NORWEGIAN ESCAPE TO BE FLOATED OUT TODAY

Around 1100 this morning, the brand new, 164, 600 ton Norwegian Escape is due to be cautiously floated out from the covered dock in  Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany.

The enormous ship is the first vessel of the so called Breakaway plus class, due to be rounded out with one more vessel in the same vein- the upcoming Norwegian Bliss.

Today’s carefully co-ordinated float out is a huge milestone in the life of a ship which is already close to completion, in actual fact. Next month, the enormous vessel will be moved a few miles down the River Ems for her final outfitting.

The first crew members will actually board the ship in the next few days, to begin familiarising themselves with the ship and her various operating systems and policies.

Following on from her sea trials, the ship will make a series of short, introductory overnight cruises, as well as holding ‘open house’ for various media events, before she leaves Southampton on her positioning voyage; a ten night cruise over to Miami, pencilled to sail on October 29th.

After initial celebrations and further media hosting on board, the Norwegian Escape will then begin a series of seven night, round trip sailings to the eastern Caribbean, calling at St. Thomas, St. Maartern, Tortola, and Nassau.

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately....

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately….

ENCHANTMENT OF THE SEAS IS MIAMI BOUND IN 2016

In a move that slipped under the radar of this particular blogger last November, Royal Caribbean International has announced that the 82,000 ton Enchantment Of The Seas will shift from its current base at Port Canaveral, to sail from Miami during 2016.

The very popular vessel will operate the programme of cruises currently offered on smaller fleet mate, Majesty Of The Seas (see previous blog).

These involve three day, Friday departures from Miami to Nassau and Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamas island, Coco Cay. Four night, Monday departures will also add the popular, bohemian playground of Key West into the mix.

The 82,910 ton, 2,446 passenger ship was originally built in 1997 as one of the six sister ships of the so-called Vision class. In 2005, the ship was cut in half and lengthened with the addition of a new, 22 metre long mid section that added some 151 extra cabins, suspension bridges, a new water park, and an expanded pool area. At the time, it was felt that the rest of the Vision ships might get similar upgrades, but in fact only the Enchantment Of The Seas underwent this substantial structural upgrade. This work was carried out in a Rotterdam shipyard.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Enchantment Of The Seas is Bahamas-bound from Miami for the 2016 season

Enchantment Of The Seas is Bahamas-bound from Miami for the 2016 season

MAJESTY NOT ABDICATING; ROYAL CARIBBEAN HAS A CHANGE OF HEART AFTER ALL (Updated)

In something of a change of heart, Royal Caribbean International has reversed its decision to transfer the Miami based Majesty Of The Seas to Spanish offshoot, Pullmantur, in 2016.

Instead of being reunited with her two sister ships and former fleet mates, Sovereign and Monarch, the 74,000 ton, 1992 built Majesty Of The Seas will, instead, receive a substantial refit next year, prior to a move north to a new home port in Port Canaveral.

Substantial details on the proposed refit are thin on the ground, but it has been announced that the refurbished ship will have new, bow to stern rapid wi-fi availability.

At present, the Majesty Of The Seas sails on three night cruises to Nassau and Coco Cay each Friday. A four night, weekly Monday sailing adds Key West to the three day roster. It seems almost certain that the Majesty Of The Seas will simply continue to run the same itineraries from her new home port.

It is possible that the decision to retain the still popular ship after all is likely related to current difficult trading conditions for Pullmantur. Adding a third mega ship to the Spanish market might look like simply bad business at the moment.

Still, it beggars the question of which ship will replace the Majesty Of The Seas out of Miami on the popular, short Bahamas runs. As one of the acknowledged cruise industry leaders, it would be strange if Royal Caribbean were to give up on one of it’s most lucrative, high profile routes.

Stay tuned for updates as they become available.

Update:

Many thanks are due to blog reader, cruiseaholictim, for pointing out that RCCL have, in fact, announced that Enchantment Of The Seas will be taking over the short cruise run from Miami, effective 2016.

It seems that Majesty Of The Seas may not be going to Pullmantur after all

It seems that Majesty Of The Seas may not be going to Pullmantur after all

GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

FLYING HIGH; THOMAS COOK ADDS BOSTON AND LOS ANGELES FLIGHTS FROM MANCHESTER

Having started flights from Manchester to both New York and Miami during 2015, Thomas Cook has now announced a brace of new American landfalls for 2016.

Starting in May 2016, the airline will fly recently refurbished A330s on twice weekly flights to both Boston and Los Angeles.

In addition to the normal economy seats, a special, supplemental ‘Premium Service’ offers a range of enhanced facilities and in flight goodies. Among these are:

* Advance seat registration

* Priority check in

* 32 kilogram luggage allowance

* Seats with a pitch of 35″

* James Martin created menus

* Free drinks

* Upgraded in flight entertainment, with touch screens on the back of seats

The new Los Angeles flights will be particularly welcome to northern based travellers. Hitherto, we have had to fly via Heathrow or one of the major continental hubs, or from Manchester with a change at US airports such as Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Exact dates and prices will be advised as and when they become available. As ever, stay tuned.

LA's beaches are on the inflight menu for Thomas Cook from May, 2016

LA’s beaches are on the inflight menu for Thomas Cook from May, 2016

MSC CRUISES; CHANGES AND AN ABOUT TURN

In a move intended to neatly side step areas of increasing potential conflict across the globe, MSC Cruises have announced a cessation of all calls to both the Ukraine and Egypt for the balance of the 2015 season.

Instead, the line will arrange a series of calls in destinations such as Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete and Israel. These will be on offer to passengers of the MSC Sinfonia, Opera, Fantasia and Musica, running through at least until the spring of 2016.

In addition, the heavily booked series of Canary Islands cruises operated by the MSC Opera will be extended, and all sailings will now include an overnight stay on Madeira, the only Portuguese island on the mainstream Canaries circuit. Also new next year is a quartet of calls to the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

In addition, the MSC Divina will return to year round Caribbean cruising from Miami once she returns to the Florida port this November. Benefitting from a newly refurbished terminal in the port, the MSC Divina will offer a series of alternating, seven night sailings to the highlights of the Eastern and Western Caribbean, mainly concentrating on the ‘greatest hits’ ports of call such as Grand Cayman, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico.

Interesting times for the ambitious Italian juggernaut. As ever, stay tuned.

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

CHEERS! NORWEGIAN OFFERS FIRST ‘ALL INCLUSIVE’ SHIP FOR 2016

As of January 2016, Norwegian Cruise Line will be dipping a little toe in the all inclusive pool.

Year round, dedicated Bahamas mainstay, Norwegian Sky, will be going all inclusive on the drinks front at least. The 78,000 ton, 1999 built ship will now include unlimited premium spirits, cocktails, bottled or draft beer up to the value of $11, plus wine by the glass for guests aged 21 and upwards. Guests aged from 3 to 20 will be offered unlimited free sodas and soft drinks.

Interestingly, the offer also applies to all drinks consumed on Great Stirrup Cay as well. The port of call is offered on both weekly itineraries offered by the ship.

Norwegian Sky was the first, purpose built mega ship for the company back in 1999. Originally ordered for Costa Cruises, she was purchased on the slipways and completed for Norwegian. A near sister, the 2001 built Norwegian Sun, spends summers in Alaska, and winters in Mexico and around South America.

At present, the ship sails a well practised routine of three and four night cruises, round trip from Miami, each week. Three night cruises sail each Friday, and call in at both Nassau and the ‘private’ island of Great Stirrup Cay. The four night sailings on Monday add Freeport on Grand Bahama Island to the three night roster.

Norwegian Sky offers the most comprehensive range of dining options of any ship sailing on the short Bahamas circuit out of Miami- she was, in fact, the first to introduce the popular Freestyle Dining  concept- and she also offers the largest number of standard balcony cabins of any ship sailing from Miami.

This looks very much like a test pad for the potential launch of ‘all inclusive’ drinks across the Norwegian fleet. No doubt, the company will be carefully monitoring the reactions to this new venture, perhaps the biggest thus far of the post-Sheehan era at the company.

Interesting times, indeed. As ever, stay tuned.

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

CARNIVAL INCREASE SHORT CRUISE CAPACITY IN MIAMI FOR 2016

With the arrival of Carnival Vista looming large for 2016, Carnival is shuffling the fleet pack for a number of its short, three and four night cruise itineraries over the course of 2016.

Carnival Sensation, long a Port Canaveral stalwart, will shift to Miami in February 2016. Her place on the three and four night Bahamas circuit out of that port will be taken by Carnival Victory, the second ship of the original, 100,000 ton Destiny class.

Once home ported in Miami, the Carnival Sensation will embark on a series of four and five night cruises from the Florida port. The four day cruises will all be Thursday departures, and will offer up ports such as the popular ‘private’ resort of Half Moon Cay, plus Nassau and the perennial favourites, Key West and Cozumel.

Five day cruises will depart each Monday, and will showcase such ports as the new development at Amber Cove, together with Half Moon Cay, Ocho Rios, Grand Turk, Cozumel, Nassau and Freeport.

Built in 1993 by Kvaerner Masa in Finland as the third of the original Fantasy class of mega ships, the Carnival Sensation carries around 2,000 passengers. Coming in at around 70,000 tons, she is a good size for these four and five day jaunts around the Bahamas and the Caribbean. The ship recently benefited from all the ‘Evolutions of Fun’ upgrades, and now also has some ninety-eight balcony cabins grafted onto the superstructure.

While the Carnival Sensation is not the newest or most amenity laden vessel in the Carnival portfolio, the vessel has all the bells and whistles needed for a short, invigorating jaunt. There is a spectacular, nine story atrium lobby complete with glass elevators and its own lobby bar, as well as an entire interior ‘boulevard’ of bars, shops and cafes. And, this being Carnival, the casino is huge, and constantly buzzing.

The ship also boasts the aft facing ‘Serenity’ adults-only area, featuring padded loungers, ambient music and a pair of whirlpools. A recently added water park, complete with slides and lots of splashy fun, will be more than enough to help keep the little ones occupied.

These short, destination intensive cruises are a worthwhile adventure in their on right. If you happen to be in Florida as part of a land package, grafting on one of these short itineraries to your stay is a cost effective, pretty inclusive way at gaining access to some safe, pretty little islands while also enjoying a slice of the sizzling nightlife and dining options that the Carnival brand is synonymous with.

Hit the highlights of the Bahamas and Caribbean aboard a sizzling Carnival 'Fun Ship'

Hit the highlights of the Bahamas and Caribbean aboard a sizzling Carnival ‘Fun Ship’

THE EVERGLADES; A PICTORIAL ESSAY…

If all the weapons grade fun and decadence of Miami and Fort Lauderdale wears a little thin, why not consider a few hours’ exploring the vast, freshwater sprawl of the world famous Everglades?

All manner of nasty stuff lurks in the crooks and crevices of these waters, often mistakenly described as a swamp. In fact, more than ninety per cent of the Everglades is composed of fresh water. It actually constitutes the aquatic ‘green lung’ of Florida.

Mind you, don’t be getting off that air boat anytime soon under your own steam in mid trip….

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AN AFTERNOON AT GREAT STIRRUP CAY, BAHAMAS

Great Stirrup Cay has been the ‘private island’ for passengers of Norwegian Cruise Line since 1977. A novel idea at the time, it allowed passengers to disembark at an exclusive little hideaway where they would be required to do nothing more strenuous than kick back and chill out for one glorious day.

I first went there in 1981, aboard the fabulous, unforgettable Norway, and fell in love with ‘GSC’ at once. I swore then to return.

It took me until 2010, but return I did. These photos, taken over the course of a great weekend cruise aboard the Norwegian Sky, showcase this still beautiful ‘Island of Dreams’. Enjoy!

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