity on Royal Caribbean ships. Quantum leaves Bayonne, New Jersey at 4 p.m. on November 14 and returns at 7 a.m. on November 16, so you’re on the ship for about 39 hours.

Passage is for balcony cabins, at $1,495 for obstructed and $1,995 for unobstructed.

In other words, it’s pretty much a donation in return for being first to sail on Quantum of the Seas in North America.

Today at portsandbows.com: Opera on the rivers

Celebrity Century
8 nights
November 11, 2014
Sydney (return): Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Lincoln
Oceanview: $835
Cost per day: $104
www.celebritycruises.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 10th, 2014

Travelers who subscribe to Travel Weekly — billed as “The Travel Industry’s Trusted Voice” — may have noticed that cruise lines are experiencing an unexpected drop in fuel prices despite that turmoil in many oil-producing countries. As a result, cruise lines are enjoying better bottom lines.

For example, Norwegian is paying less for fuel this year than last even though it has added the Getaway to its fleet. Carnival’s comparative fuel expense is down $28 million from last year. Royal Caribbean has experienced a more modest saving, according to Travel Weekly.

So…

The tendency is to think that cruise lines should drop the price of cruising that reflects the drop in cost of fuel, because when the price of oil rises sharply they implement a surcharge.

Not true.

Cruise lines have a fuel surcharge that they can add to the cost of your cruise ticket. That doesn’t mean it’s a given that it will happen.

We’ve been cruising regularly for the last five years. During that time, here is what the per-gallon cost cruise lines pay has done:

May 2010 — $1.67
May 2011 — $2.39
May 2012 — $2.52
May 2013 — $2.24
May 2014 — $2.26

In other words, with the exception of 2013, it has gone up every year. Not once during that time have we experienced the dreaded “fuel surcharge.”

Today at portsandbows.com: Internet deals from Oceania

Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas
7 nights
November 8, 2014
Venice (return): Dubrovnik, Ephesus, Santorini, Olympia
Inside: $628
Cost per day: $89
www.royalcaribbean.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 9th, 2014

Choosing where to eat out is not always easy for us.

One of us likes — no, loves — Mexican food. She would have it every day. Every meal. It must have started the day, many moons ago, that her husband said she was his “little chiquita.” She’s even bilingual, sort of, because her Spanish vocabulary includes all the Freedom-Iguanaimportant words…enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, carne, huevos, salsa, tequila…you get the idea.

Her better half is, well, kind of meat-and-potatoes. Or hamburgers and French fries. Calories aren’t among the things he counts in life as critical. His major concession is “Diet” Coke. It’s not that he doesn’t like Mexican, but how many times a week (or day) can you enjoy rice and beans?

The Carnival Freedom made it easy…as simple as pushing “9″ on the elevator for the Lido Deck.

On the right, you have Blue Iguana. She was in her element. Freshly made tortillas for lunch (or breakfast) waiting to be stuffed with Mexican sausages, heuvos or chiles. Top it off with a choice of 10 sales ranging from wimpy-mild to screaming hot. Burritos or tacos with a huge assortment of fillings of meat, cheese, guacamole, veggies and sauces. Seldom a line-up. Always fresh. Always hot.

On the left, mere steps away, you have Guy’s Burger Joint. Her husband never watches the Food Network but he knows Guy Fieri is the cook with bleach-blond electric hair and a Freedom-Fierishape that is, if not admirable at least acceptable. Not everybody needs a six-pack, right? His customers build their own burgers and, like Blue Iguana…always fresh, always hot. You don’t have to eat junk food to only live once, but since you only live once, junk food is okay…and, anyway, who’s going to tell Fieri to his face that his food is junk?

So, with our plates of personal preferences and with no cuisine compromising, we sat together and enjoyed what, for each, was the perfect meal. Can it get any better!

Today at portsandbows.com: Cruise news and views you can use

Caribbean Princess
7 nights
October 4, 2014
Fort Lauderdale (return): Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Princess Cays, Roatan
Inside: $399
Cost per day: $57
www.princess.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 8th, 2014

There was a time when, if the world lost some coral reefs to human carelessness, it was greeted with a reaction akin to a shrug of the shoulders and dismissed with “too bad.”

As we have become more environmentally aware, and responsible, that has changed. So when a cruise ship (Carnival Magic) accidentally destroys a field of coral estimated to be almost 12,000 square feet in size, it’s a big deal.

This happened in late August. The Magic dropped anchor near Grand Cayman, where every cruise passenger is taken ashore in small boats (tenders) to protect what is a playground for deep-sea divers, not to mention the life forms that live among the coral. The problem occurred when the Magic’s anchor hit bottom inside a restricted area, guided there by a local pilot in one of the pilot boats that escort cruise ships to and from ports.

Near George Town, Grand Cayman, there are four areas where it’s safe to anchor…where the coral has already been destroyed. The Port Authority directed the pilot to the southernmost area. The pilot directed the captain of the Magic. Because of high winds, the pilot missed the designated area by about 600 feet.

So did the Magic.

The ensuing damage from the anchor’s crashing into coral, then being dragged through it Coraluntil the ship stopped, then being dragged from it when the Magic left is enough that it will take five or six decades to restore coral that disappeared in three hours.

Under Marine Conservation Law, it is illegal to damage coral with an anchor.

So it was an accident, the damage is done and the blame game hasn’t peaked yet.

Officials at the Port Authority say it’s not their fault…the pilot was directed to the safe area. Carnival, which hires the pilots through an agency, can likely maintain at least some degree of innocence because it was the pilot who directed the Magic’s captain. However, the cruise line is only saying it’s “in discussions with the shipping agent.”

This isn’t like an environmental disaster, like oil spill that requires millions of dollars to clean up. This is damage done. No fine is going to restore the coral and the biggest concern of environmentalists is to make sure it can never happen again.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): “While it is difficult to put a dollar value on some of the benefits coral ecosystems provide, one recent estimate gave the total net benefit of the world’s coral reef ecosystems to be $29.8 billion/year.”

Benefits include food, protection from storms, and habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for species of the sea…not to mention the income and jobs that come with all of that.

One thing you can be certain of — this story is not over.

Today at portsandbows.com: Another ship going Far East

Carnival Freedom
6 nights
November 9, 2014
Fort Lauderdale (return): Falmouth, Grand Cayman, Cozumel
Inside: $229
Cost per day: $39
www.carnival.com

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Bob & Nancy on September 5th, 2014
Norwegian Star

 

September is typically a good time of year to explore re-positioning cruises…either last-minute cruises this fall or the reverse trips that depart next spring.

Doesn’t everybody like the price-point that comes with ships that have to get from one part of the world to another? We do. Better bang for your buck…always.

However, there’s a few things you need to know — if you don’t already — about re-positioning cruises;

One, remember to factor into your budget the cost of traveling to or from the ship. These are not return cruises.

Two, you need time for a re-positioning cruise. They are longer than most cruises and there’s additional travel time required to get there, or back.

Three, most have an abundance of sea days. While we’ve never been bored, it’s always a possibility. If you’re worried about running out of things to do, or books to read, consider going on a larger ship that has more amenities.

From three cruise lines, here are three re-positioning cruises on which you might get the double benefit of being “last-minute” because they all leave this fall, and they’re in different parts of the globe:

Norwegian

Copenhagen to Miami, 14 days on the Norwegian Star, on October 6 and starting at $419 — that’s an incredible $29 per night.

Holland America

Vancouver to Sydney, 24 nights on the Veendam, on September 24 and starting at $1,499 — that’s $62 a night.

Royal Caribbean

Boston to Tampa (extended trip through the Caribbean), 13 nights on Brilliance of the Seas, on October 26 and starting at $1,237 — $95 a night.

Today at portsandbows.com: Holland America’s new ship

Holland America Prinsendam
16 nights
October 5, 2014
Athens (return): Volos, Thessaloniki, Kavala, The Dardanelles, Istanbul, Batuma, Trabzon, Sinop, Constanta, Bourgas, The Dardanelles, Cesme, Ephesus
Oceanview: $1,599
Cost per day: $99
www.hollandamerica.com

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