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Royal Caribbean Floats Freedom, Names Her Skipper

If we accept that a ship is born when she first hits the water, then Royal Caribbean's (tel. 800/398-9819; www.royalcaribbean.com) 158,000-ton Freedom of the Seas is now the largest cruise ship in the world. The vessel, under construction at Aker Finnyards in Turku, Finland, was floated out of her drydock on August 19. From there she'll be berthed at a wet dock, where her interiors and other finishing work will be completed in anticipation of her May 2006 debut. After positioning to Miami, the ship will sail 7-night western Caribbean itineraries visiting Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay (Jamaica), and Labadee (Haiti), Royal Caribbean's private beach resort.

Designed to carry 3,634 guests, Freedom of the Seas is a super-sized version of Royal Caribbean's popular Voyager-class vessels, Voyager, Explorer, Adventure, Navigator, and Mariner of the Seas. Onboard attractions will include a top-deck water park with a sports pool, an interactive spray-and-splash area for kids, and whirlpools positioned on overhangs twelve feet beyond the sides of the ship, 112 feet above sea level. Inside, Freedom will feature a bookstore, pizzeria, and six different types of family-friendly staterooms, including a huge 1,215-square-foot Presidential Suite that sleeps fourteen in four bedrooms and offers four baths and a 810-square-foot outdoor living area with whirlpool, wet bar, and al fresco dining table.

Other details of the ship's attractions are not yet available.

Skippering the ship on her inaugural voyages will be Captain William S. Wright, currently Royal Caribbean's senior vice president for marine operations. A 13-year Royal Caribbean veteran, Captain Wright is one of the few American captains in the cruise business.

easyCruise Debuts Reality TV Show, Details Caribbean Itineraries

In May, easyCruise (www.easycruise.com) started up operations on the French and Italian Rivieras, offering no-frills, youth-oriented cruises that broke nearly all of the cruise business's rules -- all except the one that says a cruise ship has to float. Prices include only your cabin (you pay extra for anything else, including food), itineraries visit a port every day and stay until 4am, cabins are boxes with few amenities and no windows, and the entire ship -- stem to stern, inside and out -- is painted creamsickle orange and white, with the easycruise.com URL plastered everywhere, even in the shower stalls.

Things began with a bang, as founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou (the entrepreneur behind easyJet and more than a dozen other brands) trucked in fireworks, fashion models, and a boatload of free champagne for the inaugural sailing -- quite a send-off for a refurbished 15-year-old vessel that carries only 170 passengers, bit gets even better. In true 21st-century fashion, that inaugural cruise and others that followed carried a film crew creating a reality TV series for the British channel Sky One. Called Cruise with Stelios, the series' introductory show tracks the six months of the easyCruise's development, from the announcement of the line's creation through refurbishment of the vessel and the training of its crew, right up through the first sailing. Eight follow-up episodes track the ship and crew through their first season, from Stelios's own publicity stunts to the ship's untraveled, Newcastle-born DJ trying to buy clothes on the Riviera. The debut episode will broadcast on Sky One September 4 at 8pm.

EasyCruise has already announced it will expand into the Caribbean for the summer, sailing from November 12 through April 26. As in Europe, the itinerary will remain consistent week after week, and passengers can embark wherever they want and sail as long as they want, with a minimum of two nights and a maximum of fourteen. Ports of call will include Bridgetown, Barbados (Saturday and Sunday); Kingstown, St Vincent (Monday); Fort de France, Martinique (Tuesday); Bequia, Grenadines (Wednesday); St George's, Grenada (Thursday); and Castries, St Lucia (Friday). Barbados, Martinique, Grenada, and St Lucia all have international airports with a selection of direct flights from the U.S., London, Paris, and other destinations.

Prices are currently starting as low as $16.20 per person per night. Niceties such as daily cabin service cost extra, as do meals, which are available from three onboard venues even though the expectation is that most passengers will dine on shore. Over time, expect prices to rise as the line gets beyond its initial self-promotion phase. According to Stelios, speaking at a press event in New York last week, his eventual target is in the $60-$70 per night range.

Expect, too, that easyCruise will grow, as long as there's demand.

"EasyCruiseOne is too small," according to Stelios. "It was a test, to see if there was a market. I thought to start small because we were doing something radical. You can be radical on a large scale, but it just costs more money. If all goes well we'll design a ship from scratch, probably carrying about 500 passengers."

QM2 and QE2 to Offer Simultaneous World Cruises in 2007

Meanwhile, the ship that Freedom of the Seas stole the "biggest" trophy from, Cunard's (tel. 800/7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com) Queen Mary 2, has been scheduled to offer her first world cruise in 2007, departing January 10 from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Simultaneously, Cunard's QE2 will be commencing her 25th world voyage. Both vessels will initially sail southward, QM2 sailing around the world in 80 days (with stops in 20 ports), QE2 proceeding on a far more port-intensive 108-day route, with 36 ports and fewer days at sea.

Early-booking fares for QM2's complete world cruise start from $21,195 per person. Four individual segments can also be booked: a 26-day Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco; a 14-day San Francisco to Sydney; and 19-day Sydney to Dubai; and a 15-day Dubai to Southampton. Fares for these segments start at $4,199 per person.

Fares for QE2's world cruise start at $16,845 per person. Bookable segments include 12-, 14-, and 16-day cruises from New York or Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles or San Francisco; a 30-day trip from Los Angeles to Sydney (or a 28-day San Francisco to Sydney); a 27-day Sydney to Singapore; a 31-day Singapore to Southampton; and a westbound transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York (6 days) or Ft. Lauderdale (8 days). Segment fares start at $1,899 per person.

In other Cunard news, pop legend Carly Simon is scheduled to perform two concerts aboard QM2 during her Sept. 2-8 eastbound transatlantic crossing. Both will be filmed for a one-hour PBS special that will air during the December pledge drive.

Princess/P&O Offering "Australian-Style" Asia Cruises in 2006

Looking for a mate -- as in "G'day, mate?" Princess Cruises' Australian cousin, P&O Australia (tel. 800/340-7674; www.pocruises.com.au) will be offering a full season of Southeast Asia cruises in 2006 and is looking for a few good Americans to round out their passenger list.

Two different 7-night Southeast Asia itineraries will sail round-trip from Singapore February through November, with the alternating itineraries combinable for a full 14-day exploration, calling at nine ports in Malaysia and Thailand. The "Eastern Sunsets" route visits Kuantan (Malaysia) and Ko Samui and Bangkok (Thailand), the latter for an overnight stay. The "Western Tropics" route visits Melaka, Langkawi, and Penang (Malaysia) and the popular resort of Phuket (Thailand). Early-booking fares for 7-night cruises start at US$1,995, including air transportation from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, or Honolulu. Add-on rates are available from other gateway cities. Fares for 14-night cruises start at $2,690.

The cruises are being offered aboard the 1,200-passenger Pacific Sky, built in 1984 as the Fairsky for the well-regarded but long-defunct Sitmar Cruises. The ship sailed subsequently for Princess as Sky Princess before transferring to P&O Australia in 2001.

Lindblad Teams with "Archie" Artist for Educational Comic Book Series

Lindblad Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com) has never lacked for creativity in their itineraries and the educational scope of their onboard program, but who would have expected them to branch out into comic books? That's just what they've done through a new partnership with longtime comic book illustrator and colorist Stan Goldberg, a 55-year veteran of the comics industry whose credits include Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and Archie Comics.

The series' first book, Fun and Games with Little Lin, was inspired by Mr. Goldberg's travels with Lindblad to the Galapagos Islands. In it, child explorer Little Lin roams throughout the islands, discovering their animals (like the blue-footed booby, marine iguanas, and sea lions), plants, and geological formations. Intended to teach children about the natural world and their duty to be good environmental stewards, it will be distributed to all families traveling with Lindblad to the Galapagos. A Spanish version will be distributed to children in the Galapagos who are members of the local Friends of the Tortoise environmental club, as well as to participants of Lindblad's Kids on Board program, which takes local school kids on an expedition around the islands.

Book Two will be set in Alaska, with Little Lin encountering humpback whales, bald eagles, and retreating glaciers.

Disney Details Magic Makeover

As Disney Cruise Line (tel. 888/DCL-2500; www.disneycruise.com) and its first ship Disney Magic edge toward their concurrent eighth birthday, the line has announced details of new facilities and attractions that will be created during the vessel's ten-day October drydock.

In an industry first, three new spa treatment suites will be created, each with an indoor treatment room connected to a private outdoor veranda with personal hot tub, open-air shower, and lounge. Nearby, the fitness area of the spa/gym will double in size, with new exercise equipment and an area for spinning classes.

For kids, a new Ocean Quest room will be created in the place of three underutilized conference rooms. The center will feature a scaled replica of the ship's bridge, complete with window-like LCD screens that broadcast the same live view the captain is getting up on the bridge itself. Kids can sit in a traditional captain's chair and participate in a simulation game where they steer the ship in and out of various ports around the world. Other options include computer or video games, arts and crafts, and movie-viewing on several screens.

Up on deck, Disney is following the lead of Princess Cruises in adding a jumbo 24-by-14-foot LED movie screen poolside, attached to the forward funnel and broadcasting movies and major sports events.

The ship will be back in service, with all enhancements in place, on Oct. 15, 2005, sailing alternating 7-night eastern and western Caribbean cruises.

Sweet Home Alabama: Carnival to Keep Holiday in Mobile through 2006

For a while there, during the past five years, it looked like the cruise industry was trying to put a chicken in every pot and a cruise ship in every garage, branching out from traditionally busy homeports like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to smaller ports up and down the coasts and the gulf of Mexico. One of those was Mobile, Alabama, where Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com) broke the ice in 2004 by positioning the 1,452-passenger Holiday on year-round 4- and 5-night cruises. On August 12, the line announced it had extended its commitment to the city through 2006, citing higher than expected popularity.

Holiday's 4-night Yucatan cruises visit Cozumel; 5-night cruises visit Cozumel and either Calica/Playa del Carmen or Costa Maya.

Regal Empress Scores Big on Health, Sanitation Test

The Centers for Disease Control conducts two annual surprise inspections annually of all cruise ships that call on U.S. ports, carry thirteen or more passengers, and sail foreign itineraries. Everything from the water supply to pool filters to food-prep areas, service, and employee hygiene are examined, with points deducted for even minor flaws. Ships must score 86 or higher to be considered satisfactory. A 100 is considered cause for celebration at most cruise lines, but when your only vessel is 52 years old, a 96 is pretty darn good.

That was the final tally for Imperial Majesty's Regal Empress, late of Regal Cruise Line, when inspectors got done going over her on August 10.

"The inspector noted that 'a rating of 96 on a 52-year-old ship is just like 100' on a new ship,'" said Arthur M. Pollack, the line's president. "He was extremely complimentary and praised our crew for their outstanding management and knowledge of the key issues surrounding health and sanitation issues."

Built by Glasgow shipbuilders Alex. Stephen & Sons, Regal Empress was launched on April 16, 1953, not long after the first presidential inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. She was delivered to the Greek Line in October of that year, where she was named Olympia and began regular service from Bremerhaven to New York, later operating on the Athens to New York route. In 1970, long after air travel killed the transatlantic trade, she switched to cruising, but by 1974 ended up mothballed at a pier in Piraeus, Greece, where she languished until 1983. In 1984, after a major refitting, she sailed as the Caribe I ("The Happy Ship") for now-defunct Commodore Cruise Lines, then as Regal Empress for also-defunct Regal Cruises, which operated her from New York and Florida for the next decade. Imperial Majesty (tel. 954/956-9505; www.imperialmajesty.com) saved her from a gloomy fate, buying the ship at auction in 2003. She now sails quick 2-night runs from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau, year-round, offering aficionados one of the few opportunities left to sail on a real, old-fashioned ocean liner.

"We're extremely proud of our officers and crew in keeping her up to today's stringent standards for health and sanitary conditions," said Pollack. Regal Empress "may have many miles under her hull, but her ranking certainly exceeds many of the newer ships."

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