Vernon Buxton's Cruise News & Views

Jun 13, 2007
Author: Vernon Buxton

Welcome aboard,
As usual, my additional comments in each story are in red.

My cousin, David van der Merwe, from Fort Myers, Florida, recently visited South Africa, and brought me a welcome gift…the Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2007. Thank you, David.

It’s an exceptional publication, now enjoying its 22nd year, and therein can be found all you want to know about the contemporary cruising industry. The book has been significantly expanded, now contains many colour pictures, and really does get down to brass tacks about every aspect of cruising.

Things change so fast that the publisher, Douglas Ward, is obviously kept on his toes keeping abreast of cruise industry developments. Each edition boasts many new entries of ships, and quite a number of deletions.

This guide reveals that some 27 ships over 100,000 tons will be in service in 2007. “The introduction of new ships continues at a frenetic pace, with almost 30 new ships scheduled for delivery between January 2007 and December 2010, fuelled by the continuing increase in demand for high-value cruise vacations, and ever larger ships with more facilities and options,” writes Ward.

It’s an extremely useful book to help you decide which cruise line to choose, given that the choices these days are almost too varied.

Each cruise line, of course, faces the challenge of getting YOU to be its passenger. And, once it’s gotcha, there’s a good chance you’ll be a repeater. Ultimately, it’s all about choosing the right ship for you, and the guide will certainly point you in the right direction.

Anyway, in the 2007 edition, Douglas Ward writes…“Cruising is booming!” (So, tell us something we didn’t already know, Doug!)

The international cruise industry consists of more than 75 ocean-going cruise operators carrying more than 16 million passengers a year, and provides extremely safe and hassle-free vacations.

After 2001’s terrorist attacks on the US, life got tougher for cruise companies as many people developed a temporary aversion to travel. But, as in many industries, the financially strong survived and prospered.

Although standards suffered from cost cutting as the major cruise lines tried to recover from the deep discounting that plagued the marketplace (mostly in North America) cruise lines have since been adding new items to woo passengers. Examples include premium mattresses and bed linen, and wi-fi access.

Nevertheless, the cruise industry continues to provide vacation experiences seldom matched in product delivery, cleanliness and friendliness by land-based resorts (Hear, hear!) And, with more ships and choice than ever, the value for money is still one of the best-kept secrets in travel today.
(Hear, hear again)

In a separate section, Ward writes: “Ships and the sea have captivated me since my first transatlantic crossing in July 1965, aboard Cunard Line’s 83,673-ton ocean liner RMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (and I was aboard for her last Southampton-New York crossing in 1968…so waaaaa, Doug!).

“I have completed over 5,300 days at sea, participating in more than 950 cruises, 153 trans-Atlantic crossings, and countless Panama Canal transits, shipyard visits, ship-naming ceremonies, numerous maiden voyages and overnight stays.”

Which is enough to make this ship-lovin’ correspondent absolutely purple-green with envy. What about you?

The Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2007 is not generally available in South Africa…so I suggest you try Amazon.com, or www.berlitzbooks.com



Everyone knew it was coming…it was only a matter of time!

Quite the news item of the week was the announcement that Star Cruises has sold Orient Lines’ MARCO POLO!

It’s last cruise for Orient will be on 2 March, 2008…a repositioning cruise from Rio de Janeiro ending in Lisbon on 23 March. No doubt floods of tears will dilute the champagne!

The early announcement permits the ship's loyal following to plan their last trip. During its last season, NCL said it will plan a number of farewell activities and events, and these will be announced in due course.

The Filipino crew will remain with the ship up until delivery to the new owner, and then will be offered employment with NCL.

This remarkable old 22,080-ton ship has been a constant cash cow for its owners. It had developed a very loyal following, especially among South African cruisers, who were seduced by the marketing pitch of a “4-Star-plus ship, with 5-Star services at 3-Star prices.”

"MARCO POLO has an extremely loyal following, and the Orient Lines brand is unique in what it offers," said NCL CEO Colin Veitch. "It has been an important part of our business during the transition from the old NCL to the new NCL, with the youngest fleet in the industry by the end of this year."

"We have said for the past two years that all of our older ships would progressively leave the fleet as our new, purpose-built Freestyle Cruising ships arrived. The timing of MARCO POLO's departure always revolved around finding a good next owner, and I am pleased to say we have found one.

This unique ship will, from the summer of 2008, have a new lease of life serving a new market under an established brand. The new owner will be announcing the acquisition very soon."

The ship was built in 1966 as the ALEXANDR PUSHKIN, one of five almost identical sister ships for the Russian/Ukranian fleet. It enjoys a fine, traditional “real-ship” profile, an extremely strong ice-strengthened hull and huge storage spaces for long voyages.

A Briton, Gerry Herrod bought the old vessel in the early 1990s and found the money to completely refit (from the hull and engines up) and refurbish the ship. The result was acceptable, if not stunning, and success was immediate.

The MARCO POLO went on to feature well-designed destination-intensive cruises, at realistic prices, and very soon built up a loyal list of repeaters.

It is understood that Herrod had been grooming one of his sons to take over the business, but when the son was killed in a motorcar accident, he lost interest and sold the vessel to NCL in 1998 (which was then acquired by Star Cruises in 2000, following a takeover.)

Asked to comment on this development, the local owner’s representative, Stewart Venn of Triton Cape Sea Travel in Cape Town replied…

Hi Vernon,

Thanks for and appreciate the interest, but until we know a bit more we are not assuming that the association is necessarily lost. We are waiting to see!

Thanks
Stewart

I have sailed on MARCO POLO twice, once before she underwent a ‘Cinderella’ makeover, and then after NCL had spent big money on her. She became a truly very appealing classic vessel, the soul of which can be mostly attributed to the excellent Filipino crew. Those hard-working souls know how to smile, remember your name, what you drink, and how to make one feel really welcome.

Orient Lines’ concept of cruise-tours, which involved pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, and sometimes flights too, was an absolute winner with passengers. The itineraries were varied and creative. The company brochure was a masterpiece of graphic design.

The Antarctica programme, which took place every summer in the Southern Hemisphere, was an ongoing sell-out, even though tariffs were hiked considerably to compensate for the reduced passenger complement (to accommodate environmental and shore excursion limitations.)

On my last MARCO POLO cruise down the South African coast it was an extremely stormy November night, and none of us got much sleep as we crashed from one giant Antarctic-originated swell into another.

The SILVER WIND had sailed from Durban the same evening, but had to turn back because her small 16,000-ton hull was not coping with the swells. Silversea flew its passengers to Cape Town…we arrived off the port a few days later, though some of us (not me) with our stomachs turned inside out.

Although everyone knew it was coming, and that it was only a matter of time before the vessel was sold, we hope the change of ownership has a happy ending, and that this truly gracious old cruise liner lives to sail on into MGM sunsets for a good many years to come.

And I hope Stewart Venn continues as the owner’s representative, because he is unquestionably one of this country’s leading cruise agents.


CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

Who will be the new owner of the 22,080-ton MARCO POLO?…that is the question. They obviously want to make their own announcement once their programmes are finalised. There several fleets where the 22,000-ton ship would be a good fit. The ship does have some age, however, so it won't be operated by anyone looking for a long-term member of the fleet. This correspondent pictured MARCO POLO arriving in Durban harbour on a recent visit…easing its way around the bow of the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2.      



What will be the TROPICALE’s new name?

The ship most of us remember as Carnival's TROPICALE and Carnival Cruise Lines' first newbuild in 1982, after serving three Carnival brands, has been sold to Royal Caribbean for use by their Pullmantur brand.

The ship is currently sailing as PACIFIC STAR for P&O Cruises Australia.

The Australian line announced today that the ship would leave the fleet next March.

Passengers already booked for cruises on PACIFIC STAR are being offered alternate programs on other P&O ships. PACIFIC STAR was set to operate a heavily booked 42-night cruise from Australia to Japan in March, and on that cruise, it is being replaced by the larger PACIFIC SUN. (What a cruise will that be!)

P&O president Gavin Smith said the sale "is part of our ongoing process of renewing the Australian fleet."

Pullmantur said that once they take possession of the 35,000-ton ship in March, it would immediately reposition to Barcelona for the summer season of 7-night Mediterranean itineraries beginning 18 May. In the winter, they will deploy the ship in the Caribbean on an itinerary still to be decided.

The Spanish line has not yet announced the ship's new name.

After 19 years in the Carnival Cruise Line fleet, TROPICALE was transferred to the company's Costa brand in 2001. At the time it was given an extensive million refit. It then went to sister line P&O Australia in 2005, and now after less than three years, in an unusual turn of events, is being sold to archrival Royal Caribbean.

Ship sales between the 'Big Two' are exceedingly rare due to competitive issues.



The new LIBERTY has “tummy troubles”!

LIBERTY OF THE SEAS may only be a few weeks old, but it has already been "christened" by passengers with Noroviruses.

Royal Caribbean was responding to last week's outbreak by delaying a sailing by several hours to provide time for “additional cleaning and sanitising.”

Even though only 172 of the ship's 3,846 passengers and 10 of its 1,425 crew members reported Norovirus symptoms, Royal Caribbean stepped-up its procedures to combat passengers from spreading the virus during the cruise.

It again seems that the illness was brought aboard by passengers who had already contracted the virus from one of the other 23 million Americans to have a case of Norovirus this year on land.

LIBERTY OF THE SEAS returned to Miami last Saturday as scheduled, and delayed the departure to allow people extra time for additional sanitising. Passengers were given a onboard credit. The joys of cruise operating…hoo boy! Fine when everything goes swimmingly…but…!!!



There’s gold in them-thar cruise liners!

So far this year, the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios has had 390,000 visitors come ashore. The huge increase in numbers can be partly attributed to Royal Caribbean's 158,000-ton FREEDOM OF THE SEAS that has just made its first two semi-monthly calls at the port, bringing more than 4,000 passengers at a time.

The ship alternates between western and eastern Caribbean itineraries, and on its western itineraries it switched its Jamaican call from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios.

LIBERTY OF THE SEAS, which shares the designation with FREEDOM of largest cruise ship in the world, entered service last month and it now calls at Montego Bay on its alternating eastern/western itineraries.

On the day of its maiden call, port officials were pleased that not only did FREEDOM bring about 4,100 passengers, but the 112,894-ton CARIBBEAN PRINCESS also called with roughly 3,000 passengers, bringing the day's total to more than 7,500 passengers.

What a horrid thought. I have been a cruise passenger at Ocho Rios and the experience can only be described as “utterly forgettable.” It’s a filthy place, virtually overwhelmed by grinding poverty…and all the attendant ills too.

Its main attraction appears to be a waterfall where passengers follow each other in a long daisy chain upstream…all holding hands. Rather sweet and all, but not madly exciting. To be fair, there are other – equally uninspiring – excursions.

And, you’re bound to ripped off in “downtown” Ocho Rios, an over-crowded urban swamp of no merit whatsoever.

That having been said, there are plans for expanding the facilities at Ocho Rios to accommodate up to four cruise ships at one time by 2009…which goes to show it’s ‘different strokes for different folks!’ So, if cruise liners ultimately uplift the economy of the area then that’s all well and good!



MARINER to sail around South America to homeport in LA

Royal Caribbean is repositioning the 137,276-ton MARINER OF THE SEAS to Los Angeles for Mexican Riviera cruises, beginning in February 2009.

The 7-night round trip itinerary will feature calls at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta.

The most appealing aspect of this announcement is that the MARINER OF THE SEAS will get to LA via a circumnavigation of South America, (ooh, yes please) as opposed to travelling via the eastern hemisphere and the Pacific. The trip will be sold in segments, with details to be finalised.

What will replace MARINER OF THE SEAS at Port Canaveral?  Royal Caribbean has yet to make an announcement.

Port Canaveral has been a moneymaker for RCCL, so there's not much chance this operator will be leaving the market. A larger 220,000-ton Genesis-class vessel is slated to debut in 2009. Watch this space!



Another gem is born

The 113,000-ton EMERALD PRINCESS is about to get an identical sister, the RUBY PRINCESS, Princess Cruises announced last week.

The ship will debut in the Caribbean late 2008.

These Princess vessels “are fine, grand resort playgrounds in which to roam when you are not ashore,” according to Berlitz.



The LEGEND destined for Asia

Royal Caribbean is heading for Asia and has already scheduled its 2008/2009 season in Asia.

Most of the cruises are designed for Asians. Included is a series of 15 cruises that range from two to five days. There is another series from Shanghai that are five and six-night itineraries.

There are a few longer itineraries that could capture the attention of westerners. The 69,130-ton LEGEND OF THE SEAS will be in Europe prior to repositioning to Singapore. That 24-day span (if I was retired, I’d book today!!!) will be sold as two 12-night segments, from Civitavecchia through the Suez Canal to Dubai, and from Dubai to Singapore. Along the way, the ports of call will include Mumbai, Goa, Cochin, Phuket and Kuala Lumpur.

The eastbound trip begins on November 12, 2008. LEGEND will return to Europe reversing the eastbound program, departing Singapore on May 8, 2009. (These are the really juicy cruise options, offering different routes and unexpected ports of call. Yesss, please!)



The captain looked them in the eye…!

You may remember that five passengers tried to sue Norwegian Cruise Line after the 91,740-ton (so you can imagine how rough the sea really was if it affected a ship this huge!) NORWEGIAN DAWN encountered heavy seas near New York in April, 2005?

During the heavy weather, a window broke in one of the staterooms on an upper deck allowing water, several inches deep, to wash into several areas on the deck. There were several injuries among passengers and crew, but none of them were considered serious.

The plaintiffs were charging that NCL should not have taken the ship into the storm.

Well, a jury has ruled against the passengers. "We are pleased with the jury's thoughtful and reasoned decision," said NCL CEO Colin Veitch. "We have always maintained that this lawsuit existed only in the minds of the plaintiffs' lawyers, and this verdict confirms our belief."

The verdict in this case could have had more far-reaching implications. There were originally more than 400 plaintiffs who were seeking a class action suit.

Last August, the judge denied class action status, but said they could all sue NCL individually, and stipulated this case go forward as what is called a bellwether trial with five plaintiffs. The others could then sue in groups of ten, but it would have to be before the same jury.

In this suit, the plaintiffs brought in five expert witnesses in the areas of weather, marine architecture and seamanship. Captain Peterstam testified for NCL and, according to a report, he came in “and looked the jury in the eye and explained to them why he did what he did…and why he believed it was the right thing to do.”

It is still unknown if this will be followed by suits from more of the four hundred or so original plaintiffs? The same jury would have to hear their cases.

Hooray for Captain Peterstam and NCL. Americans have turned litigation into something habitual…and it should be stamped out, don’t you agree?


That’s all from this weeks’ heady world of cruising, so until next Wednesday, then…

Truly
VERNON
In Johannesburg

vernon@dbn.stormnet.co.za


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