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Welcome to Group Cruise News!

From Bob Hoelscher, February 7, 2015:  Welcome to Group Cruise News (GCN), the industry’s first group-oriented internet cruise blog and information site!  The Group Travel Leader has created GCN to allow me to post time-sensitive industry news items and sales promotions, as well as other information that you will hopefully find to be interesting and informative, including reviews of specific sailings, ships and ports, plus reports from you, our readers.  Please submit questions or stories of your group’s cruising experiences to me at I’ll attempt to select (possibly excerpt) those of relatively broad interest for inclusion in GCN.  But no rants, please!

Although I will still be doing regular cruise reviews in my “Changing Horizons” column in The Group Travel Leader magazine, GCN will allow us to promptly provide you with such material as limited-time price reductions or other booking incentives that is simply not otherwise possible with the lengthy production cycle of a monthly publication.  Plus, whenever possible aboard a ship, I intend to post regular GCN updates on the vessel’s onboard amenities and port calls as the itinerary progresses, beginning with a trans-Pacific sailing of Holland America Line’s Oosterdam from Sydney to Vancouver, April 19 to May 10.  Following, however, I’m inaugurating GCN with a compilation of recent developments at many major cruise lines…

American Cruise Lines has planned a 22-day “Complete Mississippi Cruise” for its newest riverboat, the 150-passenger American Eagle, which is slated to enter service this spring.  Beginning in New Orleans and ending in St. Paul, stops will be made in 16 towns and cities along the way.  The company has also announced that it intends to construct a fleet of newly designed riverboats in order to offer a wider selection of new itineraries throughout the country.  Additional details on this expansion will reportedly be announced in the coming months.

● American Queen Steamboat Company has announced its 2016 schedule, featuring 82 combined sailings of its two-vessel fleet, the most in company history.

Avalon Waterways has announced that the author of the No. 1 New York Times-bestselling Outlander novels, Diana Gabaldon, will christen the Avalon Tapestry II, its first “Suite Ship” in France, on March 24.  The line is also inviting travelers to take 10% off any 2016 Europe or Southeast Asia cruise, through April 7.

● Blount Small Ship Adventures is offering discounts and historical itineraries in honor of Presidents Day.  Guests looking to sail with President Nancy Blount on the August “Presidents Cruise” can save 15% when booking by February 27.  History buffs can also save 40% on the “Big Apple to the U.S. Capital” or “D.C. to Boston” cruises for sailings in May and June.

Carnival Cruise Lines has renewed its “Great Vacation Guarantee” for 2015.  The policy provides consumers an opportunity to receive a 110 percent refund, complimentary transportation home and a $100 shipboard credit on a future cruise if they are dissatisfied with their vacation for any reason.  Carnival has also been ranked as the most improved U.S. brand in consumer perception for the past year in YouGov’s “BrandIndex Buzz Rankings Report,” which evaluates consumer perceptions of companies across multiple categories.  The line’s prepaid gift cards, which can be used as payment toward a “Fun Ship” cruise or shipboard purchases, are now available in more than 9,000 retail outlets throughout the U.S., including such locations as Giant Eagle, Kroger and Safeway. Carnival Freedom will celebrate its new year-round homeport of Galveston on February 14 by honoring U.S. military families with special onboard activities, plus an outdoor performance by country singer Martina McBride.  “Amber Cove,” on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast just outside historic Puerto Plata, will host its first cruise ship when Carnival Victory arrives on October 6, the first of 37 calls by eight different Carnival ships that will take place between October, 2015 and April, 2016.  Carnival Miracle will undergo an extensive refurbishment this March that will add an array of new on-board amenities, including a “RedFrog Pub” and “Alchemy Bar,” plus such entertainment choices as “Playlist Productions,” “Hasbro-The Game Show,” and “Seuss at Sea.”  Carnival has also ordered a new 3,954-passenger vessel, which will be the 26th ship in the line’s fleet, and is scheduled for delivery in March, 2018.  The new ship will be a sister to Carnival Vista, to be delivered in spring, 2016, which will reportedly introduce an array of new features.  Included will be “SkyRide,” a suspended open-air cycling experience; the world’s first shipboard IMAX® Theatre; an expanded water park featuring the “Kaleid-O-Slide,” the line’s first raft-riding water tube slide; “Seafood Shack,” a New England-inspired eatery; “RedFrog Pub,” including the line’s first onboard brewery, and other enhanced dining, bar and entertainment options; plus new scenic and family-friendly accommodation types. Carnival Vista’s inaugural Mediterranean itineraries will mark the line’s return to Europe.  Finally, travel personality Samantha Brown stars in a new video series on Carnival’s You-Tube channel that is designed to provide “cruise rookies” with all they need to know about the seagoing vacation experience, with information on everything from on-board dining and activity choices to cruising with kids and frequently asked questions.  

Celebrity Cruises has introduced eleven new European river-and-ocean cruise vacation packages by way of the Danube, Rhine, Rhône and Seine with Amras Cruises, and then by sea onboard a Celebrity ship.  New “Celebrity City Stay” pre-cruise vacation packages will now be available in 16 of the world’s most intriguing cities, including Athens, Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Hong Kong, London, Singapore and Sydney.  And Celebrity’s newly named “Suite Class” restaurant, “Luminae,” will be introduced onboard its ships beginning in April.  Five of the line’s ships will be offering a choice of more than 45 different cruise vacations exploring some 90 destinations in Europe during 2016.  For 2016-2017, Celebrity Solstice will return to Australia and New Zealand with the addition of four new vacations, while guests of Celebrity Infinity can choose from 13 two-week South American vacations that will visit destinations in Antarctica, Brazil, Peru and elsewhere.  The 2016-2017 Asia season will offer vacationers visits to 35 different destinations in 16 countries on 28 cruises aboard Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Constellation.  And Celebrity’s 2016-2017 Caribbean schedule features more than 100 departures visiting 31 destinations and seven Celebrity ships.  Finally, Celebrity is ordering a new class of “Project EDGE” vessels, two 2,900-guest, 117,000-ton ships that will reportedly attempt to combine small ship itineraries with large ship amenities. The company expects delivery of the newbuilds from a French shipyard during fall, 2018, and early 2020.

Cunard has announced that Grammy® Award winning trio Crosby, Stills & Nash will perform a series of concerts on board its Flagship, Queen Mary 2, during her seven-night trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to Southampton departing September 4.  Queen Victoria recently returned from an intensive 20-day refurbishment in Hamburg, during which nine new single staterooms were installed, existing furnishings were refreshed, enhancements were made to the outdoor spaces, and eight new internet stations were added to the upper floor of the library.  At different times later this year, both vessels will be displaying a rare facsimile of arguably one of the most important documents in English history, the Magna Carta, one of only four of the original 1215 documents in existence.  Finally, Cunard and renowned jazz label Blue Note Records have created an entertainment partnership that will debut aboard Queen Mary 2 on October 29, featuring jazz performances by the Blue Note 75th Anniversary All Star Band, “Our Point of View.”

Costa Cruises and Central Holidays have created a new partnership to develop new “Costa Cruise Tours” vacation packages that include air, land and a Costa Cruise to destinations throughout Europe, departing from Civitavecchia, Savona, Marseille, and Barcelona.

Disney Cruise Line guests will be able to immerse themselves in the animated hit “Frozen” beginning this summer, with new shipboard experiences inspired by the film, including a deck party, a three-song stage show production number, new character “meet and greets,” storybook adventures ashore, and more.

Emerald Waterways was awarded the “Best New River Ships” designation in Cruise Critic’s 2014 Editors’ Picks Awards for their Emerald Star and Emerald Sky.  The line will launch two more ships, the Emerald Dawn and Emerald Sun, in 2015.

Holland America Line has named its new 99,500-ton, 2,650-passenger ship Koningsdam, which is currently being built in Italy and slated for delivery in February, 2016.  The vessel will initially cruise the Mediterranean on a seven-day “Premiere Voyage,” continue with a series of 12-day sailings through early May, 2016, then debut a series of northern Europe and Baltic cruises as part of a Europe season featuring seven HAL ships throughout the region.  From its summer homeport of Amsterdam, Koningsdam will be sailing roundtrip itineraries to Norway, the Baltic and Iceland.  Aboard will be 32 purpose-built staterooms for families, as well as 12 single staterooms.  A second, as yet unnamed “Pinnacle Class” sister ship is scheduled for delivery in late November, 2018.  The line is continuing the “Dancing with the Stars: At Sea” program for the third year aboard all of its ships in 2015-2016, due to its popularity and success.  HAL’s Eurodam achieved a perfect score of 100 on a recent routine United States Public Health Inspection for the seventh consecutive time.  Furthermore, Noordam and Zuiderdam recently also achieved perfect scores on similar inspections.  As part of its partnership with Marine Conservation Institute, the line has created a new program to educate guests and crew about marine protected areas around the world through on-board presentations by shipboard personnel.  Finally, HAL has announced that the company’s guests and employees have raised more than $4.3 million so far to support cancer research through programming that began in 2006.  Currently, the “On Deck for a Cause” effort benefits six international cancer organizations located in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and the U.K. 

Hurtigruten has introduced itineraries aimed at making it easier and reducing travel time for North American travelers to visit Greenland this summer via flights through Iceland.  And history buffs who are eager to learn the truth about the storied Vikings will get an earful on the line’s 12-day “Voyage of the Vikings” Norwegian coastal itinerary, which departs on September 14, beginning and ending in Bergen, sailing to the northern town of Kirkenes on the Russian border, and visiting a total of 34 ports.  Viking expert Gareth Williams of the British Museum will serve as guest host, giving lectures on board and leading tours and excursions on land.

Louis Cruises has launched a new Celestyal Cruises brand designed to offer authentic Greek experiences which encompass hospitality, local cuisine and entertainment, and has acquired the 24,318-ton, 836-passenger Celestyal Odyssey, built originally in Germany in 2001 as Olympic Explorer.  64 themed cruises in 2015 highlight the region’s archaeology, culture and heritage, gastronomy, wines and spirits, history and music.

Norwegian Cruise Line is currently offering “Freestyle Choice Plus” with up to $3,500 in added value for those booking a new three-day or longer cruise vacation through February 28, with the option to choose from up to four special offers…a free “Ultimate Dining Package,” a free “Ultimate Beverage Package,” up to $300 in onboard spending money, or the recently added “Friends, Family & Kids Sail Free on select sailings. The line has also announced a new entertainment line-up for Norwegian Epic, which will be based year-round in Barcelona, Spain, starting on April 30. Two new Broadway shows will take the stage…Burn the Floor in April and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert-The Musical in October, plus the ship will also feature “The Cavern Club,” a new British pop music experience.  Fleetmate Norwegian Gem has now been outfitted with the line’s popular “O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill” and “Sugarcane Mojito Bar.”  “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Restaurant” and “5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar” will both be onboard features of the new Norwegian Escape, which will begin weekly cruises from Miami to the Eastern Caribbean beginning on November 14.  Norwegian Escape will also offer the line’s most extensive “Mandara Spa” to date, including the largest Thermal Suite at sea, even outfitted with a “Snow Room.”  The line’s highlights for2016-2017 include the addition of San Juan, Puerto Rico as a seasonal homeport for Norwegian Gem, eight and six-day Norwegian Escape Caribbean sailings from Miami, and visits to “Harvest Caye,” Norwegian’s new island destination in Belize, for all guests sailing a Western Caribbean itinerary.

● Oceania Cruises is acquiring the 30,000-ton, 684-passenger Ocean Princess from Princess Cruises.  The vessel, to be renamed Sirena, is scheduled to be delivered in March, 2016, and immediately undergo a 35-day, $40 million refurbishment.

● Princess Cruises has introduced new gift cards in $50, $100, $250, $500, $1,000 and $2,000 increments that can be applied as payment towards the purchase of a Princess cruise, as well as onboard products and services.  January 1 marked the line’s first-ever float, themed “50 Years of Inspiring Travel,” in the iconic Rose Parade in Pasadena, CA, kicking off the company’s 50th anniversary celebration.  The float was awarded the “Craftsman Trophy for Exceptional Achievement in Showmanship and Dramatic Impact.”

Scenic Cruises’ latest luxury river cruise ship, the 68-guest Scenic Spirit, will launch on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia during January 2016.

● Seabourn has ordered a second new 40,350-ton, all-suite ship, Seabourn Ovation, to be built in Italy, with delivery scheduled for spring, 2018.  It’s previously announced sister ship, Seabourn Encore, will launch in late 2016.  The line’s 2016 Europe cruise season will feature more than 60 departures, 100 destinations, and itineraries ranging from seven to 22 days.

● Tauck has announced 2015 solo traveler savings, and has again eliminated the single supplement on its Category 1 European riverboat cabins.  In addition, Tauck is reducing the single supplement by up to $1,000 on 161 departures of 62 itineraries to four continents.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s all-suite River Tosca will set sail once again on Egypt’s Nile River beginning in October.  The line is also offering 33 all-inclusive European itineraries in 2015, including six new programs and 45 additional departures on the Rhine and Danube.  Princess Anita von Hohenberg, great-granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg, will christen her ancestor’s namesake ship and the line’s newest, S.S. Maria Theresa, on March 26 in Amsterdam.

● Viking Ocean Cruises reports that its first ship, Viking Star, scheduled to enter service this spring, has successful completed its sea trials.

● Viking River Cruises’ two new itineraries for 2015 include the “Imperial Cities of Europe” from Berlin to Budapest, and “Grand European Tour & Belgium” from Ghent to Budapest.

● Virgin Group’s chairman Richard Branson announced in early December, without providing specifics, that the company will be entering the cruise business.

Windstar Cruises was recognized as #1 in the world in the Small Ship Cruise Line category of Condé Nast Traveler’s 27th annual Readers’ Choice Awards.  The line is expanding its fleet from four ships to six in May with the addition of two small luxury ships purchased from Seabourn.  Windstar takes possession of the first vessel on April 15, when it will undergo an $8.5 million, three-week renovation in Genoa, then debut as Star Breeze during a christening ceremony on May 6 in Nice, France.  The second ship will follow suit, joining the fleet on May 4, and after a similar $8.5 million renovation, it will be christened Star Legend on May 25 in Rome.  The vessels joining sister-ship Star Pride in the Windstar fleet mark the completion of the acquisition announced in February, 2013.