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Cruise3Sixty Vancouver kicked off in a big way today, with CLIA President & CEO Christine Duffy delivering the keynote speech. In a nutshell: the industry is experiencing unprecedented growth. The first of three “General Sessions” held between 8am and 10am, however, will likely be best remembered for Norwegian Cruise Line VP Andy Stewart’s quip about 50 Shades of Grey that brought the house down.
While travel agents and CLIA partners busied themselves with a day of seminars aimed at broadening and enhancing their professional skills, journalists were treated to an ambitious schedule of press conferences jammed between 11:30am and 4:30pm, with only 15-minute breaks in between. Sadly, these were also scheduled concurrent to the opening of the trade show, which only ran for two hours between 2pm and 4pm.
The result? Cruise lines who were scheduled to present near the end of the day got the short end of the stick, with only two, maybe three journalists – including yours truly – in attendance. Which is a shame, because each of these three lines offers an entirely unique cruise experience and individual features that set them apart from the competition.
So, I’m going to give them prominent billing here.
Let’s start with the SeaDream Yacht Club and company president Bob Lepisto. If there’s a more enthusiastic company head, I haven’t met him or her. Bob (if I can call him that) delivered a passionate run-down of what makes SeaDream so special, and what the line has in store for 2014 and beyond.
To recap: this is the line that offers casually-elegant voyages. They could be called luxury, but Lepisto balks at the phrase that people commonly associate with rigid dress codes and stuffy onboard atmosphere.
Instead, SeaDream aims to give their guests a highly-inclusive product that attends to their every need, while recognizing that the experiences both onboard and ashore continue to be important. The line can have as many as 80 percent repeat guests on a single sailing – something Lepisto credits the dedicated crews of SeaDream I and SeaDream II with.
“Our service is second-to-none at sea. We have 95 crew members who, on an average voyage, are serving 100 guests,” he stated. “We have a really nice mix of guests. Our average age is 51-52, about 55% from North America. We do very well in Australia, very well in Brazil. We have a great group of guests form the UK and Scandinavia.
Lepisto also pointed out that consumer buying habits have changed dramatically in the last decade.
“One interesting trend that fascinates me is that researches pointed to the fact that people are more into buying experiences than they are into buying “stuff”, he said. “Fortunately, we’re seeing more people buying full yacht-charters for their 50th birthday or 60th birthday. This sort of thing is happening more and more.”
Can’t afford to charter SeaDream I? No problem – the line offers a plethora of different destinations, including their first true foray into Asia next year and a spectacular Transatlantic crossing from San Juan to London. Not Southampton, or Dover, but straight up the Thames into the heart of London.
That is, of course, if you can pull yourself away from features like the option to sleep under the stars on the line’s famous outdoor Balinese beds.
Moving in reverse schedule order, Lisa McCaskill, VP Sales and Marketing for Scenic Tours here in Canada was on-hand to talk about what’s new and up-coming for the Australian river cruise company and to share some thoughts on the recent flooding that has affected departures throughout the month.
Founded by Glen Moroney, Scenic’s entire philosophy revolves around offering guests more features and unexpected perks in an effort to differentiate themselves in the increasingly-popular river cruise arena.
Some notable features: each of Scenic’s “Space Ships” features GPS map technology linked to televisions in the staterooms and main lounge. These displays are connected to an entertainment system powered by Apple Mac Mini computers, allowing guests to see the GPS map update in real-time. What’s more, they can use their QuietVox headsets onboard the ship and have location-specific commentary during scenic cruising along the waterways of Europe.
Scenic Tailormade is another techno-device that’s sure to prove useful for the independent traveller. Resembling an iPad, these devices come with pre-loaded walking tours for a variety of cities that are then narrowed down according to interest. For example, in Amsterdam the line offers an Old Amsterdam Walking Tour; Rembrandt Walking Tour and a Jewish Walking Tour, all of which feature maps and commentary.
There’s no such thing as “optional” touring with Scenic; every tour is included in the cost of the overall cruise. Every cabin category, right down to the fixed-window riverview staterooms on Deck 1 feature butler service, and a number of perks right down to transfers from the airport are inclusive.
I needed no arm-twisting to go to the Hurtigruten press conference this afternoon after having experienced the line firsthand this past February on a stunning voyage through the heart of Norway in the depths of winter.
The line’s sales director of the Americas shared my enthusiasm. Rolf Logan spoke enthusiastically about the line’s expanded North American presence and some of the new features and excursions the line has up their sleeve, and emphasised that the key to the 120-year-old line can be found in the experience. As he stated, “You can say you didn’t just go to Antarctica; you slept in Antarctica. You didn’t just go to Spitsbergen; you hiked in Spitsbergen.”
Hurtigruten gained enhanced recognition in Norway after national broadcaster NRK aired the longest-continually-running documentary in the world: an actual Norwegian Coastal Voyage, documented from multiple-angles in real-time. Titled Hurtigruten: Minutt for Minutt, (which you can watch, in full, here) that same brand recognition will now be coming to the US and Canada as PBS airs a re-formatted version of the show using the same footage shot by NRK aboard the Nordnorge.
I learned firsthand just how adventurous a Norwegian sailing with Hurtigruten can be when I crossed the Arctic Circle and had a ladel of ice dumped down my collar in celebration, and again when I stayed in the remote Norwegian city of Kirkenes post-cruise at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – literally.
Aboard their globetrotting MS Fram, guests can go snowshoeing in Antarctica, hiking in Arctic Svalbard, or even spend a night in a tent in Antarctica.
One of the newest cruise lines on the block is the one I’m most excited about. Pearl Seas Cruises aims to redefine the small-ship luxury adventure market when it launches next year with their sleek, 210-guest Pearl Mist.
The brainchild of the good folks behind American Cruise Lines, I had a chance to chat with Susan Shultz, director of sales for both companies, about what makes Pearl Seas worth watching – though I have to admit, one look at their itineraries had me convinced this would be the line to watch next year.
Pearl Mist will begin her inaugural year on June 28, 2014, with an 11-night sailing from Baltimore to Halifax. A total of 17 diverse cruises are planned for her maiden season, and include:
- A 10-night Canadian Maritimes voyage from Halifax to Quebec.
- The St. Lawrence Seaway and Thousand Islands sailing over 7 nights between Quebec and Toronto, or reverse.
- The Great Lakes & Georgian Bay, 10 and 11-night voyages between Toronto and Chicago or reverse, traversing the Great Lakes.
- An 11-night journey south from Baltimore to Nassau dubbed Southeast United States.
The Pearl Mist was designed to cruise these waters specifically, but she’s still large enough to offer a number of big-ship amenities like a glass-enclosed restaurant, a dedicated sports area, a Spa and Fitness Centre; elevator access to all decks; and private launches for journeys ashore at ports of call off the beaten path.
Pearl Mist is undergoing her final fitting-out at the Chesapeake Shipbuilding yards in Maryland, United States.
Last but not least, I got all the details on one of my favorite cruise companies straight from the source. Windstar Cruises CEO Hans Birkholz opened the conference by saying, “There has never been a better time to be more excited about Windstar Cruises.”
He’s absolutely right.
The line recently acquired the luxurious trio of cruise yachts that Seabourn Cruises built their reputation off of, and will turn their Seabourn Pride into Windstar’s newest vessel, the Star Pride, beginning next May.
There’s a few very good – yet deceptively simple – reasons Windstar chose to acquire these ships. First and foremost, it opens up their potential destinations and itineraries. These ships are faster and unencumbered by tall masts that have prevented Windstar from sailing to certain destinations, like the Black Sea.
With Star Pride launching next year, Windstar can offer up a roster of unique and varied itineraries, like voyages through the Corinth Canal or true sailings that cover a lot of ground through the paradise that is the Greek Islands.
It also allows Windstar to send their Wind Spirit back to Tahiti after a long sojourn, and to explore another destination: Birkholz confirmed the line would be offering up sailings to Asia between December 2014 and April 2015, though exact details are still pending.
Like the other small-ship niche lines I listened to today, he spoke with great passion about the Windstar product; about how it is designed to offer a unique experience at every turn, one that is as personable as it is romantic. The intimacy of Windstar’s ships was a key theme, with the opportunities to reconnect with loved ones being a prominent part of the sailing experience.
He also alluded to one of the line’s most distinctive features: the fact that they play the title theme from the movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise at every departure.
It’s such a simple touch, yet one that routinely brings guests to tears as their ship sails off into the setting sun to the strains of the Vangelis-composed theme while the brilliant white sails ascend their masts, fluttering in the wind as they do so, looking like birds that may, at any moment, take flight.
In keeping with the Windstar theme, this seems as good a time as any to announce that in August I’ll join the Wind Star for a stunning voyage between Rome and Nice. It will, I hope, be an unforgettable Live Voyage Report, as we return to Windstar for the first time since their massive refurbishment program first began.
Due to the lack of a scheduled lunch break, I had to elect a conference to skip and chose Royal Caribbean. It’s not because I don’t like them – Mariner of the Seas ranks as one of my all-time favorite cruise ships – but more because, if I may be frank, everyone and their dog is covering the forthcoming Quantum of the Seas.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem with conferences like this: how to condense your product into a concise, half-hour snippet of potent quotables to stand out. Other lines can simply wax enthusiastic about the number of waterslides they have, or how big their ship is going to be, or how many sailings they’ll offer out of a single homeport, and they’ll generate press for themselves.
Lines like Hurtigruten and SeaDream can’t do that. Their ships – statistically speaking – are unremarkable. But it’s the journey they take you on in the process, the understated simplicity and elegance in their onboard product, and that intangible something that they provide that makes them so special in the first place.
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