Vernon Buxton's Cruise News & Reviews

Jul 25, 2007
Author: Vernon Buxton

Welcome aboard,

As ever, my own additional comments in each separate story are in red.

The focus this week is significantly on Costa. My own perceptions of this Carnival subsidiary have been enhanced substantially whilst preparing this report, because I’ve suddenly learnt so much more about what a dominant player this “Italian” operator is within the overall cruise industry. Though, I’m tempted to say “MSC eat your heart out!”…that would be pushing it, because MSC is now also a formidable presence in European cruising.

However, the big fight in Europe for cruise market share is obviously between Costa – a Carnival Corporation subsidiary – and Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, an offshoot of the giant Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Both operators are producing newbuilds – all dripping in balconies – in quick succession, and both will be seeking many more passengers for “hungry” ships making weekly departures from one point or another.

Costa has fired a massive salvo by building a cruise terminal (financed by Carnival Corporation, of course) in Barcelona…, which has become one of the most popular ports in Europe because travellers can enjoy such attractive pre- or post-cruise stays there.

Barcelona is indeed an exciting ‘Latin-sexy’ city, with splendid architecture, extravagant museums, exquisite cuisines, ancient customs and tree-lined boulevards…like the fabled Ramblas, where people watching (beautiful people) doesn’t come better. And what about the Flamenco?…click, click, click…ole!

And there’s bullfighting! I attended a bullfight in Barcelona in 1966, and fled the stadium prematurely…in a seething rage!

Recalling that ghastly day…a bull charges into the bullring, an explosion of strength and confidence and energy. Some men with capes (toreadors?…I don’t give a damn what they’re called!) taunt the bull. They stick arrows into its neck. Blood oozes. A gaudy matador wearing a ridiculous hat enters, and further taunts the bull with his cape. “Ole!” the crowd shouts in unison each time the animal surges through a splash of red material. At least we now know where the expression ‘A red rag to a bull’ comes from.

A man on a horse, a very old horse, enters the bullring. The horse is ostensibly “protected” with a thick coat hanging over its side. That day, the bull puts its horns under this thick mat and gores the horse in the guts. The bleeding old nag is quickly withdrawn, blood streaming down its legs. I’m on my feet, stunned! My rage surges! I scream horrible words.

My regret at being there is distracted when another man on another old horse enters, and he drives this thick “pole” into the bull’s neck. Blood spurts out and the bull’s head sinks…clearly some tendon in its neck is now severed. The animal’s back is now full of arrows, bright-red blood streaming down its haunches. I am far from amused!

The matador approaches the bull, a previously proud, masculine, angry creature, now exhausted by taunting and weakened by blood loss.

The bull stands stock still, legs apart, its head sunk down near the ground…ideally positioned for the matador to drive his short sword into its head. Which he does…s-t-a-b! The bull drops like a stone. The crowd roars in unison…ole, ole, ole! I have to stop myself from puking!

I flee the stadium, quite incapable of enduring another second of this savage, bloody spectacle. It was a barbarity I had no understanding of as a then-24-year-old, and remains one I have no acceptance of now that I’m in my 60s. I couldn’t give a stuff how long this has been going on, what tradition it represents or what part it plays in Spanish culture. I consider bullfighting pagan behaviour at its outer limits. The cruelty to animals beggars belief!

Whenever I hear of a matador being gored, preferably to death, you’re sure to hear me shout “Hooray…ole! Die, you bastard, die!”

Ernest Hemingway may have romanced that gory ritual…but look how his life ended?

So, having got that off my chest, and mindful of the fact that this is a cruise column, rest assured that I love everything else about Barcelona and Spain…especially the tapas…oh, the tapas! The vino ain’t bad either!

Anyway, the first story shows how Costa apparently has the edge in Barcelona. We wonder what MSC is going to do about that?…

Costa goes big in Barcelona

The growing size of Costa operations at the Spanish port of Barcelona means the state-of-the-art facility will be used almost exclusively by Costa and other Carnival brands.

In its first two months of operations, it is already turning in solid numbers, having been used by 100,000 passengers. Of those, Costa carried 62,000.

Next year the total number of passengers passing through the new Palacruceros Terminal is expected to be boosted to a half-million. Eighty percent of those will come from Costa.

For the entire year of 2007, the new terminal is anticipated to handle 400,000 passengers, in 157 ship visits, with 100,000 of the passengers coming from turnaround operations.

Costa has two ships, COSTA CONCORDIA, capacity 3,780, and COSTA FORTUNA (you bet your sweet life it did!), capacity 3,470, that are making weekly port calls at the Palacruceros terminal.

Costa will also position a ship, the 105,000-ton COSTA MAGICA at Barcelona next year, doing Mediterranean cruises between March and November.

This is where the dilemma comes in. As a prospective Mediterranean cruiser, would I choose Costa or MSC? Both are Italian, and both have state-of-the-art cruise fleets. Costa or MSC?…MSC or Costa? So, what I’d probably choose is MSC, because my perceptions tell me it’s McCoy Italian, whereas Costa is Carnival/American Italian! See what I mean? I could be wrong, of course…but such is the power of perceptions.

This does rather highlight how crucial it is how MSC and Costa market themselves. One thing is clear, repeat business will be a very strong aspect of their strategies. Loyalty programmes will be in full swing, and crew complements will be positively whipped into ensuring that the one onboard experience is better than the competition’s.

The winners in each case, Costa or MSC, will be the passengers!

Drivers…start your engines!


The champagne corks have been popping…!

News just to hand is also about Costa…Carnival's Italian brand has achieved a first in Europe. The line has become the first cruise line on the continent to book a million passengers in a year. Adding icing to the cake (or bubbles to the champagne), is that Costa achieved the record-setting number in just eight months.

The milestone speaks not only to the growth of Costa, but also the explosive growth of the cruise industry in Europe. Costa's million passengers (actually higher by the time the year ends) represent a big chunk of this growth.

Last year, 3.4 million Europeans went on cruises, and this year Costa is carrying more than a million. The growth, of course, is a result of Carnival's investment in Costa's fleet expansion, making more berths

Costa will be introducing 11 new ships over the ten-year period from 2000 to 2010. That ongoing expansion has brought phenomenal growth to the line. Ten years ago, in 1997, Costa's carried 350,000 in the entire year.

The line's innovation over the years has also played a role in its growth. It lays claim to being the first to offer a "fly-cruise" programme (in 1968), winter Mediterranean cruises (in 2001), and the first line in
Europe to offer private verandas. It was also were the first to offer the spa staterooms and suites which have direct access to extensive spa facilities (on COSTA CONCORDIA).

Costa and Carnival aren't the only beneficiaries of the growth. The ports are also sharing in the wealth. This year the line will make about 600 calls at 10 Italian ports, and it's estimated that the passengers will spend more than E100 million ashore.

The one millionth passenger was booked last week…indeed a noteworthy achievement. It’s been celebrated with toasts on each of the 12 Costa ships and in the line's 28 offices worldwide.

Of course, as commendable as this truly is, the reality is that Costa’s 12 ships have 23,200 berths that have to be filled weekly. Most line's (including Costa's) business plans are built on the formula of selling every cabin, and doing what's necessary to fill them. Without the million passengers, they wouldn’t be pouring champagne, they’d be weeping into their Camparis. Cruise operating is not for faint of heart.

Announcing…the newest Costa

Meanwhile, Costa has just chosen a name for the sister ship to 114,500-ton COSTA SERENA and COSTA CONCORDIA.

It will be the COSTA PACIFICA. Delivery is scheduled for early 2009.

Costa has two more ships on order with Fincantieri, the 92,700-ton COSTA LUMINOSA and its still-unnamed sister. They will be built at Fincantieri's Marghera yard and delivered in 2009 and 2010.

When the last is delivered, it will increase the Costa fleet to 15, eleven of them entering service between 2000 and 2010.

Perhaps the name of the new ship says something about where they hope to deploy it, given Costa's new push into Asia?

The Sea Shall Not Have Them…!

As large as most cruise liners are, there comes the day that Mother Nature – Gaia – hurls her formidable, unforgiving forces out across the planet, and any ship – cruise or otherwise – caught in the middle of it ends up with a sobering reminder of the dangers of the sea.

Last week, hundreds of Kiwi holidaymakers suffered a horrendous night at sea as hurricane-force winds battered their cruise ship off the north coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

In a story written by Karen Arnold of the Sunday Star Times (presumably an Auckland paper?), we read that the nightmare began just hours after the P&O PACIFIC STAR left Auckland on the first leg of an eight-night South Pacific cruise.

Although forecasters predicted a storm, nothing had prepared the crew and passengers, including many schoolchildren on holiday, for the 12 hours of extreme weather they were forced to endure.

Captain Ivan Jerman said the hurricane-force winds, which averaged 75 knots gusting to 90 knots, and 9-metre swells were the worst conditions he had sailed in during his 35-year career at sea.

The 35,000-ton PACIFIC STAR suffered considerable damage, including broken windows, damage to the bow…and the loss of a satellite dish overboard.

One passenger, Joy Meekings, from Whangaparaoa, said she would never go on a cruise again. Already anxious about sailing, Meekings said the appalling weather forecast heightened her concerns as she boarded the ship in Auckland on Tuesday.

It didn't wane when the group were shown to their cabin on deck 4, where boards were lined up along the corridor, and were soon put up to cover each cabin window.

But the first real signs of the impending storm were felt about two hours into the voyage.

Jerman encouraged people to stay in their cabins where they spent an anxious night as the ship was tossed about. Diners had to battle seasickness, rolling seas and sliding cutlery and crockery. One elderly woman fell after her chair slid and tipped over backwards.

By 8pm, the second evening show had been cancelled, bars were closed and services reduced to a minimum as passengers and staff struggled to stay upright. A visit to Lifou in the Loyalty Islands was cancelled because of the time lost during the storm.

By the next day, the sea was calm and weather warm. All activities and services had resumed and Meekings and her friends were looking forward to visits to Vanuatu and Mystery Island, before the ship began its return leg to Auckland.

I have seen a video – shown to me aboard the MARCO POLO - of similarly tempestuous seas where this 20,000 Orient Lines’ vessel was REALLY undergoing a test of its seaworthiness.

In the video – filmed by a crew member – you can see the swells coming up to the promenade deck and smashing against the walls where no waters are designed to reach. That footage shook me to the core! Curiously, this stormy scene also took place in New Zealand waters, though in the south of South Island.

It IS winter in the Southern Hemisphere…we cruise in winter waters at our peril…!

A chance to be on a Cloud!

A Colorado man, Gregg Harper, has won a competition – there were 24,000 entries – to name CARNIVAL SPLENDOR’s huge, unique new spa.

The judges chose Harper’s entry… “CLOUD 9”.

He will win not only a cruise on the new ship in one of the spa suites, but all the spa treatments he can stand during his time aboard. What a clever feller Gregg is, and just think of the fun he’ll have. I’m already envious…the idea of a spa suite certainly floats my boat!

CARNIVAL SPLENDOR will feature the line's first spa staterooms and suites with special amenities and exclusive access into the spa.

The 7,000-square-metre spa facilities will be large and more feature-rich than on any other Carnival vessel.

With a name to hand, now a logo can be designed and then embroidered on the special bathrobes, towels and slippers.

CARNIVAL SPLENDOR will debut with Northern European itineraries on July 13, 2008, and then during its first year continue on to sail in the Caribbean, South America, and from Southern California to Mexico.

This spa feature will, I predict, be a total “wow” with the cruising public. There will be a rush to get a booking in one of the 68 staterooms in the very separate spa section. This is “exclusivity” at work, the offering of “status”…actually, downright snobbery. It works…oh puhleez, it works! Good luck to Carnival.

As you Wish…

It was only a matter of time, but Holland America has now introduced an ‘As You Wish’ dining programme that is “going to give its customers more options for dining while retaining the classic cruise ship dining experience for those who prefer it.”

Once ‘As You Wish’ rolls out on each ship, passengers will have a choice of three options…traditional early, traditional late or flexible dining. The traditional dining will be in one section of the dining room and flexible in the other.

If they choose flexible dining, passengers can either make same-day reservations until 4pm, or just walk up when they want to dine any time between 5:15pm and 9pm.

The system has already been successfully tested on NOORDAM. A key element to keeping everything running smoothly is a unique computer system that has to be installed on each ship. That will happen ship-by-ship over the next year.

Okay…so balcony cabins caught on, and now no newbuild comes without them. NCL came up with ‘Freestyle Cruising’, offering flexible dining, and a choice of up to 10 restaurants. The rest of the pack have followed suit, in various forms…though, it must be said, few lines offer the extent of dining options of NCL and parent company, Star Cruises. I was on SUPERSTAR VIRGO about three years ago and the 10 restaurants were really, really impressive. (The itinerary was not!)

Now we have spa suites, garden suites, villas…even separate decks of exclusive offerings, with butlers and concierge services included…etc, etc. Without including most of these offerings, no cruise line can stay in the running…the bar had indeed been raised!

It also manifests just how sophisticated cruising has become. It highlights why cruising is becoming the holiday of choice. Cruising, I further predict, will increasingly become the ONLY way to travel in a world suffering from over-crowding, security delays and transport hassles…be they in the air, on the ground, or on rails.

Besides, what can beat waking up in a new destination almost every morning, in now-familiar surroundings, without having to pack or unpack and lug heavy suitcases around.

Cruising rocks! Land travel sucks!

It’s a wrap until next Wednesday…
In Johannesburg



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