Yesterday, Viking Cruises confirmed what they had previously announced back in March when they christened a massive 18 new river cruise vessels in five days across four countries: the line will take delivery of 12 new river cruise ships in 2015. But while 10 of those will represent additional Viking Longships, it is the last two vessels that are potentially the most significant to the river cruise industry.

Set to debut in 2015, Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla will be the newest ships on the Elbe. Rendering courtesy of Viking Cruises.

Set to debut in 2015, Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla will be the newest ships on the Elbe. Rendering courtesy of Viking Cruises.

Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla are being expressly designed to cruise the Elbe River – a waterway noted for its restrictive height and depth requirements. Because a traditional Viking Longship would be too large to successfully sail the river that borders both Germany and the Czech Republic, Viking has designed two brand-new, “Longship-esque” vessels that will be introduced next March.

Both vessels will be smaller than the typical Longship, with just two passenger decks and a total capacity of 98 guests and a crew of 28. But they will feature some decided Longship favorites, like the Aquavit Terrace and Viking’s patented corridor design that allows true suites to be placed alongside more traditional river cruise accommodations.

One of the suites aboard Viking Hemming - almost indistinguishable from its Longship counterpart. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

True suites – with separate living and sleeping areas – have been important to Viking’s newbuild strategy. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Veranda Suites will measure 250 square feet and will feature separate living and sleeping areas, along with dual French and full step-out balconies. Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla will also offer French Balcony staterooms, as well as staterooms measuring 180 square feet that feature full step-out balconies.

Fourteen standard riverview staterooms with fixed windows (Category E) will be located on Main Deck, aft of the ship’s Restaurant.

One of the greatest innovations aboard Viking Odin and her Longship sisters is the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla will feature the Aquavit Terrace present on their longer Viking Longship fleetmates. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla will join Viking Fontane and Viking Schumann in sailing Viking’s 10-night Elegant Elbe itinerary that operates from Berlin to Prague and reverse. The Elbe is one of Europe’s least-discovered itineraries, largely for the simple reason that as ships have expanded and grown, operators are more likely to offer Danube or Rhine-based river cruises.

While Viking has always offered itineraries along the Rhine, it has been the line’s two smallest, oldest vessels that have operated on the run. It’s not a negative, but rather a simple fact. With thousands of cruisers becoming familiar with the Viking Longships each year, Viking has wisely offered two brand-new vessels alongside two old favorites for the 2015 cruise season.

Ports of call on Viking’s Elegant Elbe itinerary include Potsdam, Magdeburg, Dessau, Wittenberg, Torgau, Meissen, Dresden, Bad Schandau, Litomerice, and Melnik in addition to Berlin and Prague.

This unique itinerary gave me the opportunity to spend two fully-guided days post-cruise in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The beautiful city of Prague, Czech Republic, is featured on Viking’s Elbe itinerary. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

From the Deck Chair will return tomorrow.

 

While I was in Europe last week, floating down the Rhine, one piece of cruise news came across my virtual desk that nearly resulted in my morning coffee being ejected from my mouth: Royal Caribbean’s decision to homeport the forthcoming Quantum of the Seas in Shanghai, only months after entering service out of New York (Bayonne).

Quantum of the Seas will even feature a capsule known as the NorthStar that will whisk guests high above the ship - and the sea. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

If you want to ride the North Star aboard Quantum of the Seas, you have barely half a year to do so. In May, she’ll reposition to Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

That’s right, kids: beginning in June of next year, Quantum of the Seas  – which doesn’t even launch until this fall – will trade New Jersey for Asia, sailing three-to-eight night itineraries that call on ports in China, Japan and Korea. It’s not seasonal, either: she’s there to stay. It’s a move that probably wouldn’t have been as surprising had Royal Caribbean not tied New York so closely to Quantum of the Seas at every opportunity. Even recent press conferences announcing the new dining options were held in the Big Apple.

The official line from Royal Caribbean, according to Chief Operating Officer Adam Goldstein, is this: “Consumers in China have grown to expect the best the world has to offer, and Quantum of the Seas meets that standard like no other ship. We are ready to accelerate the growth of this vital market with a ship that will capture the imagination of travelers looking for a one-of-a-kind vacation experience.”

“Every trend we are seeing in China tells us we can achieve real long-term competitive advantage and appealing returns on our investments in this fast-growing market by accelerating our presence there,” Goldstein said. “We will have to be nimble, but the ability to move fast is one of our strengths.”

The vibrant city of Shanghai can be explored by day or night, thanks to an overnight call on Silver Shadow's fantastic itinerary. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Commons.

The vibrant city of Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Commons.

There’s a lot of buzzwords in there: competitive advantage, vital market, fast-growing market, return-on-investment. It says a lot about Royal Caribbean’s confidence in the Chinese market, but does very little to assure its primarily North American passenger base that they remain equally important.

Now, admittedly, the East Coast of the United States – notably New York and Florida – have been spoiled. They’ve been the de-facto launching grounds for the vast majority of new ships for decades, and they’re used to having the latest-and-greatest homeport in cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and New York. Their disappointment is understandable, particularly when lines like Carnival, MSC and Princess have organized some pretty high-profile launches there in recent months.

Depart from New York this October aboard Crystal Symphony. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Until last week, nearly everything Quantum of the Seas had been tied to New York. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

The reason that Royal Caribbean’s move surprised me is twofold. One, I would have thought the ship was so Americanized (bumper cars, circus classes…) that the Chinese market would have blanched at the product. Not so, apparently. Two, Quantum of the Seas is straight out of the shipyard, more or less, and will have to undergo additional tweaks to menus, signage, and other amenities in order to better cater to the Chinese market. That’s an additional cost. Not to mention, having to re-crew the ship to some degree to ensure that crew members fluent in Mandarin are installed in key positions.

Then, there’s the issue of getting her there. Operational sailings around the tip of South America rarely sail full for mainstream lines, and transpacific crossings aren’t much better, regardless of how many ports you throw at them. Royal Caribbean’s passenger base is predominantly American to this day, and American’s just don’t get the three weeks of holidays needed to do one of those sailings. So sailing the ship over there is likely to be a loss-leader.

Of course, that’s if they even market the crossing. Yesterday, Travel Pulse quoted Executive VP of Operations, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo as saying the line intended to use the 50-day voyage to make enhancements to Quantum‘s retail spaces and galleys in order to better cater to the Chinese market. That, in turn, makes it increasingly implausible that they ‘always’ intended to send Quantum over to Asia.

Mariner of the Seas boasts a striking profile. Photo © Aaron Saunders

Mariner of the Seas in Cabo San Lucas in January, 2010. Her deployment to the West Coast was a welcomed addition, but ultimately, a brief failure. She hasn’t returned since. Photo © Aaron Saunders

Personally, I like that Royal Caribbean is taking a chance with Quantum of the Seas. I’m absolutely baffled by it, and would have put my money on Southampton or Barcelona for an alternate summer homeport, but it’s a lot more creative than the ho-hum Caribbean sailings she was supposed to be doing. For Royal Caribbean fans that don’t mind a few long-haul flights, Quantum of the Seas in Asia could be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like many people will feel that way. If you have a read over on the Royal Caribbean boards on Cruise Critic, the reaction from many North American Royal Loyalists is this: now that Quantum will be homeporting in China, they just won’t sail aboard her. Not even the promise of bumper cars and skydiving simulators are enough to lure customers all the way overseas. All the hoopla that has surrounded this ship since she was announced almost evaporated overnight.

It’s that lack of goodwill towards the line’s existing passengers – and increasing attention from a confused North American media – that has me wondering whether there’s something else at play behind their decision. Sending a brand-new ship to an unproven market when they’ve spent over  a year whipping their most loyal, North American-based cruisers into a Quantum frenzy isn’t just bizarre; it simply isn’t done.

The most common comments on the Cruise Critic Message boards: people barely want to pay to fly to Florida, let alone leave the United States. It’s a trend that seems to be increasing: recently, Norwegian Cruise Line announced it was expanding its East Coast Bus-Cruise program as more cruisers look to avoid flying altogether.

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

You can still sail aboard Quantum of the Seas – it’s just going to take a while to get there. Korean Airlines planes are shown here at Seoul-Incheon Airport. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

This last revelation seems to fit in well with what I’ve been hearing from other cruise lines. Despite all the buzz surrounding Asia, I don’t know a single line operating in the Asian market that is jumping up and down with joy, or collecting money hand-over-fist. The vast majority of operators are barely able to sell their berths in the region, and are having to offer increasingly extravagant incentives in order to do so.

Royal Caribbean has the unique task now of filling Quantum of the Seas on a weekly basis from Shanghai. They already have two ships in the region, Mariner of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas, so no doubt they’ve studied the metrics of such an increase in capacity carefully.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s going to turn out the way things did when Mariner of the Seas repositioned to Los Angeles in 2009: a 23-month long experiment that ends in disappointment.

From the Deck Chair returns tomorrow.

 

It’s almost the start of the Alaskan cruise season here in Vancouver, and that has me thinking about the royal blue-hulled ships of Holland America Line.

Alaska is one of my favorite cruise destinations. It’s second only to Europe, in fact. But it’s not the towns that entrance me in Alaska. Though they can be quite a lot of fun to visit, it’s the wild, untamed beauty of Alaska that brings me back again and again. I’ve sailed the region on a number of different cruise lines, but no one does it quite like Holland America does.

Holland America's Zaandam traveling back down the inlet. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Holland America’s Zaandam traveling through Glacier Bay National Park. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Even though, at 31, I’m not exactly the ‘target demographic’ for the line, I’ve been enjoying Holland America cruises for nearly a decade now. I like that there’s fewer people onboard their ships. The décor is soothing. The service is personable. And their ships are exceedingly well-suited to Alaska, with indoor pool areas and some of the best Spas afloat. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a heated Thermal Lounger in the Greenhouse Spa, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the misty wilderness as it scrolls by.

The soothing Hydrotherapy Pool aboard Holland America's Oosterdam. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The soothing Hydrotherapy Pool aboard Holland America’s Oosterdam. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Many seem to view the Caribbean as the ultimate cruise destination. I disagree. I’d take Alaska over the Caribbean all day, every day. Sure, it’s hot and sunny down there – but nothing beats standing on deck, sipping some (spiked) hot chocolate while watching glaciers calve in Glacier Bay National Park.

A look at our day-by-day Live Voyage Report aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam from 2012:

The bow area of the Zuiderdam on Deck 4 was also opened for passenger use today. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Sailing Glacier Bay National Park aboard the Zuiderdam. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

This year, Holland America has seven ships operating in Alaska:

Amsterdam will spend most of her time sailing from Seattle, operating weeklong voyages that feature either Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm Fjord along with calls in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria, British Columbia. A handful of departure dates will once again reprise her massive 14-night Alaskan Explorer sailings that call on Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, Homer, Kodiak, Anchorage, and Victoria. One of Holland America’s most beautiful vessels, Amsterdam carries 1,380 guests and is 781 feet long.

Westerdam (left) and Zuiderdam (right) docked in Juneau, Alaska. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Westerdam (left) and Zuiderdam (right) docked in Juneau, Alaska. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Oosterdam returns to Alaska for yet another season, though this year it will homeport in Vancouver for the first time. Her primary route will be Holland America’s Northbound and Southbound Glacier Discovery cruises that run between Vancouver and Seward for Anchorage every Sunday. Both itineraries include scenic cruising in Glacier Bay National Park, and mark the first time a Vista Class ship has operated these unique voyages. Oosterdam will also sail a handful of roundtrip departures from Vancouver in September that visit Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan in addition to Tracy Arm Fjord. She is part of the line’s larger Vista Class ships, and carries 1,916 guests.

Holland America's Statendam docked at Canada Place in Vancouver, BC. Photo © Aaron Saunders

Holland America’s Statendam docked at Canada Place in Vancouver, BC. Photo © Aaron Saunders

Statendam, built in 1992, has been sailing to Alaska almost every summer for her entire career, and she’s carved out a loyal following of HAL Mariners that return to her year after year. She’s also the only S-Class ship sailing to Alaska this year, and she reprises her role again from Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise terminal, where she joins the larger Oosterdam in offering North and Southboung Glacier Discovery voyages between Vancouver and Seward. On September 21, she’ll also offer a single roundtrip Vancouver Inside Passage sailing that includes Tracy Arm.

Each Holland America ship boasts its own unique design elements, like this playful sculpture that adorns the Lido Pool onboard the Volendam. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Each Holland America ship boasts its own unique design elements, like this playful sculpture that adorns the Lido Pool onboard the Volendam. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Volendam returns once again to Vancouver to sail weeklong roundtrip voyages from Canada Place as part of Holland America’s immensely popular Inside Passage itineraries that include calls on Glacier Bay National Park, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Departing on Wednesdays, she carries just 1,432 guests – a refreshing change from some of the three-thousand-plus passenger vessels heading to Alaska this year.

Click here to view our deck-by-deck Volendam ship tour!

Westerdam will return again to Seattle, where she’ll operate weeklong roundtrip Alaskan Explorer voyages every Saturday from May 3 until September 30. These call on Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, and are an excellent alternative to Amsterdam for those who want a bigger ship with more activities and options for families. Westerdam carries 1,916 guests.

The Piano Bar is another Holland America Line staple.  Aboard Zaandam, her rich wood bar and ocean-blue seats create a truly nautical feel. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

The Piano Bar is another Holland America Line staple. Aboard Zaandam, her rich wood bar and ocean-blue seats create a truly nautical feel. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Zaandam, sister-ship to Volendam, joins her out of Vancouver’s Canada Place, offering weeklong Inside Passage cruises that call exclusively on Tracy Arm Fjord, along with Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. They depart every Friday between May 2 and September 12. She’s also quite famous for her musically-themed interiors that include a massive, three-story sculpture of an organ in the ship’s atrium and a saxophone signed by former U.S. President, Bill Clinton.

Click here to view our deck-by-deck Zaandam ship tour!

Zuiderdam, built in 2002, was Holland America’s first Vista Class ship, and she’s been a staple in Alaska since her maiden season in 2006. She returns again to Vancouver, sailing on Saturdays between May 10 and September 20 through Alaska’s Inside Passage to Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Glacier Bay National Park. Along with sister-ship Oosterdam, 2014 marks the first season two Vista Class ships have sailed to Alaska from Vancouver. On a side note, she’s my personal favorite Holland America ship for her unusually bright, colourful interior décor.

If you’ve never been to Alaska before, perhaps 2014 is the year to start?

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

From the Deck Chair will return tomorrow!

 

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