As we come to the close of another year in cruising, we reflect on the most significant events of the last 12 months. What has improved, what has gotten worse, and where is this industry going?
Best New Ships -- 2007 Of all the new ships introduced in 2007, our favorite for onboard ambience is Norwegian Pearl: 93,000 tons, 2,394 passengers with 12 restaurants and 11 bars and lounges. We love the decadently overstated neo-harem décor in the nightclub "Bliss," with Balinese day beds big enough for six people to lay side by side. The atrium sports a two-deck-high video wall with ever-changing scenery, and the 21st-century furniture designs in watering holes like Indigo and Mambos will have you humming "Meet George Jetson."
The suites on NCL's Norwegian Pearl and the newer Norwegian Gem are among the largest at sea. They feature computer-controlled player pianos and huge plasma-screen TVs with Wii game consoles. The bathrooms have Jacuzzi tubs next to wall-to-wall ocean-view picture windows.
We also love Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas -- even if she is a carbon copy of last year's Freedom of the Seas. Each holds the title of world's largest cruise ship. Slightly larger than the groundbreaking Voyager-class, Liberty's added attractions include top-deck hot tubs cantilevered from the sides of the ship, and a fun-soaked kids' water park with slides, chutes and ladders. The Royal Arcade is longer with an inviting coffee shop and a separate Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor. The ice-skating rink is slightly bigger, allowing those talented Russian and Canadian professional skating duos even more room to thrill you with their axels and spins.
Carnival's newest offering, Carnival Freedom, is also out of this world, but in a neo-sixties, sci-fi kind of way. Okay, we didn't love the décor, which is beyond description. It is heavy and overly complex, with bulging copper-plated walls surrounding lights of constantly changing color. But it is Carnival and it is a fun ship, just as they promise. The food is surprisingly good and the onboard entertainment appeals to every age. We just have to wonder, what would happen if Carnival asked designer Joe Farcus to "just make us a pretty ship."
What might happen is the new Emerald Princess. At 110,000 tons and capacity for 3,000 passengers, she is as big as Carnival Freedom, but with a much more subdued atmosphere and a larger staff. The service is exemplary for a mega-ship, notably in the three smaller-than-usual dining rooms. Two of these offer "anytime dining." The headwaiters and sommeliers make the dining experience special -- a trait we found lacking on the similarly priced but more "contemporary" ships.
While these beautiful new ships such as Norwegian Gem, Emerald Princess, Liberty of the Seas and Carnival Freedom all made their debut in 2007, none had completely new designs.
Therefore, the best new ship to come out in 2007 is the Queen Victoria by Cunard. It is the only "one of a kind" ship to be built this year by a major line. Queen Victoria is a smaller cousin to Queen Mary 2, which makes her less awesome but more in keeping with the tight ship-shape Cunard attitude as displayed on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Offering an array of exotic voyages throughout the world in 2008, she is the ship we would choose right now for our next cruise.
Hottest Destination for 2007 By far, the biggest coup for the cruise lines is the American public's awakening to the fact that a cruise ship is the best way to see Europe. There were more ships carrying U.S. passengers in Europe than ever before, and 2008 will have even more. CruiseMates has been telling you this since our own day one, but it is now more true than ever as the value of the dollar vs. the Euro and British Pound heads south. At 1.46 dollars to one Euro, your best bet is a cruise, which allows you to prepay for your European vacation entirely (food, lodging and entertainment) in dollars before you go overseas.
Most Overlooked Destination Speaking of heading south, one of the biggest bargains in cruising in 2007, to be repeated in 2008, is South America. Discover the cosmopolitan and spirited megalopolis of Rio De Janeiro and we guarantee you will be saying, "I never had any idea a city could be so beautiful."
Though not as densely cultured as Europe, South America does have beautiful cities and landscapes. From the Andes' Iguacu Falls -- a spectacular sight that makes Niagara look like a trickle -- to the Amazon River, South America is a wonder.
Best of all, the dollar is strong down there, our winter is their summer, and the cruises are not just right-priced, they are screaming bargains. We saw Norwegian Dream offering a 14-day cruise as low as $599. Unbelievable.
Best New Cruise Port: San Diego West Coasters have always been cruise enthusiasts, with Princess and Crystal Cruises native to California and Holland America based in Seattle. But until recently, Los Angeles was the only active winter cruise port. That has changed with the growth of San Diego as a home port.
San Diego's cruise facilities are well situated -- within walking distance of downtown and the historic Gaslamp District. A 10-minute cab ride gets you to the airport, the original Seaworld, the San Diego Zoo (one of the best in the world), Balboa Park, Mission Beach and more.
San Diego will have 180 ship departures in 2008 including year-round sailings by Carnival, Holland America and Celebrity. Even luxury leader Silversea will offer cruises to the Panama Canal and Hawaii from San Diego next year.
Biggest Industry Changes -- 2007 The biggest news for cruise industry insiders was that so many lines were quietly acquired in whole or part. NCL, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises all received new money and management from the newest player on the block, Apollo Management -- a New York City based investment group.
This company bought stakes in three of the biggest cruise lines not affiliated with Carnival or Royal Caribbean. We now have real competition coming to the big two, which will undoubtedly have an effect on the entire industry.
The other big industry news this year is the retirement of Bob Dickinson, the president of Carnival Cruises. Bob was instrumental in building the modern cruise industry and his imprint will never fade. He coined the phrase "Fun Ships," and showed us passenger ships are not just for the wealthy elite. We like the new Carnival president Gerry Cahill, but he has some mighty big shoes to fill.
Dumbest Moments in Cruising -- 2007 The most ridiculous news coverage we have seen in years was the rash of "people falling off of ships" stories that came out last spring. First was a 40-year-old man who jumped through the protective glass on a balcony railing to plunge into the ocean several decks below -- which must have really hurt because that glass is thick. He was picked up by the Coast Guard and returned safely.
Then there was the couple on a Princess ship who both went over a balcony railing. The coast guard found the man bare from the waist down, claiming he had ditched his breeches for reasons of buoyancy. When the truth came out, "it was revealed" that the couple had been engaging in adult hanky panky just before the lass lost her balance. He jumped in to save her. The woman decided to end her cruise early, slinking home with no comment to the press.
When the mainstream media got hold of the stories, they started wondering "how many people fall off cruise ships?" I found myself wishing the English language had a different world for people who sail downwards through the air due to their own carelessness. People "falling from ships and other horrors of the high seas" articles abounded until we just had to say "stop the madness!"
Most Annoying Cruise Trends of 2007 We suspect some lines are cutting back on dining service staff. Sailing on one "mass market" cruise line, we noticed the menu is shorter and they no longer have sommeliers. (They still charge an 18 percent service fee to bring you a bottle of wine, though, but now an assistant waiter who probably doesn't know Merlot from Jay-lo opens and serves it.)
Servings of wine by the glass are down to less than three ounces for more than $7.00, including the 18 percent service charge. And there is a reason why it isn't called a "tip" instead of a service charge: That would imply they are "insuring promptness," and it would be optional.
All premium drink services in the dining room now come from bar waiters, who must travel a great distance to place their orders, which for specialty coffees is especially burdensome. It's now a good idea to order your dessert coffee during your entree to assure it will arrive on time.
The other trend comes courtesy of our fellow passengers.
Must you get to the ship right after breakfast? Not long ago, arriving early for embarkation helped you avoid the lines. Now, most people arrive at the cruise terminal as early as 11 a.m. Buses full of people are waiting in line behind taxis bringing departing passengers who could have waited.
People are lined up waiting for security to open, and in the terminal waiting for the ship to let guests onboard. And all those people have to wait for the photographer to snap the "we are now boarding the ship" photograph, then wait again for the ship to snap the sail-card ID photograph.
As soon as they board, people line up in the Lido restaurant to get food, schlepping their hand luggage because their rooms are not yet ready. The ships do not even open the fire doors for access to the staterooms until 1 p.m. So why are you there so early? Please, if you don't have to be there at 11 a.m., wait a few hours so the people who must get there early can board easily.
Most Annoying Cruise Trends that Have Gotten Worse Photographers have always been part of the cruise experience, but when did cruise ships become photo labs like Glamour Shots? These days, everyone has a digital camera. So, why hasn't the ship photographer gone away?
Because the ship must sell pictures. So the photographers choke all the important throughways with their backdrops and tripods. Photographers at the gangway and dining room entrance herd group after group into place. They take pictures of everyone -- couple number one, couple number two, the entire family, mother and daughter, just the cousins.
This might be tolerable one night out of the cruise, but they do it night after night. In addition, the paper they now print the pictures on has the quality of newsprint, but they charge $19.95 for an 8 x 10.
The other annoying trend is the art auction. Does anyone go to these for anything other than the free champagne? I made it a point to watch a few this year. Remember the "world's fastest talker" from television? Does he train the auctioneers in how to read the auction disclaimers?
Phrases like "all sales are final" and "we do not guarantee authenticity without a paid appraisal" are glossed over faster than the British Concorde could eat a pigeon. And speaking of pigeons, is that really a $37,000 Picasso the guy eating a crab puff is touching with his greasy fingers?
Most Annoying Trend that Will Change Do I really need a passport? No, not as I write this (December 2007), but you will very soon. And the main thing to remember is this: If you don't have one now, you better be darn sure you have a valid, official birth certificate. Those have a raised seal and come from the courthouse. The thing issued by the hospital with your baby feet prints on it will not work.
Get the passport. It is good for 10 years, and you will soon need it just to go to Canada and Mexico. It is the best form of ID you can have and you will get through immigration faster. Unfortunately, those of you who don't have them are slowing the rest of us down. I watched an immigration official look at a raised seal on a birth certificate 12 different ways from Sunday on my last cruise. I guess they deteriorate.
If your tattered old birth certificate doesn't cut the mustard, they won't let you on the ship. And only you are responsible for having the right documentation -- no refunds. On my last cruise, my brother-in-law had to have his marriage certificate faxed to him at a local Kinkos. Long story, nuff said.
Biggest Industry Change Going Unnoticed in 2007 Just as the government has ignored the rebuilding of New Orleans, America's most famous paddle-wheel steamboat, the Delta Queen, is about to be taken out of service thanks to politicians who only have their own interests at heart. Minnesota Representative James Oberstar (D) and Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye (D) are both blocking federal permission for the boat to continue carrying passengers, by refusing to let out of committee a congressional exemption that has been repeatedly rubber-stamped since 1970.
Another change, this one is for the better, is that most cruise lines have started enforcing new rules for smokers, strictly limiting the areas where people can light up. The dining rooms and the main show rooms are completely off limits.
Worst Industry Events In the same year that Royal Caribbean announced the first female cruise ship captain, two ships were involved in steering accidents that led to passengers abandoning ship. The first was Empress of the North in Glacier Bay, which hit a rock and started to take on water, though it was recovered and towed to a dock for repairs. The other was the MV Explorer, which hit an iceberg near Antarctica and sank. Fortunately, everyone was evacuated first.
Other incidents include ships hitting barges -- a Carnival ship in the lower Mississippi on its way to New Orleans, and most recently the Norwegian Dream hitting a container barge in the port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Both incidents delayed the ships from reaching following ports and caused inconvenience to passengers.
Please, let the women steer! They couldn't do any worse.
Biggest Industry Debacle of 2007 In the "That and $3.75 will get you a Starbucks Chai Latte with Soy" category, the antics of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises owners, the Burke family, get the award. Continuing to spew inaccurate information to their loyal customers, the authorities, and the press about the status of their cruise line, the Burkes claimed they have ships in operation and cruises for sale. In fact, none of their four listed ships is currently sailing and their $25,000 surety bond allowing them to sell cruises in Florida has lapsed.
The entire Windjammer story is so complicated, and ultimately sad, that even the regular press has largely lost interest. It's an amazing story, but you have to wade through too much muck to get it. Shrug your shoulders and shake your head. That's what everyone else is doing.
Biggest "Non-News" Cruise Industry Announcement in 2007 Royal Caribbean's announcement it was forming a teen advisory board was a major yawn. First of all, no one was mentioned by name, no calendar or agenda was produced, no one has followed up on what has been accomplished, and no one really cares what teenagers have to say anyway. What would a teen board advise a cruise line to do, anyway? Replace a day in Glacier Bay with Wrestlemania?
Summing Up 2007 Things are changing in this business. It used to be like a family. Now it's more like an extended family where no one writes Christmas cards anymore. Change is inevitable, but some things remain the same. There are still real gems out there. You just have to look harder for them.