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Le Ponant Seized by Pirates off Somali Coast

What are the chances that a ship might be boarded by pirates in this day and age? In most of the world, not much. But off the coast of Somalia, which has had no real functioning government over the past decade? Pretty damn good.

On April 4, the 64-passenger French cruise ship Le Ponant, owned by Marseilles-based Compagnie des Iles du Ponant (www.ponant.com), was boarded and seized by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, off the northern Somali coast. The vessel was sailing from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean, and was carrying no passengers. Thirty French and Filipino crew were on board.

The French frigate Le Commandant Bouan began tracking the ship soon after its capture, and helicopters and satellites have kept Le Ponant's position known throughout the hostage standoff. As of this writing, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs had dispatched a negotiating team to the area, as well as a team from France's elite GIGN anti-terrorism force. Initial contact with the pirates was made on April 6, at which point crewmembers were reported to be safe and well-treated.

Piracy along the 1,880-mile Somali coast has been an escalating problem since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Said Barre, leading to a period of civil war. The country has had no effective central government authority since that time. Attacks on cruise ships are rare but not unheard-of. In November 2005, pirates armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked Seabourn's 208-passenger Seabourn Spirit about 100 miles off the Somali coast, but were unable to gain control of the vessel.

The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre (www.icc-ccs.org/prc/overview.php) received reports of 31 attempted and/or successful pirate attacks off Somalia in 2007, though many more attacks may have gone unreported.

U.S. Finally Sets Final Date for Final Passport Requirements -- No, Really

The long-delayed Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is starting to make us feel like the boy who cried wolf, but let's go over this one more time...

For decades, U.S.-based cruise ships operated under rules that permitted U.S. citizens to travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean without need of a passport, but then, in 2004, came the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which recommended bringing the rules for those countries in line with all others: You go, you need a passport or we won't let you back into the country.

As initially drafted, the rules would have gone into effect on December 31, 2005 -- a date that was so completely unachievable (without wrecking untold thousands of business and leisure-travel plans and sending the State Department into a passport-issuance tizzy) that it was soon scrapped in favor of a phased approach. In the years that followed, passports were mandated for air travelers (as of January 23, 2007), but implementation dates for sea and land travel had a long tug-of-war with proposed Congressional extensions, to the point where no one was clear when they'd finally take effect. In the meantime, the State Department went into its passport-issuance tizzy anyway, with so many people applying for first-time and renewed documents that processing times fell behind by months.

But now, finally (they say), the final rules are here: On March 27, the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security announced that travelers returning by land or sea to the United States will have to present a passport as of June 1, 2009.

If you don't currently have a passport or you need to replace an expired one, the U.S. State Department website (http://travel.state.gov) provides information.

Carnival Corp. Caves on Fuel Supplement for Previously Booked Guests, Jacks It Up for All New Bookings

As reported here in December, nearly the entire cruise industry has reacted to recent increase in oil prices by adding a "fuel supplement" to their rates, tacking an extra $5 to $10 per day onto the price of your cruise. This week comes competing fuel stories from Carnival Corp., parent company of Carnival Cruises Lines, Holland America, Princess, Costa Cruises, Cunard, Seabourn, and several European lines.

New Charge: As originally announced, the Carnival Corp. cruise lines imposed a $5 per person, per day surcharge onto the rates for passengers sailing on or after February 1, 2008. The charge applied only to the first two guests in a stateroom, thereby exempting children and other third/fourth guests.

Times change.

Citing "significant rises in fuel prices which have dramatically increased CarnivalÂ?s operating costs," Carnival Corp. this week jacked up its daily surcharge to $7 per passenger for the first two guests in each cabin, and imposed a $2 per day surcharge on all additional guests.

The rate change applies to Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Costa Cruises, Cunard, and Seabourn.

Our Bad: When the cruise lines imposed their surcharges late last year, some exempted passengers who'd already paid for their future cruise when the surcharge was announced, while others -- including the Carnival Corp. lines -- tacked it on regardless.

Enter the law.

Earlier this year, the Florida Attorney General's Office began looking into the question of whether cruise lines can retroactively impose a surcharge on passengers who have already booked their cruise. Last month, Royal Caribbean announced that it was voluntarily eliminating its supplement on any bookings made prior to the announcement of the companyÂ?s fuel supplement on November 16, and now Carnival is following suit, and will refund its fuel supplement for guests who were already booked at the time the original supplement was announced (November 7, 2007). Refunds for affected guests will be implemented based on cruise departure date according to the following schedule:

  • For cruises departing on or prior to April 4, 2008, guests will receive a refund in kind (credit card refund, check refund, etc.)
  • For cruises departing from April 5, 2008 through June 23, 2008, guests will receive an onboard credit
  • For cruises departing on or after June 24, 2008, guestsÂ? bookings will be adjusted to remove the supplement

MSC Cruises Christen's Poesia

On April 8 in Dover, England, MSC Cruises (www.msccruises.com) celebrated the debut of their third megaship, the 89,600-ton, 2,550-passenger Poesia, sister ship to 2006's Musica and 2007's Orchestra. House godmother Sophia Loren, who's done the honors for the line's last four ships, once again did the christening duties. Also on hand were Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, representing the British Royal Family and marking the first occasion of an MSC ship being christened outside of Italy.

Following the event, Poesia began her 13-night inaugural voyage from Dover to Venice. She'll be positioned there throughout the summer, sailing 7-night cruises to Bari (Italy), Katakolon (Greece), Izmir and Istanbul (Turkey), and Dubrovnik (Croatia).

Carnival Plans Whodunit Mystery Cruises for 2008-2009

How many mystery books and films have been set aboard ocean liners and cruise ships? They're perfect sets: romantic, closed little worlds in which you know the culprit is among you, but who is he? Who, who?

The tradition continues: In collaboration with Whodunit Productions, Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com) will be offering eight different "Whodunit Mystery Cruises" aboard the 2,052-passenger Carnival Paradise in 2008 and 2009, sailing from Long Beach, California.

When participants arrive on board, they'll be given their own role to play and encouraged to utilize the traits of their character to find out "whodunit." Professional actors will also be aboard to set the tone for the mystery, and a variety of clues -- from notes slipped under stateroom doors to instructions for clandestine "missions" -- will be provided throughout the cruise, leading up to the unmasking of the nefarious culprit and the naming of the top sleuth at an end-of-cruise cocktail party.

Eight different 3-night Mystery Cruises will be offered, departing October 31, 2008, and then January 9, February 13, March 13, May 1, July 17, October 30, and December 4, 2009.

Rates for the 3-night cruises start at $348 per person, double occupancy, including all Mystery Cruise activities. Call 866-857-7080 for bookings.

Imperial Majesty Offers "Cruise for Life" (Sorta) Contest

Imperial Majesty Cruises (www.imperialmajesty.com) is a sentimental favorite of ours for one reason: their ship, the indomitable Regal Empress. Now 55 years old, she's survived decades longer than most of her contemporaries, and is one of the few ships sailing today where you can get a feel of what the old ocean-liner days were like.

This week, Imperial Majesty announced that in celebration of booking their millionth passenger, the line will give a free cruise "every six months for the life of the ship" to anyone who books a two-night cruise this month and sails before the end of May.

"We really wanted to do something special in celebration of this occasion," said Glenn Ryerson, Imperial Majesty's vice president of marketing. "Originally we were thinking we would give the free cruises for life to 10 passengers then 100 and finally we decided to give it to everyone who books directly with Imperial Majesty in April."

Sounds great, huh? Here're the catches: First, two free-cruise winners cannot share a cabin. In order to take advantage of their free cruises, one passenger per cabin must pay. More importantly, though, new Coast Guard safety regulations due to take effect in 2010 will make it almost impossible for old vessels like this to sail legally, so its likely that Regal Empress will be retired sometime in 2009. Fans of the Empress have hoped Imperial Majesty might invest in the structural changes necessary to bring the ship into compliance, but this promotion probably indicates that won't be happening.

Sad fate, snarky promotion. You gotta love budget cruise companies.

Deilmann Set to Sail Luxury Africa Cruises

How's this for an international vacation experience: sailing to southern and eastern Africa aboard a German cruise ship where English is the second language? That's an option for well-heeled travelers this coming winter, as German line Peter Deilmann Cruises (www.deilmann-cruises.com) plans three 15- to 20-night Africa sailings aboard their flagship, the 22,400-ton, 513-passenger Deutschland. The sailings include:

  • An 18-night voyage sailing December 17, 2008, from Port Louis (Mauritius) to Cape Town (South Africa), visiting Durban, East London, and Port Elizabeth (South Africa), the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, and the Namibian port of Walvis Bay, whose lagoon serves as a feeding ground for 200,000 birds of 50 species. The ship spends three full days in Cape Town. Cruises are priced from $10,169  to $24,979 per person, double occupancy.
  • A 13-night round-trip cruise sailing January 4, 2009, round-trip from Cape Town, visiting Walvis Bay and Luderitz (Namibia), and East London, Durban, and Port Elizabeth (South Africa). Includes two nights in Cape Town. Cruises are priced from $8,117 to $17,457 per person, double occupancy.
  • A 16-night cruise departing January 17, 2009, sailing between Cape Town (South Africa) and Mombasa (Kenya), visiting Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Richards Bay (South Africa), Zanzibar (Tanzania), and Mombasa for a three-night stay. Cruises are priced from $9,284 to $20,348 per person, double occupancy.

Fares include round-trip airfare from Frankfurt and one-night pre- and post-cruise stays at the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton. A special $99 round-trip airfare and shore excursion package is being offered to guests in conjunction with these voyages, featuring a choice of flights from 73 gateways to Frankfurt, plus a package of pre-arranged shore excursions valued up to $700. (Air taxes add an additional $265 to this $99 offer.) Groups of five couples or more can save an additional 10% off the published cruise fares.

Deutschland is a Frommer's five-star vessel and one of the most classically beautiful passenger ships in the world, decorated with an old-world ocean-liner ambience. Cabins would look right at home in a fine European boutique hotel, with their white walls, elegant moldings, rich wooden furniture, and realist European artworks, while public spaces like the Kaisersaal ("Emperor's Ballroom," with its huge chandelier and frescoed ceiling), the homey Zum Alten Fritz Pub, and the elegant Lili Marleen Salon are all a step back in time. Onboard, the official languages used are German and English, and optional English-speaking shore excursions are offered at all ports of call.

SeaDream Announces New European and Caribbean Ports for 2009

Luxury small-ship line SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadream.com) has released details of its 2009 season, which will once again see the line's two

110-passenger megayachts sailing Europe and the Caribbean -- but with a handful of new ports to keep things interesting.

From May through October 2009, SeaDream I and SeaDream II will sail in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic Sea, the Aegean Sea, from Croatia in the north to Tunisia in the south. New ports for 2009 include Formentera (Spain), Piran (Slovenia), Ponta Delgada (the Azores), La Goulette and Tunis (Tunisia), Vis, Mali, and Losinj (Croatia), Lipari, St. Margherita, and Trieste (Italy), Le Lavandou, Antibes, Port Vendres, Sete, Bandol, and Menton (France), and Katakolon, Elafonisos, Aigina, Chania, and Crete (Greece).

From January through April 2009, SeaDream's Caribbean itineraries will sail among the British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico's Virgin Islands, the French West Indies and Netherlands Antilles, and the Windward and Leeward Islands. New ports include Dewey and Culebra (Puerto Rico's Virgin Islands), Honeymoon Beach and Water Island (U.S. Virgin Islands), Cooper Island (British Virgin Islands), La Samana (Dominican Republic), and Nevis.

Oceania Offers New Culinary Shore Tours

In preparation for the start of their European season, premium line Oceania Cruises (www.oceaniacruises.com) has just announced a series of specialty culinary tours created in conjunction with Food & Wine Trails Epicurean Tours of Sonoma, California. To be offered on virtually all of the line's 2008 and 2009 western Mediterranean voyages, the tours bring foodies to estates, wineries, and traditional restaurants throughout Italy, Greece, and the south of France, with wine experts, cookbook authors, and other food and wine experts acting as tour leaders. Guest participation is typically limited to 25 or 30 guests.

Tours include:

  • Best of La Spezia Experience (La Spezia, Italy): Highlights include chef-led cooking demos; tasting of locally prepared artisan products; wine-paired luncheon prepared by a local chef; and free time to explore and shop for local wines, olive oil, and other regional products.
  • Best of Venice Strolling and Noshing Experience (Venice, Italy): Highlights include a three-hour guided walking tour through three popular neighborhoods, three noshing stops for traditional bite-sized snacks, and lunch with wine at a trattoria.
  • Best of Florence Strolling and Noshing Experience (Florence, Italy): Highlights include a walking tour of the Mercato Centrale food market, with snacks provided at pre-arranged food stands; lunch with wine at a local trattoria; and two and a half hours to independently explore Florence.
  • Best of Santorini Wine Experience (Santorini, Greece): Highlights include a guided tour of the Oia Village; a private tour and tasting at the Boutari Winery, with a hosted, wine-paired lunch; a private tour and tasting at Domaine Segalas, the only Greek winery selected for Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of the World; and free time in the town of Thira and a cable car ride down to the pier.
  • Best of Provence Wine Experience (Provence, France): Highlights include a private tour of historic Chateau Bas and the estate grounds, and a private tasting of their highly rated wines; a multi-course, Provencal luncheon served with premium wines; and two hours for shopping and exploring in Aix-en-Provence.
  • Best of Pompeii Wine Experience (Sorrento/Capri, Italy): Highlights include a 1.5-hour guided tour of the archeological area of Pompeii; a one-hour guided vineyard and cellar tour at the Azienda Sorrentino Winery; and a winery-hosted lunch paired with Azienda Sorrentino Lacryma Christi wines.
  • Best of Ornellaia Wine Experience (Florence/Livorno, Italy): Highlights include a guided tour of the Ornellaia vineyard, estate, and wine cellar; a luncheon paired with wines, hosted by Ornellaia's hospitality staff; free time to explore a medieval village ; and an opportunity to purchase wines and other regional products.
  • Best of Corfu Wine Experience (Corfu, Greece): Highlights include a tour of the Theotoki Estate olive press and winery facility; self-exploration of the estate grounds and historical document library; a wine and food tasting hosted by the Theotoki family; and a country luncheon at Spyros and Vassilis restaurant, with wine.
  • Best of Gragano Pasta Experience (Sorrento/Capri, Italy): Highlights include a tour of the Villa San Marco in Castellamare ; a guided tour of the Di Nola Pasta Company in Gragano, with a demonstration of traditional pasta-making and -drying methods; and lunch or dinner hosted by the Zampino Family in their restaurant, with traditional pasta dishes served with wine.
  • Best of Terriccio Wine Experience (Florence/Livorno, Italy): Highlights include a visit to a medieval village, with time to explore and shop for local wines, olive oil, and other regional products; a guided estate tour of Castello del Terriccio, with a wine tasting and a wine-paired luncheon hosted by the winery; and independent time to explore the estate grounds and purchase wine.

"We are always searching for new and exciting ways to enhance and enrich our guests' culinary experience, whether aboard ship or ashore," said Bob Binder, president of Oceania Cruises. "With this series of intimate and in-depth tours, our guests can immerse themselves in the local cuisines and wines while truly connecting with the local culture."

Holland America Advertises Its Advertisements

Some long-lived companies have the good fortune to sit on an archive of evocative advertising graphics going back a century or more. One such is Holland America Line, which has been advertising on both sides of the Atlantic since the 19th century. So, they decided, why not capitalize on that? This week, six high-quality art reproductions of some of the line's most famous advertising posters went on sale at its online shop, www.shophollandamerica.com. Dating from 1895 to 1955, the posters measure 24 by 36 inches and are done on Somerset Velvet museum-quality paper. Handsome, very.

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