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U.S. Declares Alaska's Cook Inlet Belugas Endangered

Along with glaciers, moose, and purple mountains' majesty, whales are among the primary draws that lure cruise travelers to Alaska each summer. The stars of the show are humpbacks and orca, but among the supporting players is the small, white beluga whale -- the cute one with the rounded beak.

One of only three whale types (along with narwhale and bowhead) that spend all their lives in cold water rather than heading south for the winter, beluga swim in large packs and feed on salmon, making the mouths of rivers with salmon runs the best places to see them. For years, the Cook Inlet belugas have been the ones most often seen by cruise passengers: From Anchorage, you can often see them by driving out the Seward Highway, just south of town, and keeping your eyes on the waters of Turnagain Arm.

But all is not well. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov) announced that the group is in danger of extinction and has been listed as an endangered species.

"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service.

The Cook Inlet beluga population declined nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, based on annual scientific surveys. In 1994, their numbers were estimated at 653; for 2007Â?2008, that number was down to 375. Protections even on Native subsistence hunting were put in place beginning in 1999, but the population is still not recovering.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas in Alaska, along with those in Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea. The Cook Inlet population is considered to be the most isolated, based on the degree of genetic differentiation and geographic distance between the Cook Inlet population and the four other beluga stocks.

The recovery of the Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by industrial activities and related pollution, oil and gas exploration and production, disease, strandings (occasionally, a group will run out of water when chasing salmon on a falling tide), and predation by killer whales.

Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales must first consult with NOAA's Fisheries Service to determine potential effects. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

Royal Caribbean's Oasis to Feature Full "Neighborhood" for Kids

Just a little over a year from now, Royal Caribbean International (www.royalcaribbean.com) will launch Oasis of the Seas, the vessel it hopes will redefine the meaning of "cruise ship" in a way even its groundbreaking Voyager- and Freedom-class ships did not. A full 38% larger than the Freedom-class vessels (which currently hold the record for largest passenger ships ever built), Oasis will carry 5,400 passengers and about 2,000 crew, and will soar 16 stories above the sea, but its real innovation is in its layout, with full "neighborhoods" of related attractions providing a nearly urban vacation experience.

To date, Royal Caribbean has revealed six "neighborhoods" that, according to the line, "will provide vacationers with the opportunity to seek out relevant experiences in various locales based on their personal style, preference, or mood." Now, it's lifted the veil on the very last of them, an enormous, 28,700 square foot Youth Zone with various themed play areas, teen areas, and the line's first nursery for infants and toddlers.

"Oasis of the Seas will offer more of everything for every member of the family, including more for our younger guests," said RCI President and CEO Adam Goldstein. "The Youth Zone aboard Oasis of the Seas will continue to build on our award-winning Adventure Ocean youth and teen programs, and expand to include dedicated space and programming for our guests as young as six months."   An enhancement of Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean youth program, the kids program aboard Oasis will be offered in spaces designed and equipped specifically for designated activities. Within the Youth Zone, "Kids Avenue" will serve as the main promenade for young cruisers to access the various Adventure Ocean areas, which will include:

  • Separate play and activities spaces dedicated to three age groups: Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (ages 6 to 8), and Voyagers (ages 9 to 11).
  • The Workshop, a room where families can learn scrapbooking skills or create personalized jewelry.
  • Imagination Studio, a space where kids can explore the world of color and imagination through the "Adventure Art by Crayola" program.
  • Adventure Science Lab, where science-minded kids can expand their knowledge.
  • Play, a circular rumpus room where kids can participate in a variety of sports and games.
  • Adventure Ocean Theater, a children's theater at sea where kids can learn about theatrical productions, take part in talent shows, or sign up for hip hop dance classes.
  • Kid's Arcade, stocked with video games.

The ship's teen-only spaces -- the "Fuel" disco, the "Living Room" hangout space, and a large teens-only outdoor deck -- will be located one deck above the Adventure Ocean areas and adjacent to the ship's Sports Deck, with its two FlowRider surf simulators, miniature golf-course, and volleyball/basketball court. The Living Room will offer a "mock-tail" bar serving non-alcoholic drinks, "Scratch DJ 101" classes, and computers with Internet connection.

The physical separation of the teen-only spaces from younger Adventure Ocean guests was recommended by Royal Caribbean's Teen Advisory Board, a group of teens recruited last year to identify what youths between the ages of 12- and 17-years would want to see aboard future Royal Caribbean ships.   At the opposite end of the kids' spectrum, the ship's colorful Royal Babies and Tots nursery will allow parents to leave their babies (aged six months minimum) in the care of trained professionals while they enjoy the more adult options onboard. Open daily, the nursery will offer drop-off options in the daytime and evening, carefully maintaining an optimum staff to child ratio. Staff will host various playgroups for babies and tots, and there will also be free-time play for parents and children.

In addition to the Youth Zone, Oasis will offer six neighborhoods dedicated to adults and families. For a rundown, see our extended preview of the ship.

Carnival News: Back to Galveston, Balconies for Sensation, and No New (Fuel) Taxes

Carnival Returns to Galveston: On September 12-13, Hurricane Ike and its related storm surge hit the Texas port city of Galveston like a hammer, forcing a massive evacuation, wrecking homes and businesses, and sinking the city's historic downtown under ten feet of water. Residents were kept out of the city for ten days as relief workers struggled to restore basic infrastructure. The city's tourism economy ground to a complete halt, and Carnival's Conquest and Ecstasy -- then the only ships sailing from the city -- repositioned to the Port of Houston's Bayport Cruise Terminal, from which they maintained their scheduled Western Caribbean itineraries.

On October 22, Carnival announced that the 2,052-passenger Ecstasy will resume year-round 4- and 5-night cruises from Galveston on Saturday, November 1, with the 2,974-passenger Conquest resuming its year-round 7-night service one day later, on Sunday, November 2.

"We are extremely pleased to be resuming service from the Port of Galveston and extend our congratulations and appreciation to the port and the Galveston community as a whole for enabling us to return so quickly," said Gerry Cahill, Carnival's president and CEO.

Baby Got Balconies: Meanwhile, Ecstasy's sister-ship, the 2,052-passenger Carnival Sensation, will be going into dry-dock in January, during which 98 of her staterooms will be retrofitted with new 230-square-foot balconies. Twenty-four of the new balcony staterooms will be located mid-ship on both the port and starboard sides and 12 will be located near the stern, while the other 62 will be located within the aft section of the ship.

The stateroom modifications are just one aspect of the ship's 35-day, multi-million-dollar renovation, which will also include refurbishment of all cabins and the addition of a WaterWorks aqua park, "Circle C" hangout room for kids 12 to 14, "Serenity" relaxation area for adults, and a redesigned tropical-themed main pool area.

Following its dry-dock, Sensation will return to its regular schedule of 3- and 4-night Bahamas cruises from Port Canaveral, Florida.

Carnival Corp. (Sort of) Nixes Fuel Supplement for New 2010 Bookings: Know how expensive it's been to fill your car's gas tank this past year? Now imagine if you only got 30 feet per gallon. That's been the problem cruise lines have faced, with explains why nearly all of them have imposed a fuel supplement on passengers this year, charging between $5 and $10 per day extra per passenger to make up for increased costs.

Carnival Corporation -- parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, and several European and Australian brands -- was the first to levy the charge back in November 2007, effective for all passengers sailing on or after February 1, 2008. Now, though, the company has ruled that effective October 31, 2008, the existing fuel supplement will be eliminated for all new bookings on 2010 departures. But here's the catch: As soon as the surcharge is dropped, a price increase on 2010 sailings will become effective. Tricky! But, there is good news for consumers too, in the form of guidelines under which the current fuel supplement may be reimbursed to passengers.

For 2008 and 2009 departures, if the New York Mercantile Exchange Index's price for light sweet crude oil is $70 per barrel or less at the 2:30pm close of business as reported by Reuters on each of the 25 consecutive trading days ending five trading days prior to the guest's cruise departure date, the fuel supplement will be refunded in the form of a shipboard credit.

Got that?

Princess Spruces Up Star with Adults-Only Area, Outdoor Movies, and More

Ships need their dry-docks like your car needs its annual tune-up -- except that most folks don't take the opportunity to add movie screens and spa cabanas to their Priuses and SUVs.

On the weekend of October 11-12, Princess Criuses' 2,600-passenger Star Princess set sail following a three-week dry-dock that updated a number of her public areas and added features that have become popular standards aboard the line's newer ships, and are now rolling out to the rest of the fleet.

First among them is The Sanctuary, a shaded, adults-only relaxation space located above the pool. Three-quarters canopied and dotted with lounge chairs, couples' loungers, trees, and private cabanas, it's a perfect onboard chill-out space, with light meals and beverages available from your deck chair, massages doled out in two private cabanas, and "serenity stewards" tasked with making sure things stay quiet. Star Princess, which was launched in 2002, is the first of Princess's older ships to be retrofitted with the area, after its successful introduction aboard Crown Princess in 2006 and Emerald Princess in 2007.

Ditto for Star Princess' new pizza-style atrium, a concept which also debuted on ,em>Crown and Emerald. Rather than simply acting as a glorified entrance lobby, the atrium now features an array of dining and entertainment opportunities including the International Café (serving specialty coffees, baked goods, paninis, salads, and tapas) and Vines wine bar, which features 30+ wines by the glass plus a selection of artisan meats and cheeses.

Princess' trademark "Movies Under the Stars" poolside screen was also added, giving guests the opportunity to view films, concerts, and special events daily -- with free popcorn.

Additional dry-dock changes include addition of a new Internet Café and library area, enhancements to onboard boutiques, the addition of LCD flat screen TVs in all staterooms, and a variety of cosmetic updates. Sister-ships Caribbean Princess and Golden Princess are scheduled to receive similar face-lifts during their respective January and April dry-docks.

American Safari Cancels Planned Hawaii Season

Niche small-ship line American Safari Cruises (www.amsafari.com), an operator of four luxury vessels carrying only 12 to 36 passengers, has scrapped plans to begin offering weeklong inter-island cruises between the Big Island and Maui in 2009, citing problems in the capital funding markets and the overall U.S. economy.

Known for its intimate and flexible itineraries and U.S.-registered and -crewed vessels, American Safari would have been one of the only operators (along with NCL) offering multi-night cruises that sail the islands exclusively, without also visiting a foreign port to satisfy U.S. laws covering foreign-flagged vessels.

Though response from both consumers and travel agents was reportedly positive, Capt. Dan Blanchard, American Safari's president and CEO, says the cancellation was "the wise and prudent thing to do. We plan to inaugurate our Hawaii cruises when liquidity returns to the capital markets."

Guests already booked for American Safari's Hawaii cruises will receive full refunds, plus future cruise savings of 15 percen, allowances for air ticketing, and first priority to switch their booking to a cruise in Mexico's Sea of Cortes, if they so desire. The line's 22-passenger Safari Quest begins the eighth season in Mexico on November 13, sailing 7- and 9-night itineraries. Per-passenger fares start at $4,695.

HAL News: New Grill Menus, New Deployments & a Multi-Lingual Website

Yum-Yum at the Pinnacle: Unlike many other lines, which load their ships with multiple small, specialty restaurants, Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com) sticks to the basics: a couple of main dining rooms and the beautifully appointed Pinnacle Grill, a space aboard each ship that offers a menu concentrating on steaks, chops, and seafood. This season, each Pinnacle Grill fleetwide will begin offering a new, expanded menu created by the line's executive chef, Rudi Sodamin, and first debuted this summer aboard the line's new Eurodam. Among the additions are new Pacific Northwest specialty entrees and creations ranging from "lobster mac and cheese" to Colorado lamb chops.   "Master Chef Sodamin has designed this new menu to offer our guests a wider range of dishes and flavors," said Richard D. Meadows, HAL's executive vice president of marketing, sales, and guest programs. "The restaurant is such a popular spot that we want to keep it fresh with much variety and allow guests to dine several nights a cruise as many like to do. The menu continues to highlight Holland America's Pacific Northwest roots while adding innovative accents to heighten the Pinnacle Grill dining experience."

Veendam Goes South: Following a planned renovation this spring, HAL's 1,266-passenger Veendam has been pegged to offer ten South America sailings in fall 2009 and winter 2010. The 16- to 20-night voyages will include a 20-night Antarctica voyage and frequent overnight stays in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

"We have seen an increase in travelers who wish to take a South America cruise aboard a premium, mid-sized ship," said Meadows. "With the newly renovated ms Veendam sailing South America in 2009 and 2010, and the ms Prinsendam, our 793-guest Elegant Explorer, we are perfectly poised to meet travelers' discriminating demands."

In addition to visiting ports like Valparaiso (Chile), Manta (Ecuador), and Salaverry and Callao/Lima (Peru), Veendam's guests will also have the opportunity to sign on for 2- to 5-day overland tours visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, Chile's wine country, and Iguaçu Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina.

Eurodam Goes North, Shortly: When people think short cruises, they usually envision overnight cruises to nowhere or short Bahamas hops from Florida. Do they think Northern Europe? They do not. Nevertheless, HAL's new 2,104-passenger Eurodam is set to offer just that in July 2009, sailing two 4-night and one 2-night itineraries between Copenhagen (Denmark) and Dover/London (England).

Meadows again: "We understand that some travelers are looking for a quick and relaxing holiday, which is why we developed these shorter, exciting itineraries. We've put together some fascinating ports, so whether guests book a four-day cruise or a full 14-day Collectors' Voyage, they're going to have an unforgettable, premium-cruise experience."

The first 4-night itinerary departs July 2, 2009, and sails from Copenhagen to Dover, calling at Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Oslo (Norway), the latter with a late-night departure so guests can enjoy the local nightlife. The second 4-night cruise departs July 6 and sails round-trip from Dover, visiting Zeebrugge/Brussels (Belgium), Cherbourg (France), and lovely St. Peter Port (Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK). Eurodam's 2-night mini-cruise sails from Dover to Copenhagen on July 10, with no port calls. Fares start at $239 for the 2-night cruise and $449 for the 4-night cruises.

Cómo Usted Dice "Cruise"?: Holland America was born in (duh) Holland and moved to the United States in the late 1980s, so it's no stranger to internationalism. But last week it took another step in that direction by adding a translation feature to its website, which allows visitors  to read most areas of the site in German, Spanish, and Dutch as well as English. Visitors are able to switch between languages at any time via the "Select a Language" drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of each page.