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April 15, 2016 Update – Group Cruise News

Welcome!  I’ve just concluded a two-week, trans-Atlantic voyage aboard Holland America Line’s outstanding new Koningsdam, which entered service last year.  This was the eighth cruise I’ve made during the past twelve months…four others were excellent (Paul Gauguin, Eurodam, Pride of America and Celebrity Constellation); another offered consistently good food, service, entertainment and activities that were compromised by a poorly designed vessel; one was significantly below par in many aspects; and finally, one sorry sailing gave new dimension to the concept of awful (never fear, as this fledgling operation will very soon be no more); but overall my expectation is that groups will find the Koningsdam experience very hard to beat, even though it is a large ship of almost 100,000 tons.  Considerably more contemporary than the handsome, very comfortable but more traditional ships which comprise the remainder of the HAL fleet…gone are the fine Dutch antiques and paintings, replaced by tasteful modern art…Koningsdam features a number of new onboard entertainment and dining venues that will surely appeal to a wide variety of interests.  The food and service were some of the best that I’ve experienced at sea, plus Hotel Director Charles Verwaal was justly proud that the vessel has received perfect scores of 100 on both of its first two U.S. Public Health Inspections.  Look for my more detailed piece on Koningsdam in the pages of The Group Travel Leader later this year.


In other good news, although I’ve been unable so far to get myself aboard one of Viking Ocean Cruises’ upscale and extremely attractive new mid-sized ships, I did recommend a most tempting Viking Sea European offering to my close friends from Las Vegas, Hal and Betsy Weller, who were looking to celebrate a major anniversary with something special.  Happily, the Wellers were most gracious in providing me with a ‘mini-review’ of their trip earlier this year, which I am pleased to share with Group Cruise News readers.

Hal noted that “We couldn’t have asked for a better experience than offered on the Viking Sea‘s Mediterranean Cruise.  The accommodations (even though a bit small) were quite adequate and comfortable.  Our cabin was on the top (8th) deck and just steps away from the luxurious and rarely-used Explorers Lounge.  When docked in Monte Carlo we chose to spend the day there reading and lounging rather than debarking to see the casino (which we have plenty of at home).  The food service was extraordinary, and the restaurants that required reservations were truly first class.  The ship which held just 900 passengers was not the “floating Las Vegas” as we had experienced on our cruise to Alaska, but very “non-commercial” with only one very low-key, high-quality jewelry shop that was very unobtrusive.   The crew were very friendly and helpful.  No tipping was permitted.  Instead, at the end of the cruise, all passengers were billed a fixed amount to be distributed equally to the ship’s housekeeping and service personnel.  The land tours were quite interesting with very knowledgeable guides in the lead.  Perhaps most of all…we enjoyed the new friends we made.  Starting with our two pre-cruise days in Madrid, we became acquainted with several couples with whom we continued to gather during shore excursions and dinners & activities aboard.  A final day gathering of all was held in the Explorers Lounge to toast the wonderful times we had shared.  We would, without any reservation, highly recommend the Viking Sea to those wanting a luxurious and relaxing vacation at quite affordable cost.”

Betsy added that “I realize it is a new ship, but everything, everywhere was just spotless!  Also, we could enjoy this experience because the time frame was off season.  No waiting in lines for attractions on shore excursions and the price was right.  I am glad we went since Hal had a nasty respiratory issue at the conclusion and I don’t think we could do a long flight again.”  Reflecting on that opinion myself, one of the reasons that I particularly enjoy trans-oceanic sailings, like that of Koningsdam covered above, is that I only need to fly across the pond in one direction.  Hopefully recent, widely-publicized incidents involving United Airlines will lead to better customer service and treatment of passengers throughout the air travel industry.



American Queen Steamboat Company has announced that repairs and improvements made to American Queen during her recent winter lay-up have included sand-sweeping and painting of the hull; conversion of eight cabins to four new Luxury Suites; addition of Bolidt teak decking on deck three from mid-ship to the Front Porch, and new tiles for all public restrooms and approximately 25 guest bathrooms; rebuilding of the River Grill & Bar; and the completion of mahogany handrails on deck three.  In other news, the line has entered into a strategic alliance agreement with Shore Excursions of America to facilitate and expand its Product Development capabilities both onboard and shore side, the partnership serving “as an administrative and creative incubator to expand offerings exploring new business plans.”  Currently, SEA operates all shore excursions, hospitality and city stay products for the line, and has been awarded the title of “Best Shore Excursions” by Ocean and Cruise News for the past five years.  I’m particularly pleased that my good friends from Pennsylvania, Bob Buesing and Jim Palmeri, have done such a great job in establishing and building their topnotch SEA operation.


Avalon Waterways’ new Director of Culinary is Joerg Penneke, bringing his 30 years of expertise to help the line innovate its dining experience.  In addition to setting up kitchens and menus on seven new river ships in Asia for Haimark, Penneke was the Corporate Chef for Uniworld, the Executive Chef for Silversea’s’ Silver Cloud and the Chef Entremetier for Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony.  In other news, Avalon is expanding its “Active Discovery on the Danube” cruises to include two new “Active Discovery on the Rhine itineraries.  On these unique vacations, travelers have the opportunity to bike, hike, run and explore their way through Europe during cruises focused on “engaging in the unfamiliar.”


Celebrity Cruises and Bravo Media have announced a new element of their multi-year partnership with the launch of an original video series, entitled Isaac Takes On.  The series follows “Top Chef” personality Isaac Toups as he travels the Caribbean on a Celebrity vacation, competing in a wide variety of culinary challenges.  Celebrity Reflection and its onboard team, plus the brand’s own Michelin-starred chef, Cornelius Gallagher, make appearances throughout as Isaac tackles everything from whipping up a world-class omelet, creating specialty cocktails, to concocting traditional Puerto Rican ‘Mofongo.’  In other news, the line is taking the story of its “Celebrity Edge” program on a cross-country journey, as its “Leading Edge Mobile Cinema” is making 48 stops over 12 weeks, having begun March 29 and continuing through June 20, traveling more than 10,000 miles while sharing the story of its newest class of ships with more than 20,000 people.  Attendees are being welcomed on a red carpet as they enter Celebrity’s custom-built, 91-seat high-definition mobile cinema for a 15-minute 3-D cinematic experience, plus beverages and gourmet truffle popcorn, and have the opportunity to win one of more than 50 Celebrity vacations.


CroisiEurope is continuing to build, modernize and update its ships in Europe.  On the Douro River, the new Miguel Torga is an innovative, premium class, three-deck ship with a pool, contemporary interior design, and 66 cabins to accommodate 132 guests.  The vessel is joining the company’s four other ships on the Douro this month, offering eight-day cruises leaving from Porto and stopping in Regua, Vega de Terron, Ferradosa and Pinhão.  A sister ship is already being planned for 2019 to increase CroisiEurope’s Douro river fleet.  On the Seine River, Seine Princess was renovated earlier this year, bringing her up to the modern cruising standards as seen on the company’s new ships.  She can accommodate 138 passengers in 67 cabins.  Next year, Renoir will similarly undergo major renovations to become a premium class ship, and feature 55 cabins, with French balconies on the upper deck.  In April, 2018, the new Renoir will be re-introduced to the Seine.  On the Rhône River, the Van Gogh will be completely renovated after this cruising season as a premium class ship with a modern design. This revamped vessel will feature 55 cabins with French balconies on the upper deck, and be ready for cruising beginning in April, 2018.  On the Rhine River, the newly renovated, premium Douce France II can accommodate 135 passengers in 68 cabins, and will be re-introduced to the fleet this June.  On the Danube River, Symphonie II is a newly renovated premium ship with a modern design and state-of-the-art technology that can accommodate 106 passengers in 54 cabins. The ship is re-joining the fleet this month.  On the Elbe River, the new Elbe Princesse II will offer contemporary design much like Elbe Princesse I:  open spaces, large picture windows and modern colors.  90 passengers can vacation in 45 cabins, with French balconies on the upper deck.  The vessel will cruise between Berlin and the heart of Prague beginning during the 2018 cruise season.  And finally, on the Adriatic and Mediterranean Sea, La Belle de l’Adriatique, which can accommodate 198 passengers in 99 cabins, was renovated earlier this year.


Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Mozart, following a sold-out inaugural season in 2016, began her second year on the Danube River on April 2.  The first and largest ship in the Crystal River Cruises fleet sailed from Vienna on a 10-day journey through Austria, Germany, the Wachau Valley, Hungary and Slovakia.


Emerald Waterways is now offering the “River Cruise Travel Guarantee” that was first launched last year by its sister company, Scenic Luxury Cruises, to all travelers at no charge. The guarantee, backed by Chubb Insurance, automatically covers every guest on the commencement of their cruise for any delays or cancellations due to weather, natural disasters, mechanical breakdowns or labor strikes.  Coverage includes high/low water issues, and approved claimants will receive direct monetary refunds, up to US $475 (CAD $600) per day with a maximum of seven days, or US $3,325 (CAD $4,200) per guest, instead of the industry standard of future cruise credits.  Elsewhere, Emerald has added an additional departure on November 4 of its new, 112-guest Emerald Radiance, which is now cruising the Douro River in Portugal and Spain.  And the line’s signature, 16-day Mekong River itinerary on board the purpose-built Mekong Navigator explores both Vietnam and Cambodia, as detailed in a new brochure that is available online as well as by mail.  Early planners will receive the best fares and cabin selection, and, if booked by May 31, free roundtrip air from major North American gateways.  Fares start at $4,695 (CA $5,295) per person, double occupancy.  In addition to the 16-day land and river journey from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Emerald Waterways offers eight, 12 and 19-day Mekong programs.


Holland America Line’s Koningsdam, as reported above, earned its second perfect score of 100 on a routine United States Public Health (USPH) inspection at Port Everglades on March 12.  Elsewhere, the line has renewed its partnership with the Seattle Mariners through the 2018 season, which includes in-ballpark advertising, sponsorship of the seventh-inning stretch, and presenting sponsorship of the “Salute to Those Who Serve” on-field recognition program honoring men and women of the United States Military.  Each strikeout thrown by a Seattle Mariners pitcher during a home game also earns a donation from HAL to Seattle Children’s Hospital under the “Holland America Line K’s for Kids” program.  In other news, HAL has re-launched its “Ready Set Sail” promotion, featuring pre-paid gratuities and up to $500 onboard spending money per stateroom.  Guests who book a Holland America Line cruise by June 1 will be eligible to receive the offer, and guests who book a suite also will receive an additional $100 internet credit.  All cruises between June 1 and March 30, 2018, excluding Grand Voyages and Grand Voyage segments, are eligible for the “Ready Set Sail” promotion.  Next, HAL President Orlando Ashford was named the 2017 “StreetWise Champion” by StreetWise Partners at a 20th Anniversary Celebration breakfast on March 28 in New York City.  Ashford was recognized for his commitment to working with low-income individuals in underserved areas to develop their workplace skills and realize their career potential.  StreetWise Partners is the only stand-alone mentoring program in the country that focuses on workforce development to reduce unemployment within the low-income communities of New York City and Washington, D.C.  Finally, Canadian residents looking to book a HAL cruise vacation can currently take advantage of special fares with the line’s “Canada Super Sale.”  The promotion features savings of more than CA $1,000 per person on a variety of cruises and destinations around the world across the cruise line’s fleet of 14 ships.


MSC Cruises has announced new dining concepts which will be first available to guests onboard MSC Meraviglia and MSC Seaside.  The new concepts will reportedly offer guests the opportunity to dine “as they want, when they want and in a wider range of internationally inspired specialty restaurants.”  Included are a new “Flexi Dining model allowing guests to pre-select a time slot for their evening meal, with the ability to change it at any point during their cruise; partnerships with world-class chefs; new specialty dining options; “Dinner & Show” packages for “Cirque du Soleil at Sea” on MSC Meraviglia and an “Eataly Chef’s Table” experience on MSC Meraviglia; plus discounted prices on packages featuring multiple specialty restaurants.  In other news, travel industry veteran Joseph Jiffo has joined the company as senior vice president of sales.  With more than 30 years of experience, Jiffo has served as vice president of sales for Exclusive Group Travel, a division of Tourism Holdings Inc., and held leadership roles at Ensemble Travel Group as well as several cruise lines.  Elsewhere, former soccer star Hristo Stoichkov will set sail aboard MSC Divina to host a special soccer themed, seven-night Caribbean cruise beginning on May 27 in Miami.  Regarded as one of the best forward players of his generation, Stoichkov is widely considered the best Bulgarian footballer (soccer player) of all time and one of the most recognizable players for FC Barcelona, earning him the esteemed “Ballon d’Or” in 1994.  Also, the line has raised more than €6.5 million (approx. $6.9 million) to-date for UNICEF, thanks to the contributions of its guests.  The funds raised are used to provide malnourished children with ready-to-use therapeutic food in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Malawi.  MSC has also recently dispatched six containers containing over 22,000 much-needed items to contribute towards the relief effort in Malawi.


Norwegian Cruise Line has adjusted its daily shipboard service charges, effective April 1.  The charges provides gratuities to key onboard staff, including room stewards, restaurant servers and behind-the-scenes support staff.  The new rates for all ships, except for Norwegian Sky, are $13.99 per person per day for any category up to a mini-suite stateroom, and $16.99 per person per day for any suite or ‘Haven’ category.  For the all-inclusive Norwegian Sky product, the new rates are $18.99 per person per day for any category up to a mini-suite stateroom, and $21.99 per person per day for any suite category.  Any guest that made a booking by March 31 has been given the option of prepaying their service charges at the old rate if done prior to sailing date.  Elsewhere, the line’s new Norwegian Joy, its first custom-designed ship for the Chinese cruise market, began her journey to Shanghai when she departed the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany on Sunday, March 26.  Following her delivery on April 27 in Eemshaven, The Netherlands, the 168,800-ton vessel will set sail for China, where she will be showcased through an inaugural port tour featuring one-day events at the ports of Qingdao, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, as well as VIP partner cruises from her home-ports of Shanghai and Tianjin.  This showcase tour will give travel agents and valued partners across the region an opportunity to experience all that Norwegian Joy has to offer, leading up to the ship’s christening ceremony on June 27, led by her Godfather, the “King of Chinese Pop,” Wang Leehom.  Next, the line has announced that it will further extend its offering of weekly roundtrip cruises from Miami to Cuba through 2018, with 33 new voyages. The all-inclusive Norwegian Sky will begin her 2018 Cuba cruise season in March, sailing four-day roundtrip cruises from Miami, with 32 of the cruises to include an overnight stay in Cuba’s historical capital city of Havana, as well as a call on Great Stirrup Cay, Norwegian’s private island in the Bahamas.  These new cruises will begin on March 26, 2018, and are in addition to the previously announced 30 calls that it will offer through December, 2017.  Finally, the latest extension of Norwegian’s “Free at Sea” promotion now runs through May 1.


Oceania Cruises has announced a new program of tours focused on wellness and healthy living. The series, “Wellness Tours Inspired by Canyon Ranch,” is reportedly the first of its kind in the cruise industry, having debuted with Riviera’s and Marina’s April 9th and 10th sailings.  Tours will initially be offered in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece.  In other news, the line has announced ten new “Journeys to Cuba” in 2018.  Sailing roundtrip from PortMiami aboard Sirena, itineraries range in length from 7 to 10 days, and all include calls in Havana as well as the storied destinations of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.  Oceania recently also added six Cuba departures aboard Insignia in the autumn of 2017, plus calls to Havana on four Regatta sailings in the spring and autumn of 2018.  All told, the line is offering a choice of 20 voyages to Cuba from autumn, 2017, through autumn, 2018.  Next, Oceania is debuting what they term “the most expansive vegan menu offerings and the only cold-pressed raw juice and vegan smoothie bars at sea.”  The juice and smoothie bars are currently available onboard Marina and Riviera and the vegan menus are available fleet wide on the brand’s six ships. These dishes are in addition to the line’s existing selection of vegetarian, gluten-free, and kosher meals.  The vegan menus will be featured in the Grand Dining Room at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a total of more than 250 dishes including appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and desserts.


Paul Gauguin Cruises is now distributing its new 2018 Voyages brochure, featuring Tahiti, French Polynesia, and South Pacific itineraries.  Next year, the company will be the first cruise line to visit the port city of Vairao in Tahiti Iti, which is the smaller of two landmasses that comprise the island of Tahiti, offering a wild coastline, ancient petroglyphs, ‘marae’ (temples), Polynesian culture, and surfing fame. Tahiti Iti is scheduled on 7-night “Society Islands & Tahiti Iti” voyages and a special sailing of the 10-night “Society Islands & Tuamotus” itinerary.


Poseidon Expeditions has announced early booking savings of $1,435 to $2,255 per person on three 2018 voyages aboard the only passenger-carrying vessel in the world that can attain 90º north, the geographic North Pole, and smash its way through Arctic Ocean ice up to three meters in thickness.  With rates starting at $27,260 per person (double occupancy), this singular adventure begins in Murmansk, Russia. There, guests embark the nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory for a round-trip voyage to the geographic North Pole.  In addition to standing at the top of the world, passengers will also have the opportunity to explore the rarely visited Russian Arctic Archipelago of Franz Josef Land.  This remote wilderness is home to a variety of iconic High Arctic wildlife, including polar bears.  In the surrounding icy waters, it is possible to spot seals, walrus, the elusive bowhead whale, plus an abundance of nesting Arctic seabirds such as the rare ivory gull.


Princess Cruises is promoting a “come back new sale,“ offering free pre-paid gratuities, as well as a free spa treatment for suite bookings on selected sailings between this fall and the spring of 2018.


Seabourn has unveiled an “Extraordinary Opportunity Event,” offering savings and value-added enticements on select cruises currently available for booking through June 13, for voyages sailing from June of this year through May, 2018.  Added values and benefits include: a complimentary veranda suite three category upgrade, a complimentary veranda upgrade for ocean view category, premium suite shipboard credit of $1,000 per suite ($500 per person), a shipboard credit of $400 per suite ($200 per person), and a per person air credit for round-trip flights booked through Seabourn’s “Flight Ease” program.


SeaDream Yacht Club is inviting travelers to enjoy a Caribbean Christmas in style aboard  SeaDream II as she sails roundtrip from Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas from December 21 to 28, calling at seven ‘boutique’ ports…St. John (U.S.V.I); Saba (Netherlands Antilles); St. Barts (French West Indies); plus Virgin Gorda, Tortola, Norman Island and Jost van Dyke (all B.V.I.).   Chefs aboard the 112-guest “mega yacht” will prepare seasonal fare for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day including Tuna Tartar, Fillet of Turbot, Slowly Roasted Tom Turkey and Pumpkin Pie with Cinnamon-Ginger Frozen Yogurt for dessert.  Having enjoyed SeaDream’s delicious fare myself, my mouth is watering just thinking about it!


Silversea Cruises has announced a partnership with literary institution Heywood Hill, which will create a bespoke library for its new flagship, Silver Muse.  Over Heywood Hill’s 80-year history, the London-based bookshop has become renowned for curating collections of new, old, and antiquarian books for private libraries, and has been awarded the Royal Warrant by Her Majesty the Queen, among other accolades.  The bespoke library will be housed within Silver Muse’s Arts Café on deck 8.  Hosting varied exhibitions, the Arts Café will also showcase paintings and sculptures from a range of artisans from around the world. Heywood Hill will also select books to be placed in some of Silver Muse’s top suites.  Elsewhere, Silversea announced details of its new, innovative Zàgara Beauty Spa on board Silver Muse, at the same time that the ship was being delivered on April 3 in Genoa, Italy.  At 40,700 gross tons and the capacity to accommodate 596 passengers on board, the vessel expands Silversea’s fleet to nine ships.  Finally, the line’s Silver Explorer will welcome guests to an elevated onboard experience starting with her May 20th voyage, sailing from Lisbon to Honfleur.  A comprehensive stem-to-stern refurbishment is scheduled for the end of this month and will take place during a nearly three-week dry dock in Las Palmas.  Plans call for a complete renovation of Silver Explorer’s interior decoration throughout the ship, as part of a $170 million fleet-wide refurbishment program.


Tauck officially welcomed Sapphire back into its riverboat fleet in Paris on April 3 following a massive reconfiguration of the vessel’s interior spaces.  Sapphire is the first of Tauck’s four 110-meter ships to complete the radical transformation process, although Emerald was also reconfigured over this winter and returned to Tauck’s fleet later the same week.  Sapphire sails on Tauck’s Seine river cruises, while Emerald is deployed on the Rhône.  The company’s two remaining 110-meter ships, Treasures and Esprit, will undergo identical enhancements next winter and return for the 2018 sailing season.  With the redesign, Tauck has continued to prioritize creating larger cabins and roomier public areas for its guests, rather than maximizing passenger count.


Un-Cruise Adventures
 newly published schedule of 2018 Alaska cruises adds a seventh ship to its Alaska fleet, more visits to Glacier Bay National Park, and seven new itineraries. The 88-guest Legacy, a replica coastal steamer newly outfitted with kayaks and skiffs, will join the Alaska fleet in 2018 to sail adventure cruises.  Also new in 2018, the adventure outpost of Haines has been added to five itineraries.  A full day of activities in Haines includes a float trip down the Chilkat River on most itineraries, a guided hike, bikes for riding into town and a shipboard presentation by local Chilkat Tlingit members.  From April to October, travelers may choose from ten adventure cruise itineraries on 160 departures lasting one week to 14 days from homeports of Seattle, as well as Ketchikan, Juneau, Petersburg and Sitka in Alaska. Ships carry 22 to 88 guests.


Viking Ocean Cruises is introducing a new onboard “Viking Resident Historian” program.  Launched on Viking Star, Viking Sea and Viking Sky in March, a faculty of historians will be providing a high-level historical and cultural education that is specific to each journey, offering a framework for understanding major chapters in world history.  They will also conduct seminar-style roundtables…smaller, more intimate forums for discussion with guests, where the Viking Resident Historian will examine in-depth subjects related to their own area of specialization and/or particular areas of interest of the guests.  Also, Viking has announced a new partnership with National Geographic, building on its commitment to supporting enriching cultural programming.  National Geographic’s series “Genius” will be exploring the extraordinary professional achievements of one of history’s most brilliant minds, Albert Einstein, as well as his much less well-known private life.  Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn star in this new 10-part series from Academy Award winners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, beginning on Tuesday, April 25 at 9:00 p.m. EDT/8:00 p.m. CDT on the National Geographic Channel.


Windstar Cruises will be departing from Manhattan on its first-ever itineraries to New England and Canada during the summer and fall of 2018.  Windstar’s 212-guest Star Pride will embark on five sailings of four new itineraries of nine to 16 days in length.  The line will also be sailing to Alaska and along Canada’s west coast aboard Star Legend, sister ship to Star Pride, in spring and summer, 2018.  In other news, the line reported a record booking week in mid-March for its cruises to Tahiti and the Tuamotu Islands.  Also, the line has announced the appointment of Graeme Cockburn as Corporate Executive Chef, overseeing menu and recipe development; culinary talent retention, recruitment and training; culinary partnerships, standards and procedures, and innovations for the six-ship line.  Chef Cockburn will be responsible for elevating the guest dining experience by developing destination-centric recipes and menu cycles that celebrate the cuisine of the regions where Windstar sails.  Cockburn has enjoyed an illustrious and innovative career, including formative training at The Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland, service with the Royal Scotsman train, London’s exclusive Boodles private club, and the Pompadour Restaurant Edinburgh, which was named Scotland’s top restaurant during Cockburn’s tenure.  The celebrated chef trained with Michelin-awarded chefs including Michel Roux in London, Michel Guerard in the South of France, and at the Hotel De Crillon in Paris.