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Apollo Management Acquires Regent Seven Seas Cruises & 50 Percent Stake in NCL, Becomes Huge Player in Cruise Biz

There's a new player in town.

Over the past few weeks, Apollo Management -- an investment firm that's managed more than $28 billion of capital since its founding in 1990 -- has vastly increased its presence in the cruise business, building on its big February 2007 investment in Oceania Cruises.

In mid-December, Apollo agreed to acquire Regent Seven Seas Cruises (www.rssc.com) from current owner Carlson, whose other businesses include Regent Hotels & Resorts and Radisson Hotels & Resorts. Expect little to change: Regent Seven Seas and Oceania will continue as separate operations under their current management teams.

"Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers an exceptional product, and its superb shipboard and shoreside teams have built an enviable reputation as the foremost luxury cruise brand," said Frank Del Rio, Oceania's cofounder and now chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, a new corporation created by Apollo to manage Oceania and Regent.

"Everyone at Regent Seven Seas Cruises is delighted with the formation of this new family of companies," said Mark Conroy, Regent Seven Seas' longtime president. "With the tremendous financial resources of Apollo available to us, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will continue to strengthen our position as the leading luxury cruise brand. Our valued guests and travel agent partners will experience a seamless transition as we continue to deliver world-class cruise vacation experiences."

The Regent acquisition is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2008, subject to normal conditions for a transaction of this type, including regulatory approval.

Meanwhile, consummating a move announced in mid-August, Apollo closed its deal to invest $1 billion in Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com), becoming co-owner of the line along with Asia-based Star Cruises. The new cash will be used to fund NCL's newbuild program (which has three 150,000-ton, 4,200-passenger vessels ordered or under construction), enhancements to its existing fleet (see story that follows), and other new initiatives.

"With the Apollo investment, NCL is now in the strongest financial condition we have ever enjoyed in our 41-year history," said NCL Corporation's President and CEO, Colin Veitch. "With both Star Cruises and Apollo as dedicated and supportive shareholders, and with a fleet that has just become the youngest in the industry, we will take our vision of innovation to new and exciting levels."

NCL Launches Norwegian Gem, Plans Fleetwide Upgrades

Though a full review will have to wait for the next Frommer's Cruise Newsletter, we can report now that on December 19, Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) christened its newest ship, the 2,400-passenger Norwegian Gem, and that she really does gleam.

The sixth ship built on the basic design that was inaugurated with 2001's Norwegian Star and began to take its final form with 2005's Norwegian Jewel, Gem is a five-star megaship, featuring NCL's signature plethora of dining choices (ten restaurants in all), fun activity and entertainment options (including an onboard bowling alley, fanciful nightclub, and out-of-the-ordinary entertainment), always-casual ambience, and just-plain-fun atmosphere.

Naming the vessel at a ceremony on New York's historic west side piers was Cindy Cardella, a stay-at-home mom from Fairfield, NJ, whose homemade "Why I should be Gem's godmother" video won the most votes in an online election at Gem's dedicated inaugural website, www.gemitgirl.com.

Cardella has cruised with NCL more than 30 times since childhood. Said NCL President and CEO Colin Veitch, "With this contest, we sought to reward our past guests with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cindy received close to 10,000 votes from the public and was selected based on her ability to show how she embodies the attributes of NCL's hottest, hippest new ship, as well as the free spirit of NCL's Freestyle Cruising."

Norwegian Gem will sail 7-, 10- and 11-day itineraries from her home port of New York to the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean through April 2008, when she repositions to Europe to begin a series of 7-night Western Mediterranean itineraries round-trip from Barcelona. She'll return to her 7-night Bahamas/Florida itineraries in November 2008, once again sailing from New York.

Concurrent with Gem's inauguration, NCL also announced Freestyle 2.0, a fleetwide enhancement initiative that will include a major investment in the total dining experience; an upgrade in the NCL stateroom experience; new onboard activities; additional recognition, service, and amenities for balcony, suite, and villa guests; and a re-launch of a tiered Latitudes past guest recognition program. Highlights will include:

Dining

  • Mo' money: Spending on foodstuffs will increase approximately 20 percent per passenger by 2009.
  • A welcome-aboard glass of champagne for every passenger of legal drinking age.
  • Lobster in the main restaurant on multiple days and in one restaurant every night of the cruise.
  • A signature specialty dish in every restaurant (for instance, the 48-ounce Porterhouse in the steak house).
  • A modernization of all buffet restaurants and a fancied-up nighttime dining/ambience therein, with tablecloths, muted lighting, and enhanced service.
  • One or two alternative restaurants open for lunch on sea days.
  • A new and expanded room service menu.
  • A "Taste of Freestyle" on embarkation day, with samplings available from all of the specialty restaurants.
  • Improvements in the restaurant reservations process and system.

Cabins & Suites

  • Upgraded bedding, sheets, pillows, and duvets.
  • Upgraded towels and bathrobes.
  • Upgraded in-room amenities, including a coffee maker and expanded TV offerings.
  • Addition of sofa beds to suite categories.
  • A distinctive colored key card for suite, balcony, and mini-suite passengers, alerting staff to be extra-nice.
  • An "at your service" concierge hotline for suite, balcony, and mini-suite passengers.

Activities

  • A range of new classes, including improv comedy, organic cooking, bartending, etc.
  • An enhanced Health and Wellness program.
  • Enhanced entertainment on the Pool Deck, plus niceties like cold towels and little flags on each deck chair that you can raise to signal you'd like to order a drink.
  • Quiet zones and times

Freestyle 2.0 enhancements will begin rolling out immediately across the line's fleet, and will be largely implemented by summer 2008.

Cunard Launches Queen Victoria

Across the pond there's a new queen in England: Queen Victoria, the first ship launched by Cunard (www.cunard.com) since the record-breaking QM2 in 2003. Measuring in at 90,000 tons and carrying 1,980 passengers, she's a trimmer, more girlish queen than the stately Mary, and her welcome was similarly less stately, with Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall, doing the christening honors on December 10. (Queen Elizabeth named the Mary.)

Queen Victoria is already well into her first full month of service. On January 13 she'll participate in a historic day as she, QM2, and the soon-retiring QE2 meet up in New York harbor.

The three are scheduled to depart the harbor at 6:30pm, rendezvousing and sailing past the Statue of Liberty during a fireworks celebration at approximately 7pm. This is the first time that three Cunard Queens have been in service at the same time, and with QE2 retiring in November 2008 it may be the last.

Princess News: Medical Evacuation, Chef's Table Dinners & a New Commodore

Rescue at Sea: On December 14, 14-year-old Laura Montero of Albion, Ill. became desperately ill with an acute appendicitis while traveling aboard Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess. In coordination with the US Coast Guard, Dawn Princess's crew made contact with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, on training maneuvers approximately 500 miles away, and the two ships began steaming toward each other. Six hours later, the Reagan dispatched a Seahawk helicopter and evacuated Montero from Dawn Princess. She was then transported to the aircraft carrier's onboard hospital, where successful surgery was completed.

On January 6, a ceremony was held aboard Dawn Princess in which Montero, just released from the hospital, presented notes of thanks to Princess Captain Marco Fortezze and USS Ronald Reagan Captain Terry Kraft.

Dinner with the Chef: Beginning soon, every Princess vessel will begin offering the "Princess Chef's Table," a foodie dining experience in which a small group can is hosted by the executive chef in the ship's galley, enjoying cocktails and hors d'oeuvres before moving to the dining room for a special multi-course tasting dinner with wine pairings.

The Chef's Table experience can be reserved by up to 10 passengers per night, at a cost of $75 per person. It's currently available aboard Emerald Princess, Crown Princess, and Caribbean Princess, and will debut aboard Princess's other megaships over the next few months. The line's three smaller ships, Tahitian Princess, Pacific Princess, and Royal Princess, are currently not participating in the program but may offer it at a later date.

Commodore on the Bridge: Captain Giuseppe Romano, a 31-year veteran of Princess and Sitmar Cruises, has been named commodore of Princess's 16-ship fleet. The title of commodore is traditionally bestowed upon the most senior captain in a fleet, and represents the highest rank attainable to a Princess mariner.

Commodore Romano is presently serving aboard Caribbean Princess where he has been master since 2004.

Hurtigruten's Fram Bumps Antarctic Glacier

On December 28, the small cruise ship Fram of Norwegian line Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com) briefly lost power while sailing near Brown Bluff, Antarctica, and drifted into a glacier face. No injuries were reported and damages were limited to one stove-in lifeboat. The ship was able to restart its engines quickly and made its way to King Georges Island for inspection, after which it sailed back to Ushuaia, Argentina, arriving on schedule on January 2, where passengers met their pre-arranged flights.

To ensure all necessary repairs were made, the cruise scheduled to depart later that day was cancelled. Passengers on the "we hit a glacier" sailing will be refunded 50 percent of their fare and receive a 30 percent savings off a future Hurtigruten sailing on the Norwegian coast. Passenger booked on the cancelled January 2 departure will receive a full refund as well as 50 percent off future Antarctica or Norwegian coastal sailings.

Disney to Debut Toy Story Musical on Disney Wonder

In what it's calling "one of the largest productions ever developed for a cruise ship," Disney Cruise Line (www.disneycruise.com) has begun paving the way to bring the animated feature Toy Story to life aboard the 1,754-passenger Disney Wonder this spring.

Following the storyline of the original Disney-Pixar film, Toy Story -- The Musical will give guests a toy's-eye-view of life in a child's bedroom, exploring issues of jealousy and friendship.

"The Toy Story film offered us a rich story and some incredible visual elements to build upon," noted Jim Urry, vice president of Entertainment for Disney Cruise Line. "The team we assembled created costumes, set designs, and a whole new musical score to literally transport our guests into the middle of the whimsical world of Buzz and Woody."

Crystal News: Nobu, No Butts & Global Golf

Sushi, Please: Famed Japanese chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa has extended that partnership that began with 2003's Crystal Serenity, preparing to create two new restaurants aboard Crystal's older vessel, the 940-passenger Crystal Symphony (www.crystalcruises.com). Silk Road, a 68-guest reservation-recommended restaurant, will be built in the space currently occupied by the ship's Jade Garden Asian restaurant, while a sushi bar will serve guests on a first-come, first-served basis. The restaurants will debut during Crystal Symphony's March 3, 2008, Trans-Pacific cruise from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Nobu will join the ship that month to personally oversee the launch.

You on the Balcony, Put Out That Cigarette: Smoking regulations continue to tighten industry-wide. This week, Crystal announced that beginning in May 7 it will prohibit smoking on all stateroom and suite verandas aboard Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. Most areas of Crystal's ships have been non-smoking for several years, including restaurants and the main entertainment lounges, and non-smoking areas dominate most bars and lounges. Smoking will continue to be permitted in cabins.

"The majority of our guests are non-smoking, and travelers are used to more non-smoking environments today," says Gregg Michel, Crystal Cruises' president. "We respect that smoking is a personal lifestyle decision but there is growing discomfort from non-smokers about veranda smoke negatively impacting the enjoyment of their personal outdoor living space."

As with the current policy, guests who do not observe the non-smoking policy will first be asked to comply. Failure to do so can result in a guest being asked to leave the ship at his/her own expense.

Fore: Cruiser? Golfer? Mix the two: During three 11- and 12-night 2008 cruises, Crystal will offer golfers an opportunity to tee off and perfect their swings during play at championship golf courses, onboard golf clinics, and group and private instruction from the visiting PGA professionals. Golf-themed cruises will be offered on:

  • April 26 aboard Crystal Serenity, Rome to London, calling in Monte Carlo (Monaco), Valencia (Spain), Lisbon (Portugal), and Gibraltar
  • September 27 aboard Crystal Symphony, Montreal to New York, calling in Quebec and Halifax (Canada), Corner Brook (Newfoundland), Bal Harbor (Maine), and Boston (Massachusetts)
  • October 30 aboard Crystal Serenity, Barcelona to Lisbon, calling in Valencia, Malaga, Cadiz/Seville, and Canary Islands (Spain) and Madeira (Portugal)

Cruise fares begin at $3,780 per person, double occupancy, depending upon itinerary and suite selected. Golf excursion rates vary by course.

Regent to Feature Deepak Chopra on Seven Seas Mariner

On June 4, those who'd like to combine whales with wellness, meditation with Mt. McKinley, and yoga with bears can sail aboard Regent's Seven Seas Mariner (www.rssc.com) in the company of celebrity doctor, author, spiritualist, and life-extension guru Deepak Chopra. The good doctor will lead participating passengers through his "Grow Younger, Live Longer" program. Developed in collaboration with Dr. David Simon, GYLL draws on "the timeless cultural traditions of the East, as well as modern discoveries in quantum physics, plus Chopra's and Simon's many years of personal and professional experience" to offer a "transformative 10-step process designed to 'reverse' participants' biological age through instruction in areas including stress management, relationship fulfillment, cultivating a youthful mind, sexual vitality, restful sleep and optimal nutrition." Some aspects of the program include instruction in sound meditation and yoga, pilates, calisthenics and movement, meditation, and Ayurvedic cooking classes.

The "Grow Younger, Live Longer" program will set passengers back $1,955 per person, in addition to cruise fare.

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