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By PAUL MOTTER
Norwegian Gem made its debut in Boston this last week and will be inaugurated in New York City today! The Godmother of the ship has yet to be announced as NCL plans to announce the winner of the Gem "It" Girl contest during the ceremony today. There are five finalists who all submitted audition videos and voting was conducted by the public at the web site gemitgirl.com.
We will be posting a preview of the ship tomorrow with pictures and descriptions of all the great NCL Free-style features in includes. The 90,000 ton ship has 11 bars and lounges, 10 restaurants, a four-lane bowling alley and huge suites up on the Courtyard Villa deck. The Garden Villa Suites are an amazing 5750 square feet, the largest suite at sea that I know of, and it features a computer-controlled player piano and a few huge plasma-screen televisions with Wii game consoles. The bathrooms boast Jacuzzi tubs next to wall-to-wall ocean-view picture windows.
Passports: Now is the time to get your passports. The State Department is reporting that the backlog is currently cleared so the wait times to receive your passport is back to the normal six weeks. Don't expect this to last long, however. As summer approaches and overseas travel comes back, the wait time will go up again. Last year it reached three months, and it could go even higher this summer as the final deadline looms.
How about giving a passport as a Christmas present? It may seem like a little thing, but think of how it will spark the imagination of the recipient with thoughts about where he or she might go next summer! Keep in mind that we are getting closer and closer to that January 1, 2009 cutoff date when passports will required for all cruisers every time.
And if you cruised two years ago with just a birth certificate and you still think that is enough, let me tell you that immigration precedures when disembarking cruise ships have really been beefed up in the last year. I honestly remember years of not even showing my passport to walk off of a cruise ship returning from the Caribbean or Mexico. Now, it is no different from landing at the airport when coming in from Europe. Everyone gets scrutinized by Customs and Border Patrol officers, and when they have to read a birth certificate they take out pen lights and laser pointers to look at everything on it.
This means the cruise lines are getting stricter about what you need to get onboard a ship as well. They know that if they let you onboard with a birth certificate you may have problems getting off. Worst of all, to fly into the U.S. from anywhere, including the Caribbean or Mexico, a passport is mandatory. So, if you have an emergency while on a Caribbean or Mexico cruise, you will need a passport to fly home.
Best Winter Cruises? It is a cold winter out there, much of the mid-west is frozen and people are even without power. The pictures we have online in CruiseMates of the Gem celebration in Boston shows snow on the decks, which is always an unusual scene, even for Alaskan cruising.
What are the best cruises to take in January (besides "anywhere that's warm")? January is the beginning of "wave season" which the cruise industry knows as the busiest time of the entire year. Caribbean cruises will be selling like hotcakes over the next few months, the cold weather assures that, so if you want to get a bargain our advice is to snap one up as soon as you see it. Do not delay, prices will go up. This is not a time to be looking for an abundance of last-minute bargains.
It may be cold here, but don't forget that in South America it is now the dog days of summer. South America cruises on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Norwegian Cruise Lines are coming in all lengths and prices. Once again, the biggest bargain is Norwegian Dream with 14-night cruises as low as $799 in March. Costa Cruises sails regularly in South America, but is more well suited for people who speak languages other than English.
If you want to go to the Caribbean, we see NCL probably has the best bargains out there. Carnival is always a good value in the Caribbean. Look for cruises close to your home, as gas is expensive. Many hotels now offer free parking for the entire cruise as long as you stay there at least two nights.
For summer cruise shopping, NOW is the time to be booking your Alaska and European cruises, if you haven't already. The state of the art for a cruise these days is to have a balcony cabin, and on most new ships about 80% of all their cabins have a balcony. Still, balcony cabins are the first to sell out on almost every ship, so if you are looking for a bargain you will have to settle for an oceanview or even an inside. If you find a balcony cabin at a good price - snap it up, it will not last more han a couple of months.
Or the other alternative is a suite, like the ones on Norwegian Gem. What could be better than sailing through the Caribbean in your 5750 sq. ft. suite as your butler draws your bath in the Jacuzzi tub with a picture window overlooking the ocean horizon? Don't forget the ice bucket for the champagne.