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November 9, 2015 Update – Group Cruise News

Welcome!  I’ve recently completed a seven-night cruise aboard Windstar Cruises’ Star Legend along the Italian and French Riviera from Rome’s port town of Civitavecchia to Barcelona, and am pleased to report that it was truly a wonderful voyage.  Along the way we visited Elba Island, Portofino and Santa Margherita, Monte Carlo (Monaco) and neighboring coastal towns in France, plus Cannes, Marseille, Port-Vendres and Collioure.

I was most pleased with Star Legend, one of three 212-passenger “yachts” that Windstar recently purchased from Seabourn and subsequently refurbished.  The all-suite accommodations, ever-friendly staff and gracious service, dining, public rooms, cruise program and overall operation of the vessel were all highly impressive, plus we likely enjoyed even more personalized attention as a result of only 131 guests being aboard for this late-season trip.

Even Mother Nature was cooperative, providing almost a full week of sunny, virtually ideal fall weather.  Consequently, if my experience was any indication, Windstar has certainly achieved a position among the best of operators specializing in luxury cruising, and should definitely be on the shopping list for all upscale groups.  FYI, I’ll be writing a more detailed ‘review’ of the sailing in my “Changing Horizons” column in The Group Travel Leader early in 2016.

Currently I’m crossing the Atlantic on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jade, and will include a (favorable) report on that trip in my next Group Cruise News Update.  Incidentally, please excuse the tardiness of this report, as satellite internet service in the middle of the ocean can be extremely slow, making it impractical for me to post this online through our system in Kentucky (which has presented me with some challenges lately anyway), until we reach St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Adventure Smith Explorations has created an expanded portfolio of new itineraries aboard small ships and yachts that will be available in Alaskan waters during 2016.  Included are “Exploring Muir’s Wilderness,” eight days from Juneau aboard the 84-guest Safari Explorer; “Yachter’s Alaskan Frontier,” also eight days from Juneau aboard the 22-guest Safari Quest; “Alaska’s Islands, Whales & Glaciers,” eight days from Sitka or Juneau aboard the 10-guest yacht Misty Fjord, which even features an amphibious hovercraft glacier excursion; “Sikumi Custom Alaska Cruise,” seven days between Petersburg and Juneau aboard the eight-guest Sikumi, without a pre-determined, rigid schedule; and finally, “Glacier Bay & Island Adventure,” eight days between Sitka and Juneau aboard the newly-renovated, 74-guest Chichagof Dream, focusing on Alaska’s natural environment, history and native cultures.

American Cruise Lines’ American Pride will be joining Queen of the West in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in 2016.  The three-year-old, 150-guest paddlewheel vessel has been operating on the Mississippi River as Queen of the Mississippi, but is now being renamed and moved to the Pacific Northwest to offer 7 to 10-day cruises there beginning on April 2.  American Pride will be replaced on the Mississippi by the larger America, construction of which is currently being completed in Salisbury, Maryland.  Also, the line has been awarded additional prime-use days as a tour vessel in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, allowing its vessel(s) to spend more time there than ever before. The five-year contract will go into effect January 1, 2016, for its spring itineraries.  Regulations allow only three, non-adventure-oriented ships in Glacier Bay proper per day, and ACL was one of the four companies to receive new contractual “slots.”  And finally, the line has announced that construction has begun on a new, fully-stabilized, 170-guest coastal cruise ship that has yet to be named.  The new vessel will reportedly incorporate state-of-the-art technology and environmental systems, as well as feature the largest staterooms in the domestic cruise industry at over 350 square feet, including private balconies.  The ship is scheduled to enter service during the spring of 2017.

Avalon Waterways has announced that the head coach of the championship U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, Jill Ellis, will christen Avalon Passion, the company’s 11th “Suite Ship” in Europe, on April 13 in Linz, Austria.

Celebrity Cruises has promoted two members of its North American sales team.  Ron Gulaskey, formerly Global Director of Corporate, Incentives and Charter Sales, will now lead the National and Strategic Accounts team as Assistant Vice President for North America, managing the development of business opportunities with national consortia and key strategic trade partners, plus leading the sales support staff.  Gilda Romero has been promoted to Director of Inside Sales and Sales Communication, charged with driving sales with new to mid-sized travel partners and delivering communications both to them and to the Celebrity field sales team.  In other news, the line is celebrating the LGBT community by inviting its members and allies to board Celebrity Eclipse for the evening of November 9 in New York City, for a European-themed soirée, with guest appearance by fashion designer and CFDA member, Christian Siriano and Broadway talent Lauren Patten of Fun Home, plus cuisine specially crafted for the event by Celebrity’s Michelin-starred chef, Cornelius Gallagher.  Proceeds from the “Haute on the Hudson” event will benefit The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s youth programs.

Cunard has announced event cruises for 2016, celebrating the worlds of fashion, food, music and dance.  Included are its first “Transatlantic Fashion Week,” departing from Southampton on September 1 aboard Queen Mary 2, a “British Isles Culinary Discovery” departing on June 23 aboard Queen Elizabeth, and “Big Band Balls” at sea departing during November on varied sailings of all three Cunard vessels.

Disney Cruise Line has unveiled new enhancements to Disney Dream, including two new interactive youth areas, a whimsical sweet shop serving handmade gelato, ice cream and candy treats, a “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique,” plus for adults, a new splash pool and sun deck.

Emerald Waterways has announced the hiring of two new sales managers: Linda Gruneklee will serve as Regional Sales Manager for the Southeastern United States and Theresa Mullen is the new Group Sales Manager, part of the company’s 100% U.S. staff expansion in 2015.  Gruneklee’s territory will include Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.  Furthermore, the line is offering enhanced group benefits for sailings between March and July, 2016, including “one for seven tour conductor credits” and doubled group savings of up to $200 per person.

Holland America Line will now be partnering with experiential travel specialist AFAR Media to help cruisers “dream, plan, choose and prepare for the perfect cruise vacation.”  Through this collaboration, AFAR will provide “Destination Guides” for all of HAL’s ports of call and scenic cruising areas, some 400 in total, which will be available on the line’s website via a new platform created by Utrip.  AFAR will determine the content and provide travelers with recommendations on the top attractions, restaurants and shopping experiences for each destination.  Furthermore, the line will also be partnering with BBC Earth to bring additional “fun and factual entertainment” onboard the ships in its fleet. Through BBC Earth’s nature-focused programming, guests will be offered concerts, films, shows, children’s activities and theme cruises beginning next April, and be available on all its vessels by next September.  In other news, HAL is planning enhancements to its top staterooms with new furnishings, décor, amenities and upgrades for all suites on the line’s Signature, Vista and R-Class ships, part of a $300 million initiative.  First to undergo the suite transformation will be Eurodam and Oosterdam, followed by Nieuw Amsterdam, Westerdam, Zuiderdam and NoordamAmsterdam, Rotterdam, Volendam and Zaandam will receive similar suite enhancements as they head into their scheduled dry docks over the next few years.  Eurodam is scheduled to be refitted December 7-20 at Freeport, Bahamas, and Oosterdam will be dry docked April 3-18 in Palermo, Sicily.  Finally, when Koningsdam debuts next April, the ship’s senior staff officers will set sail with a combined 95 years of company experience.  In addition to the previously announced appointment of Captain Emiel de Vries, the line has announced that Hotel Director Stan Kuppens, Chief Engineer Willem Zuidema, Staff Captain Kevin Beirnaert and Safety, Environmental and Health Officer Martijn van Dam will lead Koningsdam’s shipboard teams. The 99,500-ton ship is currently under construction at Fincantieri’s shipyard at Marghera, Italy.

Hurtigruten is offering special overnight package bonuses on it’s April southbound voyages along the Norwegian coast.  Choices include lodging at Thon Hotel and a dog sledding experience, overnight at the Kirkenes Snowhotel, or accommodations in a traditional fishing hut called a Gamme Cabin.  Also, the line has announced a major renovation initiative for all four of its mid-1990s-built ships, featuring new furnishings dubbed the “New Arctic Interior” that reflects a modern Scandinavian design inspired by the scenery of Norway’s fjords and west coast.  The four ships will be rotated through the Fosen Yards shipyard in Norway with work expected to take a little over three weeks for each vessel:  Polarlys (scheduled to be completed by February 2), Kong Harald (by February 7), Nordkapp (by April 19), and  Nordnorge (by November 18).  The new Spitsbergen, undergoing a major upgrade to fit in with the current fleet, will enter service in the spring, after all of the existing ship’s common areas, reception foyers, cafes, bistro areas and aft deck have been renovated.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic welcomed guests onboard on October 19, following a three-week dry dock during which the ship received entertainment, dining, technical and other enhancements, prior to a year of sailing the Mediterranean from Barcelona.  The vessel now features a new entertainment outlet named The Cavern Club, in honor of the Beatles’ original Liverpool venue, a second Broadway show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, extensive renovations to dining facilities, a new photo gallery, library and card room, plus a new “SplashGolf” attraction in the Kids Aqua Park.  Next, on October 22, the line took delivery of the its largest ship to date, the 164,600 ton Norwegian Escape, during a ceremony in Bremerhaven, Germany, after a building period of only 17 months.  The ship will be christened in Miami on November 9.  Next, and not unexpectedly, Norwegian’s “Freestyle Choice” promotion has apparently proven to be very popular, and has now been extended through December 31.  Guests who book a new three through 16-day cruise in any category stateroom on any sailing more than 30 days prior to departure can select one of four offers, including a free “Ultimate Beverage Package,” a free “Specialty Dining Package,” free $50 per port shore excursion credits in up to four ports, or a free 250-minute WiFi package.  Guests who book a suite receive all four offers.  Furthermore, those who book a new cruise vacation in November on one of Norwegian Sun’s South America sailings will receive $100 in onboard credit on select sailing dates, or up to $200 in onboard credit on a select Christmas sailing. Finally, those who book a new cruise vacation during November will pay reduced deposits for all sailings through June, 2016.  Whew!

Paul Gauguin Cruises has announced a sale on select 2015 and 2016 Tahiti, French Polynesia, and South Pacific voyages, with savings of up to $4,750 per person off previously advertised rates on select cruises aboard Paul Gauguin, when booked by November 14, this coming Saturday.  Roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles is also included.  Featured sailings include the 11-night “Cook Islands & Society Islands” departure on December 5; the 14-night “Marquesas, Tuamotus & Society Islands” trip on April 16; plus eight, seven-night “Tahiti and the Society Islands” cruises between December 30 and April 2.

Princess Cruises currently has much news to offer.  First, with help from TLC and fashion expert Stacy London, the line is introducing “Style at Sea with TLC,” a new guest experience providing advice for dressing aboard a cruise, created as part of the line’s “Discovery at Sea” partnership.  London is well-known for her time as co-host on TLC’s What Not to Wear, the network’s longest-running primetime series. Recently London also hosted TLC series Love, Lust or Run, where she coached women on questionable fashion decisions and, under her tutelage, explaining the impact wardrobe choices can have across their lives.  Elsewhere, Princess will be pairing gourmet small dishes inspired by pub favorites with craft beers, cocktails and wines in the new “Salty Dog Gastropub,” within the Wheelhouse Bar aboard Crown Princess.  Menu offerings, including a signature burger, have been developed in collaboration with former executive chef of Umami Burger and current chef of Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Los Angeles, Ernesto Uchimura, who was recently named “Chef of the Year: The Comfort Master” by Los Angeles Magazine.  Next, guests sailing aboard Royal Princess from Ft. Lauderdale on February 8, for a seven-night Eastern Caribbean sailing, will have the opportunity to celebrate Valentine’s Day with special onboard activities featured bestselling authors Sylvia Day and Meredith Wild.  Day is a #1 New York Times, #1 USA Today and #1 international bestselling author in 28 countries, with tens of millions of copies of her books in print.  Wild, also a #1 New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling romance author, is known for her Hacker series.  In other news, Princess Cruises’ President Jan Swartz was honored as a 2015 “Woman of Distinction” on November 5 at the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles annual “ToGetHerThere Luncheon,” which celebrates female leadership.  Finally, the line has launched what it terms “its biggest sale of the year,” a promotion entitled “Cruise Deals and Air Steals,” offering reduced cruise and airfare pricing, and coinciding with the relaunch of the Princess EZAir booking tool.  The sale features savings up to $300 per guest on cruise fares, plus up to $300 per guest savings on roundtrip airfare when booked together using EZair, subject to availability, on sailings and “land & sea” vacations seven days and longer to Europe, Japan and Alaska that depart from next April to September.  Airfares to program destinations are on sale through December 8.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ new Seven Seas Explorer celebrated a major construction milestone on October 30, when it was floated out of the building dock at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Genoa, Italy.  Now outside of the dock, construction will focus on completing the luxury vessel’s interior spaces before her maiden voyage, scheduled for July 20, 2016.

Seabourn is enhancing its visits to the natural wonders of Antarctica with new “Ventures by Seabourn” kayaking excursions.  Launching directly from the ship’s fold-out watersports marina, guests in specially designed cold climate dry suits will have the opportunity to explore Antarctica’s scenery and wildlife close up and at sea level, led by qualified guides.  In addition to Antarctica, optional kayak excursions will also be offered at South Georgia Island and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

Silversea Cruises has opened booking for its new flagship, Silver Muse, which is scheduled to enter service in April, 2017.  The new luxury vessel will offer 286 suites, and depart on its maiden voyage from Monte Carlo to Nice on April 20.  Prior to her “maiden” voyage, however, there will also be a special Easter cruise, round-trip from Monte Carlo, from April 10 to 18.  During 2017, Silver Muse will reportedly be sailing throughout Europe, Canada, North and South America, as well as the Caribbean, visiting over 130 destinations in 34 countries.

Tauck has announced 2016 solo traveler savings, including the elimination of the single supplement on its Category 1 European riverboat cabins on every departure of all of the company’s itineraries, over 220 departures in all.  Furthermore, Tauck is reducing the price for solo travelers booking Category 4 and 5 cabins by $1,000 on 48 departures of 15 different river cruises.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has extended until November 30 its “Pay in Full” promotion, offering savings of $300 to $800 per person on 2016 sailings.

Viking Cruises is offering special savings on January, 2016, Mediterranean sailings of Viking Star.  Half-price rates start at $1,999 for eight-day cruises from Barcelona to Rome on January 10, as well as January 17 from Rome back to Barcelona, and at $3849 for the 15-day, round-trip voyage from Barcelona departing on January 24.  A “free air” program is also available from Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Viking River Cruises is now accepting group bookings for the 2017 European season, offering savings of $125 per person, plus one complimentary tour conductor fare with each nine paid guests.  Amenities for larger groups include welcome bottles of sparkling wine and a private cocktail party.

Windstar Cruises has lots of news this time around!  First is a “Veterans Day Sale,” only through November 12 this week.  Guests can reportedly save up to 81% on select voyages through Europe, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, the Caribbean, even Tahiti.  Furthermore, veterans and active-duty military are eligible for an additional $100 shipboard credit.  Prices begin at $1,299 for seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti,” “Naturally Costa Rica,” and “Yachtsman’s Caribbean” itineraries; $1,799 and $2,999, respectively, for eight-day “Spanish Serenade” and “Gems of the Aegean” trips; and $2,599 for a seven-day “Greek Isles and Turkish Delights” program.  The line has also been named the 2015 “Cruise Specialty Partner of the Year for North America” by members of the Ensemble Travel Group.  Held at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, the recognition ceremony honored Ensemble’s top suppliers, as well its top producing member agencies.  In other news, the line will be partnering with the James Beard Foundation to offer guests an enhanced culinary experience aboard three themed cruises in 2016.  Dubbed “The James Beard Foundation Collection,” the first sailing will be eight days aboard Wind Surf in Southern Spain and Morocco, departing April 24 from Lisbon for Barcelona.  Then a pair of 10-day voyages aboard Star Legend (see above) will feature stops in France, Spain and Portugal, departing June 10 from Dublin to Lisbon, and August 9 from Lisbon back to Dublin.  On each cruise, host chefs will provide two cooking demonstrations on board, a nightly featured dish, and a trip to a local market or hosted culinary outing.  Also included will be complimentary wine tastings, two food and wine themed shore excursions, a regional cooking demonstration at a chateau in Bordeaux on the 10-day trips, a special onboard cultural performance, and a wine expert on board throughout each voyage to lecture and guide guests through their tastings.  Finally, Windstar has announced that television personality and conservationist Jeff Corwin will host Windstar’s first “Private Event” of 2016, the “Isla de Coiba Island Experience” on the line’s March 5 “Costa Rica and Panama Canal” itinerary.  Corwin is best known as host of the multi Emmy Award-winning TV series Ocean Mysteries on ABC, and Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin Experience, as well as for his years of wildlife and conservation work.  He will be on hand to lecture and host Windstar’s unique event on Panama’s Isla de Coiba, a marine reserve, UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park that is accessible only by special permit.