Saturday, January 28, 2012

Best Cruise Ships of 2012

As you prepare to cruise in 2012, read about the top rated ships for the year - rated by Frommers.  Which will you board?

Ships of the Future:     Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class

Royal Caribbean's 5,400 passenger sister ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are more than just the biggest cruise ships ever.  They're also the best designed, most imaginative, most experentially diverse, and most forward-thinking megaships out there - they're living up to the cliche of being "cities at sea".

Beauty Queens:     Celebrity's Solstice Class

Introduced in consecutive years, from 2008 to 2011, the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse and Silhouette are the most stylish megaships ever built.  Outside, their form is both massive and sleek, while inside a unifying high-end aesthetic ties the many moods and experiences of their public rooms into a satisfying whole. 

Best for Families:  Disney Cruise Line's Disney Dream & Disney Fantasy

Disney Cruise Line's 2,500 passenger Disney Dream (launched in 2011) and her soon-to launch sister ship Disney Fantasy (debuting in February 2012) are the first new ships Disney  has debuted since 1998's Disney Magic and 1999's Disney Wonder - and they're totally worth the wait.  As elegantly designed, entertainingly whimsical, and functionally practical as their older fleetmates, they also offer to raise the bar with more space (they're about 50% larger, more and larger kids' facilities, more dining options, more adults-only retreats, more high-tech wizardry, while still retaining that classic Disney mix of old-time nostalgia and wide-eyed, childhood wonder, all wrapped up in an operation that ticks like a Swiss watch.

Bringing Back the Mississippi:  Great American Steamboat Company's American Queen

Beginning in mid-April 2012, the 436-passenger American Queen will be again sailing the Mississippi River. American Queen is the largest stern-wheeler ever built - a grand wedding cake of filigree and curlicues crowned with two huge fluted smokestacks.  Ornamentation and decoration are everywhere, framing an assortment of vintage period furniture and antiques.  She looks so authentically 19th century that it's hard to imagine she was actually built in 1995.

Refined Relaxation:  Seabourn's Odyssey Class

The 450-passenger sister ships Seabourn Odyssey (launched in 2009), Seabourn Sojourn (2010) and Seabourn Quest (2011) update the classic Seabourn experience, whose watchwords have always been calm, relaxing, smoothe and uber-professional.  Like all the Seabourn ships (and all true luxury ships), they're less about knocking passengers over the head with gimmick and nonstop activity.  Instead, the Seabourn experience is more about providing a relaxing venue as staff members scurry around bringing you things:  a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich in the afternoon, suntan lotion while you're out by the pool, a drink when you want from the bar (gratis), and even a moist wipe for your sunglasses, if a server spots a smudge.

The Entertainment Ship:  NCL's Norwegian Epic

Though not even close to being a perfectly conceived and executed vessel, the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic makes this list for three reasons:  1)  Along with Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, she's the best ship at sea for entertainment, featuring innovative production shows, fantastic music, and best of all, performances by the Blue Man Group; 2)  she offers NCL fun, casual, unconventional experience; and 3) she's the best ship today for solo travelers (128 super-mod cabins are designed for hipsters traveling alone).

Midsize, MidMarket Luxury:  Oceania's Marina Class

We live in the era of the super-megaship, with new vessels carrying 3,000 or 4,000 passengersand drawing crowds through big-budget wow.  Oceania's 1,250-passenger Marina (launched in early 2011) and upcoming sister-ship Riviera (launching in May 2012), on the other hand, hark back to an earlier era of cruising, when you could walk from bow to stern without breaking a sweat and where the vibe was more quiet romance than blockbuster adventure.

The Finest of the Fine:  Silversea's Silver Spirit

Launched in December 2009, Silver Spirit was Silversea's first new ship in nearly a decade.  And like Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships, it represents a refinement of the line's already refined experience.  She's 27% larger than Silversea's previous generation of ships, and the luxury line has taken advantage of this space to add new dining options (six restaurants in total, including a supper club and a Japanese venue), an 8,300 square-foot spa, a greater percentage of stateroom verandas (95% of the ship's staterooms have 'em) and new lounges - all while giving passengers a huge amount of personal space.

Casual Luxury:  SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I & SeaDream II

If Seabourn and Oceania are the Fortune 500-style of luxury cruising, SeaDream represents the Steve Jobs model in a turtleneck-and-jeans kind of way.  Dress codes on SeaDream I and SeaDream II steer clear of the traditional tux and sequins dress up night by favoring "yacht casual wear" - jackets for men, perhaps, but never ties.  Itineraries are designed to favor small yachting ports, and the ships often stay late or overnight in port to give passengers an opportunity for nightlife.

Mass-Market Fun:  Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel Class

The 2,390-passenger Norwegian Jewel, Jade, Pearl and Gem - some of today's most fun and contemporary ships at sea - are the ideal megaships for Generations X and Y.  Each ship has a super-social atmosphere, creative decor, 10 restaurants (from teppanyaki to Tex-Mex), and music and pop culture references tailored to a surprisingly youngish demographic.

Fun Ship 2.0:  Carnival's Carnival Breeze

The third of three sister-ships, the 3,646 passenger Carnival Breeze will stand out by being the first Carnival vessel purpose-built to showcase the line's new "Fun Ship 2.0" initiative, which aims to transform its onboard experience for a new era of mass-market cruising.  Fun Ship 2.0 will add a poolside burger joint created by spikey-haired restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri; a sports bar created in partnership with videogame maker EA Sports; a Mexican Cantina bar; a comedy club concept created with comedian and TV personality George Lopez; a pharmacy-themed bar prescribing cocktails custom-made for what ails ya, and more.

A New Lease on Life:  Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas

Launched in 2001, the 2,100 passenger Radiance of the Seas has always been a particularly good-looking ship, with an open, airy feel that belies her relatively large size.  Still, an 11-year old vessel normally doesn't make a best of the year list - and this one wouldn't have either, had Royal Caribbean not sent Radiance to British Columbia's Victoria Shipyards last summer for a nearly tip-to-toe rebuilding so radical that it practically amounted to a relaunch.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Safety on the Seas

With the tragic events that occurred off of the coast of Italy this past week, all of the major cruise lines are reviewing their training and emergency procedures.  Here are a few quotes from a few of them:

Royal Caribbean:    
By coincidence, half of our Captains and most of our Hotel Directors arrived in South Florida for our annual Fleet Operations leadership conference over the weekend. This gave our Chairman Richard Fain and me a timely opportunity to underscore both our excellent 42 year safety record and more importantly to emphasize the imperative of keeping our record intact into the future. 

In the upcoming weeks we will communicate by text and video about many of the key elements of safety. Many readers who know us well will not be surprised by our focus on and commitment to safety.  Those who have less experience with us should learn some interesting and compelling facts about how we prepare our ships and crew for safe operation every day.   For example, the rigorous preparation and ongoing training that every Captain in the Royal Caribbean International fleet must undergo.

Norwegian:
We operate all of our vessels to meet and exceed the requirements of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention and the International Safety Management Code maritime standards, the international safety requirements which govern the cruise industry.  Our Captains are experienced seafarers with an average of 33 years at sea.  We further ensure that our Captains regularly undergo rigorous simulation training on navigation and bridge operations.

Carnival Corporation (Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa):
This is a terrible tragedy and we are deeply saddened. Carnival Corporation & plc offers our sympathies and heartfelt condolences to all of the Costa Concordia guests, crew members and their families.  Carnival Corporation & plc and Costa Cruises are committing our full resources to provide assistance and ensure that all guests and crew are looked after.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Carnival Breeze - 5D Theater

Just when you think that the cruise lines have thought of everything, you find out - there's more! 

     Carnival Breeze, the cruise lines newest ship, will feature a 5-dimension movie theater.  WOW!  This will be similar to what you can find at an amusement park.
 
     According to Carnival, the theater is built on a 3-D projection system, which requires the audience to wear special glasses. The "fourth dimension" comes through special effects like squirting water and bubbles, and other enhancements that will tickle guests' legs, blow air on their necks and poke them in their seats – all timed to the action on the movie screen. And the "fifth dimension"? Carnival says it's provided by the seats themselves, which will vibrate and shift in time to the movie.

     The theater will feature shows such as Happy Feet 4-D Experience, Speed Racer 4-D Adventure or during the holiday season, The Polar Express 4-D Experience. The attraction will be located on the Deck 4 promenade next to the conference center.

     The Carnival Breeze is scheduled to debut June 3 with a 12-day cruise from Venice. It will sail this summer in the Mediterranean out of Barcelona, and then begin a Caribbean itinerary out of Miami on Nov. 24. A virtual tour of the ship is available at carnivalbreeze.com.

     The cruise line is promoting the new ship and theater with a Facebook movie contest based on the Hasbro game Trivial Pursuit.  Until Jan. 13, contestants who correctly answer three daily trivia questions will enter a prize drawing for a 50-inch 3D Plasma HDTV, 3D phone, HD camcorder and a $250 movie theater gift card. Other prizes, including an Xbox 360 gaming console, will be given away throughout the contest period.

     What do you think?  What would you like to see on a cruise ship in the future?  How far can we go to making our own little piece of "Water World" out there?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 10 Cruise Itineraries in 2012

Here they are:  the best places to cruise this year.  Which one is right for you?

The forecast for 2012 is that over 20 million Americans will take to the high seas on a cruise.  Many of those will skip the "cookie-cutter" itineraries and will set their sights on some new horizons.  Check these fun ideas out:

*Best Cruise Itinerary for Adventure Seekers:  Sea Voyager Expeditions

     This is a brand-new cruise line for 2012.  They will be offering expedition sailings to some of Latin America's hottest ecotourism destinations.  Their first sailings are scheduled to begin in April with destinations in Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador.  Cruisers will love the flexible itineraries, off-the-beaten path villages and indigenous people.  Each sailing is escorted by experienced naturalists and guides as well as excursions like rain forest hiking, kayaking in hidden bays, bird-watching and snorkeling.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Culture Vultures:  Star Clippers

     Star Clippers has been sailing between the European cultural capitals along the Baltic Sea for some time, but starting in May, cruisers may climb onboard the new Star Flyer - a tall sailing ship, with 3 different itineraries featuring Sweden, Russia and Finland.  Cruisers will enjoy visiting smaller, less-visited ports and will be immersed in the best of the Baltic lands of the Vikings and the Eastern Empire of the Tsars.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Families:  Disney Cruise Line

     March 2012 will be the maiden voyage of Disney's newest ship, the 4,000 passenger Disney Fantasy.  This fun ship will feature the AquaDuck (water coaster at sea), new pool deck features, elaborate stage shows, and ship-wide interactive, state of the art technology.  The ship will sail the Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries, visiting the ports of St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya and Cozumel as well as a stop at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.  Families will love the Muppets-inspired adventure game and an animation-themed dinner show.  Kids will go crazy for the 1,800-square-foot Aqua Lab water play area, while parents can seek out serenity at the adults-only Satellite Falls splash pool on the deck above.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Foodies:  Oceania Cruises

     The new 1,250 passenger Riviera - launching in April 2012 - is poised to raise the bar on the epicurean experience at sea.  She is scheduled for a series of Mediterranean sailings through the fall, followed by a repositioning to the Caribbean for winter.  Watch for the 10-night October themed sailing, "Bon Appetit Wine & Food Festival", from Athens to Rome, with port calls in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Monaco.  Cruisers will love the 10 dining venues (eight of which are inclusive) as well as the opportunity to practice their kitchen skills in the hands-on Bon Appetit Culinary Center.



*Best Cruise Itinerary for History Buffs:  Deep Ocean Expeditions

     2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and what better way to remember this event in history than by boarding the R/V Keldysh (a vessel chartered from an oceanographic institute).  A maximum of 30 cruisers will set out on these 2-week expeditions, which includes an 8-10 hour dive to the shipwreck site in a 7-foot wide Russian Mir submersible, designed for three passengers.

     For a less extreme cruise option, choose from Fred Olsen Cruise Lines 1,309 passenger Balmoral, which will trace the Titanic's original intended route from England to NYC, or the 694-passenger Azamara Journey, slated to travel round-trip from NYC, with a stop in Halifax (the resting place of many of the Titanic's passengers who did not make the trip).  These cruises will feature onboard lecturers and historians, wreck experts, authors and relatives of Titanic survivors.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Nature Enthusiasts:  Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

     Head to the furthest reaches of the wilds of Russia.  Cruisers can set sail to circumnavigate the Sea of Okhotsk) in style, aboard the world's only 5-star expedition ship, the 184-passenger MS hanseatic.  Excursion highlights include zodiac runs to the tiny unpopulated islands of Iony and Tyuleny, and the wildlife-rich Shantar and Malminskie Islands; hiking across the grassland tundra of Talan Island; and brown bear viewing on a zodiac ride from Cape Utholoskiy.  Cruisers will be presented with a dizzying array of pristine landscapes, defined by volcanoes; coniferous forest-blanketed mountains; tundra, glaciers and geysers, and numerous types of wildlife.


*Best Cruise Intinerary for Nostalgia Lovers:  Great American Steamboat Company

     2012 marks the return of the Mississippi River Cruise, beginning in April.  The Great American Steamboat Company's 436-guest American Queen is billed as the largest and most lavish paddlewheel steamboat ever built, with a savory Southern-inspired menu led by top Mississippi chef Regina Charboneau.  Choose from the many different themed sailings, such as the Jazz Lovers, Civil War and Holiday cruises. 

     American Cruise Lines 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi will debut in August, featuring Dixieland bands, Mark Twain impersonators and other fun activities.  Both cruise lines will visit ports such as Cincinatti, Louisville, Memphis, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Off-The-Path Explorers:  Avalon Waterways

     Top-of-the-line river cruise operator Avalon Waterways is not only launching an intimate new luxury vessel in 2012, but is also debuting on the first-ever Mekong River cruise itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The 32-passenger Avalon Angkor features 16 spacious staterooms, complete with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and balconies.  This will be the first time that cruisers will be able to transit this particular route almost year-round.  Cruisers will explore virtually untouched villages of Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the more popular cultural and historic cities along the way.


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Partiers:  Crystal Cruises

     If attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is on your bucket list, Crystal Cruises' brand-new "Samba Serenade" itinerary is the way to go.  The itinerary will feature five ports of call in Brazil (Buzios, Ilha Grande, Paraty, Sao Paulo, and Itajai), departing from Rio during the height of the Carnival festivities.  This cruise line can custom tailor your experience at Rio's Sambadrome, from grandstand seating to luxury VIP sky box suites to even marching in the parade (fully costumed).


*Best Cruise Itinerary for Romantics:  Windstar Cruises

     These dreamy yachts are outfitted with billowing white sails and hold a maximum of 312 passengers.  Windstar is offering a brand-new 2012 "Islands of Italy" itinerary that couples classic Italian sites (Rome and Pompeii) with exclusive and often overlooked Italian islands, such as the lush volcanic island of Ischia; the active volcanic island of Stromboli; and glamorous Porto Cervo on Sardinia.


Time to get started on your 2012 Bucket List!  Where would you like to start?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Barbados

One of my favorite islands in the Caribbean is Barbados.  Beautiful scenery, comfortable weather, friendly people - what more could you ask for?  I've included some of my pictures from my past trips to this beautiful island.

Please enjoy a portion of an article written for The Telegraph Travel Magazine, by Claire Wrathall.

Most visitors to Barbados stay on the west coast, never venturing to its wilder, Atlantic side. Some don’t even make it to the capital. They’re missing out, says Claire Wrathall.

Bathsheba

Chattel House

Sugar Windmill

Jacquelyn and Michelle at Bathsheba

Rum Factory

This is the time of year when paparazzi shots of the bronzed and the beautiful at play on the beach at Sandy Lane are splashed all over the papers and gossip magazines, portraying Barbados as a hedonistic island of rarefied pleasures. A place where an eight-ounce steak and chips can set you back more than £240 (admittedly that’s the cost of a Greg Norman Wagyu tenderloin; there are steaks on offer for, oh, half that amount), and a green salad is priced at almost £30.
But there is another side to Barbados, culturally rich and a lot less expensive, that its celebrity visitors mostly never see. Venture from the intensely developed, largely luxurious west, or “platinum”, coast, to the barely built-on east – where Bajans tend to spend their holidays – and it’s almost as though you’ve alighted in another country. With dramatic limestone cliffs, staggering rock formations and high waves, the uncrowded beaches look very different.
Barbados’s tourist industry actually originated on this wilder Atlantic-whipped seaboard, back in the 1880s, where cool sea breezes held greater allure than calm Caribbean waters, and a railway was built from the then-fetid capital, Bridgetown, to airy Bathsheba. Though the track was barely 23 miles long, the journey took two hours, assuming the train didn’t break down, which it was inclined to do.
“The passengers in the third-class carriages would have to get out and push,” said a volunteer at the excellent Arlington House Museum in Speightstown. “Those in second were allowed to walk alongside. And the nobs in first class just stayed put.”

Inevitably, guesthouses began to open, including the now venerable Atlantis Hotel, established in 1883 above the beach at Tent Bay near Bathsheba. Over the years it became an institution, if an increasingly eccentric one, but three years ago it was sold to two local families, the Kirbys and the Wardens, owners of Little Good Harbour (and its fine Fish Pot restaurant) on the west coast. They closed it, renovated it and in December 2009 reopened it as a very attractive hotel of eight simple, uncluttered but comfortable rooms with the feel of a New England beach house – lots of whitewashed tongue-and-groove panelling, louvred shutters, muslin-swathed beds and rocking chairs on the balconies.
They also revamped the terrace restaurant, introducing a menu that makes a convincing case for Caribbean classics: Bajan fried chicken, conch fritters, jerk pork, curried yam (or goat), rotis, pepper-pot stew and fried flying fish, served in cutters (giant sandwiches) of home-made saltbread. The presence of sea cat (“pickled, on a salad of avocado and tomato”) and “whole-baked dolphin” may seem disconcerting, but they’re the local terms for octopus and mahi-mahi.
In heading east, the first holidaymakers were following in the footsteps of the wealthiest of the early plantation owners. Look at a map, and many of the most spectacular Great Houses were built on this cooler side of the island: Sam Lord’s Castle, a magnificent Regency Gothic mansion, complete with crenellations, that burned down in 2010; Easy Hall, which has just been sold for $6 million (£3.9 million); and Farley Hill, now a ruin, though its grounds are a national park with fabulous views across the area known as the Scotland District, so called less for its scenery, which is scarcely Scottish, than the fact that it lies within the parish of St Andrew.
Only a few, however, are open to the public. There is Sunbury, with its red corrugated iron roof, abundance of old mahogany furniture and Victorian interiors. Or Fisherpond Great House, a handsome antique-filled mansion on an estate dating back to 1635, which owners John and Rain Chandler open to the public for a delicious twice-weekly buffet lunch. You can walk it off afterwards in nearby Welchman Hall Gully, an area of luxuriant rainforest with a half-mile long trail, from which you’re likely to spot one of the island’s 5,000 or so green monkeys, as well as ficus, ginger lilies, tree ferns and other verdure.
But the most beautiful remains St Nicholas Abbey, a small (seven-bedroom) exquisitely restored Jacobean house built in 1660 and set amid towering mahogany trees a few miles inland. Its interiors are every bit as splendid as its gabled fa├žade, with an intricate Chinese staircase made by Chippendale and a Sheraton sideboard in the dining room, as well as an exquisite Coalport dinner service laid out on the table.
Yet for all its grandeur, it feels more like a home than a museum. During my visit, a cat dozed undisturbed on an 18th-century cane-and-mahogany armchair in the drawing room. The gardens are remarkable too, especially the trees: towering cabbage palms, kapok trees and a giant spike-trunked sandbox tree, said to be four centuries old.
But back on the east coast, moments from Bathsheba, the six-acre Andromeda Botanic Gardens are finer still. Established in 1953, they’re an enchanting place of palms, cacti, orchids, ferns and other exotica, most memorably a ghostly Ficus citrifolia, from whose vast canopy of branches descend tangles of aerial roots, thought to have been the “beards” after which the island is called because these trees were once so abundant.
For all its many attractions, you probably wouldn’t want to spend an entire holiday on the east coast, not least because Atlantic currents make bathing hazardous, and the ocean is a whole lot chillier than the Caribbean. But hire a car and a tour of the east coast works as a day trip from the west.
Indeed wherever you’re staying, it would be a shame not to spend at least an afternoon in the capital, Bridgetown, in the southwest corner of the island, where the area around the Garrison Savannah, two miles southeast of downtown, was named a Unesco World Heritage Site last summer.
With a military parade ground, now the site of Barbados’s racecourse, at its heart, it has the island’s largest concentration of elegant Georgian buildings, the Main Guard and its clock tower in particular.
The former prison, now the Barbados Museum, is an exercise in 19th-century colonial neoclassicism. And Bush Hill House, where George Washington spent seven weeks as a 19 year-old in 1751, contains exhibitions that commemorate not just his visit but, more searingly, the horrors of slavery. The first president of the United States, it reminds visitors, was himself a slave owner and though he sought to liberate them, one caption reads: “It would have cost nearly £6,000 to free them all [and] his plantations made only £900 a year.”
Bridgetown is also home to one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas, founded in 1654 by the same group of Brazilian Jews as are believed to have brought sugar to the island. Natives of Recife, they’d been persecuted by the Dutch colonists – hence the design and eventual construction of 500 windmills on the island, one of which, Morgan Lewis, stands above a magnificent and usually deserted beach of the same name.
That it still has functioning sails is thanks to the Barbados National Trust, which has done sterling work in preserving the island’s heritage and making it accessible. For nowhere in the Caribbean seems to resonate with history quite like Barbados. It may be a stretch to rouse yourself from your sunlounger, but a day or two exploring certainly lingers longer in the memory than just another rum punch by the pool.