Category Archives: Cruise Travel

Cruise lines stay the course in Puerto Vallarta

Cruise lines are staying the course and keeping Puerto Vallarta on the schedule, days after 22 Carnival passengers were robbed just outside the Mexican resort town during a ship-sponsored tour.

“We are aware of the recent incident,” said Julie Benson, Princess vice president for public relations. Benson said Princess’ security has reviewed the situation and, “based on the information available at this time,” decided that it was safe to proceed with Sapphire Princess’ call today.

“Princess Cruises does not offer this specific tour, nor do we offer any excursions to this area,” she added.

The ill-fated tour took Carnival Splendor passengers to El Nogalito, an area some 40 miles outside of Puerto Vallarta known for its lush natural setting. While they were returning to the ship, masked assailants stopped the bus and robbed the cruisers of their money, watches, cameras and other valuables. A statement from Carnival said there were no injuries, and all passengers returned safely to the ship.

Calls by Disney Wonder, due in port Wednesday, and Carnival Splendor (Thursday) also remain unchanged, according to spokesmen from each line. Like Princess, Disney does not offer the tour in question.

After the robbery, Carnival announced it was canceling the tour in question — a guided nature trail excursion sold and booked through the line — indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Guillermo Ohen, director of Puerto Vallarta’s Tourism board, told Cruise Critic that the operator chosen by the line went off course, deviating from the route as planned. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen refuted that claim, saying that the tour was operating as scheduled at the time of the robbery.

On Saturday, Latitude International, the public relations firm representing the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board, called Thursday’s robbery an “extremely rare incident.” A statement on Latitude’s Facebook page said, “minutes after we learned of the incident representatives from the local and state government, tourism leaders and tour operators [moved] to provide assistance to those involved and police and the district’s attorney office started their investigation.”

The robbery comes at a rough time for the beleaguered Mexican Riviera cruise region, which has seen numerous lines pull out over safety and security concerns, as well as issues with demand. Lines have primarily cut calls in Mazatlan, which has seen its scheduled ship visits plummet from 200 in 2010 to roughly a dozen in 2012, but Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta have also suffered.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued a new travel warning for Mexico. It re-affirmed an earlier warning, in effect since April 2011, saying that millions of Americans safely visit the country annually, and that the majority of drug-related violence happens near the Mexico-U.S. border and along drug-trafficking routes, rather than in resort towns.

This is not the first case of cruise passengers being targeted while on shore excursions. In November 2010, 17 Celebrity Mercury passengers on a tour bus in St. Kitts were robbed at gunpoint. In 2009, 18 cruise passengers on two separate ship-sponsored tours were robbed, again at gunpoint, in the Bahamas.

More from Cruise Critic

Picking the best large-ship cruise lines

The Queen Mary 2 makes its way through Geiranger Fjord in Norway.

Is the most magical place on earth a cruise ship? The Disney Dream surely gets close. With a 765-foot water slide, a two-deck spa and a French restaurant inspired by the film “Ratatouille,” it’s no wonder Disney ranked as one of the world’s best large-ship cruise lines.

Slideshow: See the ratings and the reasons

Every year, Travel + Leisure asks readers to rank their favorite cruise lines based on staterooms, food, activities, service and value. Delivering on these characteristics is especially challenging for large-ship lines, which have capacities of more than 600 passengers, and can be as large as the No. 9-ranked Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and the Allure of the Seas, each of which can carry up to 5,400 passengers.

But what a large ship can deliver is a seemingly endless variety of amenities and curated programs. And it’s these features that are luring passengers: According to a recent Cruise Lines International Association report, the number of travelers that have been opting for a cruise trip has grown at an average rate of 7.6 percent annually over the past 10 years.

More travelers don’t mean higher prices this year, thanks to the launch of new-build ships: 15 total in 2011. “More luxury ships — along with the state of the economy — have driven down pricing to unprecedented levels,” says Monty Mathisen of Cruise Industry News. As a result, he suggests travelers should be on the lookout for steep discounts, two-for-ones and added value in the form of free airfare, shore excursions and onboard spending credits.

Further discounting is likely in the wake of the January 2012 Costa Concordia incident off the coast of Tuscany. While it has rattled the nerves of some potential cruisers, the industry’s overall record for safety remains strong. And there are concrete precautions you can take such as buying travel insurance (from a non-cruise owned company), checking Coast Guard vessel inspection reports and reviewing the evacuation plans posted on the back of their cabin doors and the safety videos that run in most cabins.

Selecting the right cruise line and itinerary to fit your own interests and comfort level has never been easier. No. 7-ranked Celebrity Cruises’s Silhouette, for example, has a multimillion-dollar modern art collection, while foodies will gravitate to the Oceania Marina, operated by No. 3 cruise line Oceania, for Jacques Pépin’s first Lyonnaise-inspired namesake restaurant.

To lure even more new travelers to the seas, cruise lines are updating ship interiors and adding extra panache on new builds. Who does it best? According to Travel + Leisure readers, the No. 1-ranked Crystal Cruises, which earns top marks for its exemplary service. On the cruise line’s Serenity and Symphony ships, travelers are escorted to chic staterooms with Egyptian-cotton linens; some have mosaic-tiled bathrooms.

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New Disney Fantasy cruise ship sails this month

At Disney Fantasy’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, aspiring young princesses receive the full fairy-tale treatment by their very own Fairy Godmother-in-training who transforms them with magical makeovers.

NEW YORK — The Disney Fantasy, a 130,000 ton, 1,115-foot-long addition to the Disney Cruise Line, arrived at Manhattan’s Terminal’s Pier 88 last week from Germany, where the ship was built.

The christening was held on Thursday night. Actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted the evening, leading the ship’s production cast in several song and dance numbers that poked fun at Disney’s over-the top tendencies and commercial prowess. The lyrics “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from the classic “Mary Poppins,” song were replaced with “super splashy synergistic glitzy celebration.” Another song “At the Buffet” was sung to the tune of “Under the Sea.”

An opening film sequence was a tribute to the long-standing Disney-New York connection. (Mickey Mouse was first introduced to the public in New York in 1928, and the song ”It’s a Small World” debuted at the World’s Fair here in 1964.) Actors sported T-shirts with the heart in the “I Love New York” slogan replaced by a red Mickey Mouse-shaped heart.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld delivered an edgy, self-effacing, New York-centric, Jewish humor-laced monologue. “Oh my god, I’m on a boat. Finally, I get to see what the end of my career will be like. It’s not so bad,” he said, joking about his future retirement. 

Harris worked the crowd, which included Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I want to take a cruise, but I can’t afford it,” Bloomberg joked, because his salary is only $1 dollar a year. After the show, singer Mariah Carey (assisted by Mickey Mouse), led the christening. A human-size faux champagne bottle was popped, dispensing confetti to the crowd.

The Disney Fantasy, the line’s fourth ship, is similar to sister ship Disney Dream, which launched in early 2011. But how different are they? The ships are the same length and footprint, with 1,250 staterooms and suites and a capacity for 4,000 passengers. They share many features, like “rotational dining,” during which servers stay with families throughout the voyage as they change restaurants. But many enhancements — everything from entertainment and expanded kids’ programming to dining and nightlife — are new on the Disney Fantasy.

Courtesy Disney Cruise Line

Disney’s newest cruise ship, Disney Fantasy, embarks on its maiden voyage March 31 from Port Canaveral, Fla.

Here is an overview of some notable differences:

Itinerary 
The longer cruising time of the Disney Fantasy, which sails for seven days compared to three- and four-day cruises on the Disney Dream, is a main difference. More time on the ship allows guests a greater opportunity to do more activities, which is why the creators have enhanced a number of features. 

Atrium
One of the main differences is the overall design concept, said Joe Lanzisero, senior vice president, creative, for Walt Disney Imagineering, who oversaw the design elements for both ships. Art deco is the main decorative theme for the Disney Dream, while it is art nouveau for the Disney Fantasy. The style is the connective tissue throughout the ship and strongly reflected in the ship’s three-deck open atrium, where peacock-inspired designs and colors — blue, green, pink and gold — appear in the chandeliers, tiles, carpet and other details.

“It’s a balance of Disney whimsy and elegance,” said Lanzisero. “No detail was overlooked.” The art nouveau colors, soft shapes and motifs are subtle and layered, he said. “They do not jump out at you; the deeper you dive, the more you see.” 

Dining
The Royal Court, a new restaurant, serves French continental cuisine and features décor elements inspired by a number of Disney films. The chandeliers, chair backs and columns are inspired by “Beauty and the Beast,” and the main chandelier, wall scones and decorative patterns of the bread baskets, throne-style chairs and circular floor plan are modeled after the coach in “Cinderella.”

The Animator’s Palate includes a new dining experience called “Animation Magic,” during which guests become animators for the night by drawing their own characters on placemats, which are taken by the staff. Later in the evening, each drawing becomes animated and incorporated into the presentation shown on a number of screens throughout the dining room.  At the end of the show, each guest name appears in the credits.

Europa entertainment district
In this European-themed, adult-only nighttime entertainment area, a collection of clubs, pubs and lounges — each named and decorated in honor of night spots in Italy, France, Ireland and London — provide adult-only escapes. Ooh La La, an elegant French champagne bar inspired by a jewelry box and decorated like a boudoir from Versailles, with velvet-tufted walls and ornate mirrors, serves a private label champagne by Taittinger. The Tube, a London underground-themed nightclub, recalls the city’s mod and pop-culture period. At Skyline, the bar has windows with changing views of nine city skylines on 65-inch LCD screens.

Water activities
Like the Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy has the AquaDuck, a 765-foot water coaster that is cantilevered over the edge of the ship, but it also has several new elements including AquaLab, a 1,800-square-foot water play area for families boasting pop jets, geysers and bubblers, and Satellite Sun Deck, an adult-only area with Satellite Falls, a water feature with a circular splash pool with benches and a rain curtain.

Entertainment
Two new original live stage shows will be performed in the 1,340-seat Walt Disney Theatre: “Wishes,” a short musical about three best friends and the importance of staying connected to one’s inner child, and “Disney’s Aladdin — A Musical Spectacular,” based on the animated film “Aladdin.”

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
Children can be transformed into princesses and pirates at this new feature. 

Enchanted Art
A new interactive scavenger hunt, detective-type, self-paced game, “The Case of the Stolen Show,” featuring The Muppets, can be played through Enchanted Art — wall art that animates when guests approach. As guests move around the ship, they uncover clues via more than a dozen pieces of Enchanted Art and physical “evidence.”

In some circles, the new ship seems to be garnering a warm welcome.

“Disney ships are considered among the most attractive cruise ships afloat,” said Dennis Nienkerk, a luxury cruise specialist with Strong Travel Services in Dallas, “reminiscent of true ocean liners of years gone by.” 

And the Disney Fantasy “is a natural evolution of the Disney quality and theme,” Nienkerk said. Along with the Dream, it will “set a new standard for family cruising. There really isn’t anything quite like it. They eclipse all other cruise lines when it comes to extensive programs for kids,” devoting more space — by a wide margin — to activities for children and teenagers.

In recent years Nienkerk said he has seen a steady increase in the demand for Disney cruises. “They offer very high-end service that keeps children fully occupied and enthralled, and parents can escape all day if they wish” he said, adding that the cruises are ideal for family and even multigenerational bonding. “They cost a little more, but parents feel it is worth every penny.”

Taking a Disney cruise “is a wonderful experience for adults. It’s not just for children,” said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. Some couples will take a Disney cruise and leave their kids at home, she said, crediting the company’s constant innovation and penchant for “transporting you to a happy place.” 

“I think what Disney does so well is that they always want to improve the experience. Disney truly listens to what customers want,” said Wetty. “Each ship has gotten a little bit better.”

The Disney Fantasy’s maiden voyage is scheduled for March 31, from Port Canaveral, Fla., which will be the home port. Itineraries will alternate between eastern and western Caribbean destinations. Rates start at $959 per person for a standard inside stateroom. The Disney Cruise Line recently announced that cruises will be sailing from new ports, including New York, Galveston, Texas, and Miami, and new itineraries and destinations, like Venice, Italy, and the Greek Islands, will be offered. 

More on TODAY Travel

 

After cruise ship fire, Costa switches ships in Europe

Eleonor Bradwell / AP

Passengers rest on the deck of the Costa Allegra cruise ship on Feb. 28, 2011. The disabled ship carrying more than 1,000 people docked in the island nation of the Seychelles March 1 after three days at sea without power when a fire broke out in the generator room.

In the wake of an engine room fire that crippled Costa Allegra and sidelined the ship indefinitely as it undergoes repairs, Costa Cruises has announced that it will be redeploying the Red Sea-based Costa Voyager to cover for the out-of-service vessel.

Beginning March 18 and continuing through at least November, the 832-passenger Costa Voyager, which was acquired in November 2011 from Spain-based sister line Iberocruceros, will take over the 792-passenger Allegra’s Europe itineraries. Voyager’s Red Sea itineraries will be suspended temporarily. (Costa Allegra was sailing a 28-day repositioning cruise between Madagascar and Savona when the fire broke out; the cruise was scheduled to end on March 18.)

Costa is reaching out to passengers on affected sailings. Here’s what you need to know.

For passengers booked on Costa Allegra
Costa Voyager will sail the following Allegra itineraries: Mediterranean and Northern Europe cruises, March 18 – July 1; a nine-night cruise from Amsterdam to Savona, July 13; weeklong Mediterranean cruises, July 23 – Aug. 20; cruises of various lengths in the Mediterranean, from Aug. 28.

Passengers booked on a Costa Allegra cruise may choose to cancel without penalty. These travelers will receive a full refund and a future cruise credit worth 30 percent of the original cruise fare.

For passengers booked on Costa Voyager
Costa Voyager will not sail its “Corals and Ancient Treasures” Red Sea itinerary for at least the remainder of Costa’s fiscal year (through November). Passengers booked on these cruises will be switched to an equivalent cruise and have their fares protected.

Alternatives include seven-night Middle East cruises on Costa Favolosa; seven-night Caribbean cruises on Costa Luminosa; and seven-night Eastern or Western Mediterranean itineraries on Costa Atlantica, Costa Classica, Costa Fascinosa, Costa Favolosa, Costa Magica, Costa Romantica or Costa Serena.

Costa will also reimburse airline changes fees of up to $250 in the form of an onboard credit.

Passengers who choose instead to cancel will each receive a full refund and a future cruise credit worth 30 percent of the original cruise fare.

Secrets to the 10 most popular cruise ports

Courtesy Princess Cruises

Princess Cays in the Bahamas, along with Nassau, is among the 10 most popular cruise ports in the world.

 

If you’re planning a cruise in 2012, chances are high that you’ll be traveling to the Caribbean. According to CruiseCompete.com‘s annual report, nine of the 10 most popular cruise ports in the world are in the Caribbean (or close enough to count).

The website’s list, which is compiled from cruise quotes requested by potential customers, shows that Alaska is also a perennial favorite for cruisers. Several Inside Passage ports made the cut, with Juneau coming out as the most requested cruise stop in the 50 states.

With so many people wanting to go to the same places, you might worry about crowds—but you don’t need to. It turns out that even the hottest port has a few places where you can get off the beaten path. Here are some recommendations that will make you feel like you’re in the know, before you get off the ship.

Slideshow: See all the most popular cruise ports 

1. Nassau, Bahamas
Just 180 miles from Miami, the Bahamas are usually the first or last stop on an eastern Caribbean cruise (even though the archipelago is technically in the Atlantic). People love the islands — there are approximately 700 in all — for first-class snorkeling, casinos and fine dining, and it’s top four ports are Nassau, Princess Cays, Great Stirrup Cay and Half Moon Cay, it’s the most requested country in the world for cruising, according to CruiseCompete. Two of them made the list for the top 10 most visited ports in 2011, including the capital, Nassau, which is a major shopping center.

Secret: If you’d rather mingle with locals than join the crowd heading to Senor Frog’s, take the Number 10 Jitney to Arawak Cay, where you’ll find several stands serving up fried seafood. Go to Goldie’s, and order a cold Kalik beer with some conch fritters; if you go to the back porch, sometimes you’ll see workers pulling up the conch from the water.

2. Cozumel, Mexico
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula continues to draw sun seekers who want some culture with their cruise, particularly this year when the Mayan calendar predicts the end of days. But there’s plenty of room for fun, too. Cozumel, an island off the coast, offers countless snorkeling and water-based activities, as well as gorgeous beaches: Corona ads are often shot here.

Secret: Can you stand the heat? If so, the Mayan Steam Lodge/Temazcal experience — a spiritual sauna-like ceremony that includes native rituals — may be for you. Afterward, you’ll jump into the property’s freshwater cenote (underground spring) to cool off (there are also showers, if you’d prefer to rinse off there). The four-hour excursion costs $80 per person, and includes transportation to and from the ship.

3. Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
If you’re on an eastern Caribbean cruise, you’ll probably stop in St. Thomas, as it’s one of the world’s busiest cruise ports. A Mecca for duty-free shopping, the Charlotte Amalie port has plenty of jewelry, perfume, and electronics stores; check prices at a few shops before you buy to ensure the best deal. St. Thomas can also be a good place to unwind on a beach or provide a good jumping-off point for exploring the nearby island St. John, which is quieter and less developed.

Secret: While everyone else on your ship heads for the famed Magens Bay beach, pick up some groceries at Crown Bay Marina for a picnic lunch and catch a ferry to Water Island, sometimes considered the fourth Virgin Island. Not only is the sea at the island’s palm-lined Honeymoon Beach calm, the cove is quiet — you won’t find the shops or tour operators here that you see on other St. Thomas beaches. 

4. Philipsburg, St. Maarten / St. Martin
One island, two cultures: With portions settled by the French and the Dutch, the island is one of the smallest to be governed by two countries (don’t worry, though, almost everyone speaks English). Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, rivals St. Thomas for duty-free shopping, while the towns of Marigot and Grand Case on the French side are filled with  fine and casual restaurants with French flair where you can find dishes like escargot (snails) or bouillabaisse (fish soup).

Secret: If you don’t want to join the crowds breathing jet fumes at Maho Beach, take a short cab ride to French Cul-de-Sac, where you can catch a ferry to Pinel Island (regular service starts around 9 a.m.). The uninhabited island off St. Martin has several restaurants where you can rent beach chairs, have drinks and go snorkeling; there’s a designated snorkel trail in a protected marine reserve on the island’s south side, where you can spot sea fans, urchins, turtle and rays among the coral. 

5. Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Known for offshore banking, the Cayman Islands have a natural side beyond the shops of George Town. Grand Cayman is one of the few places where you can see the world’s most endangered iguana, the blue iguana, and thousands of tourists converge on Stingray City to watch the sea animals. Seven Mile Beach offers an uninterrupted view of the Caribbean that seems like a postcard come to life.

Secret: If you like Jimmy Buffet music, catch the Grand Cayman’s resident beach bum, the Barefoot Man (in real life, George Nowak). He plays most Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Reef Resort on the island’s East End. If you don’t have time to catch a show, pick up a CD for $16 in one of the souvenir shops in George Town.

6. San Juan, Puerto Rico
It’s hard to escape history in Puerto Rico; its capital, San Juan, dates back to the 16th century. The immense San Felipe del Morro fortress anchors Old San Juan and Ponce de Leon, the island’s first governor, is buried at the Cathedral of San Juan. If you venture off into the countryside, you’ll find beaches, rain forests and a bioluminescent bay where you can kayak.

Secret: Puerto Rico’s cuisine is infused with unique Latin flavors that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Caribbean. Why not spend a few hours learning how to duplicate the recipes at home? Flavors of San Juan teaches you how to make either tapas or Puerto Rican food in two-hour group classes that include a full meal and a recipe book that you can bring home. SanJuanfoodtours.com, advanced reservations required, $98 per person for a 2-hour group class 

7. Grand Turk, Turks Caicos
Although technically in the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Caribbean, the island chain of Turks Caicos has the glorious, talcum-powder-soft sand beaches and turquoise skies that make the region famous. While luxury vacationers flock to Providenciales and celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Christie Brinkley, and Keith Richards have homes on Parrot Cay, Grand Turk has become the country’s main cruising center, with a large terminal and new shops.

Secret: If you love stamps (or love someone who does), make a stop at the Philatelic Bureau, located on Church Folly street. The island is known for its colorful and unusual issues, which are prized by collectors. 

8. Juneau, Alaska
An Inside Passage cruise appears on many bucket lists, and no wonder. The state’s scenery, particularly its magnificent glacier- and wildlife-viewing opportunities, are unparalleled. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, Juneau, the state’s capital, is accessible only by water or air. Nature is all around you: Look for bears fishing in the streams near Mendenhall Glacier, and eagles nesting on the slopes of Mount Roberts.

Secret: Once you get out of downtown, cruise ship crowds disappear, or at least it feels that way; Alaska’s vastness has a way of making people seem insignificant. With hiking trails and a stone labyrinth garden, the Shrine of St. Therese, on a peninsula about a 20-minute drive from Juneau (take a taxi), is a reflective place to commune with nature. Visitors often spot seals, whales, and otters nearby. 

9. Roatan, Honduras
The Bay Islands, which lie about an hour north of the Honduras mainland, have become a major attraction for cruise ships, which come for the area’s colorful fish and clear, warm waters. Roatan has become the center of commercial development for the islands, and you’ll find countless opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and interacting with marine life such as grouper, moray eels, turtles, and rays.

Secret: Give your tastebuds a charge with a jam and jelly tasting at Marble Hill Farms on the East End of the island. Sample flavors include hibiscus jelly, mutton pepper jelly (made with chili cabro, this one has quite a kick) and island plum jelly made from fruit grown on the property. You’ll need to take a taxi to get to The Farm; once you’re there, have spiny lobster for lunch at their restaurant, the Crow’s Nest. 

10. Princess Cays, Bahamas
Eleuthera, one of the Out Islands, is the other Bahamas port that made the top 10. Here, you can swim and sunbathe at private beaches and resorts without safety concerns (the U.S. State Department does warn about the possibility of muggings and other crime occurring on New Providence Island, where Nassau is located).

Secret: Located on the island of Eleuthera, the private beach resort owned by Princess gives you a glimpse of how laid back life on the Out Islands can be. Most people spend their time on Princess Cays either on the beach or in the water (head to the sand early to corner a lounge chair and bring your snorkel gear to get up close and personal with the colorful corals, fish, and sponges that blanket the ocean floor). If you want to do some exploring, there’s a small local cemetery that contains the graves of some of the island’s early 1900’s residents. The cemetery is walking distance from the beach — just make sure you wear bug spray and solid shoes for the mile-long trek.