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HAL: Bastion of Tradition Tiptoes Through Freedom's Door

Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com) has always been one of the most traditional of cruise lines, maintaining the kind of dignified and classic demeanor that befits its 134-year corporate history. But times are changing. All around them, competitor cruise lines are rethinking century-old sailing traditions to accommodate today's more casual lifestyle. And now, Holland America has responded by bowing its head and saying, "As you wish."

Beginning immediately aboard the MS Noordam and rolling out to the line's other ships between October 2007 and May 2008, HAL's new As You Wish dining program lets passengers choose whether to take their dinner in traditional fashion -- at the same table every night, with the same companions and waiter, at either early or late seating -- or to go casual, wandering down to the dining room when the mood strikes and having the maitre d' find them a table.

The program, which is essentially the same as Princess's Personal Choice dining scheme, will accommodate casual and traditional passengers on different levels of the HAL ship's two-tiered dining rooms, with one level offering flexible/open seating between 5:15 and 9pm daily. Flexible guests may either show up when the mood strikes or make reservations for a particular hour.

As You Wish dining will be introduced on HAL's ships on the following dates:

  • Noordam: Already available
  • Ryndam: October 11, 2007
  • Volendam: November 13, 2007
  • Statendam: December 18, 2007
  • Oosterdam: January 5, 2008
  • Rotterdam: January 27, 2008
  • Zaandam: February 3, 2008
  • Westerdam: February 24, 2008
  • Zuiderdam: March 15, 2008
  • Veendam: April 6, 2008
  • Maasdam: April 24, 2008
  • Amsterdam: May 16, 2008
  • Prinsendam: May 23, 2008
  • Eurodam: July 5, 2008 (coinciding with ship's launch)

Passengers will choose which dining program they prefer when they book their cruise.

Celebrity Introduces Self-Guided Art Tours; Cruise Writer Eats Crow

Every once in a while, even people who write about cruise ships for a living must pause for a little self-reflection.

In the June 27 edition of this newsletter, I reviewed Celebrity's 1,896-passenger Mercury, a ten-year-old vessel that had just undergone a refurbishment that freshened up her gorgeous, modern interiors, which were so ahead of their time in 1997. I lavished particular praise on Mercury's art collection, a truly remarkable assembly that includes pieces by some of the most respected and innovative contemporary artists of our time, including Richard Serra, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Dan Flavin, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauchenberg, and Sol LeWitt. Along with the collections on Century and Galaxy, it's by far the best aboard any cruise ship today, one of the few serious collections in a sea of inconsequential "mood art" and background color.

However, I did note some disappointment, accusing Celebrity of ignoring the collection -- of scheduling no art tours; of providing no materials that give insight into the works; and of living with damage and defacement to some of the works. All in all, I sensed an endemic lack of interest in the collection, which was once so central to Celebrity's brand

Well, it turns out I spoke too soon.

Starting soon, passengers on Celebrity's seven megaships will be able to check out free handheld audio art tours from the guest-relations desk and tour the collections at their own pace. The audio content, written by an art historian, offers a combination of academic and general-interest information, with information about the artists and works as well as more philosophical questions such as balancing the artist's intention with the viewer's perception.

Celebrity implemented the new self-guided audio art tour on Century in April. By the end of October 2007, tours will also be available aboard Constellation, Galaxy, Infinity, Mercury, Millennium, and Summit.

Carnival Singer a Finalist on NBC's America's Got Talent

American Idol has the big name, but where else but NBC's rival America's Got Talent can you see acts like lasso-twirler Johnny Lonestar, Bollywood dancer Kashif Memon, stilt-walkers The Second-Story Guys, and female-impersonating bellydancer Boy Shakira?

Recently, celebrity judges David "Baywatch" Hasselhoff, Sharon "Mrs. Ozzy" Osbourne, and Piers "heartless British guy" Morgan winnowed the thousands-strong field of hopefuls down to a manageable twenty, and among them was singer Jason Pritchett, currently employed as a featured vocalist on Carnival's 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit. Pritchett is one of six solo singers among the final twenty, along with singer/beatboxer Butterscotch, vaguely reggae Texan vocalist Cas Haley, R&B singer Robert Hatcher, 14-year-old Julienne Irwin, and romantic singer Manuel Romero.

"We strive to find truly talented vocal performers for our production shows," said Roger Blum, Carnival's vice president of cruise programming. "Jason certainly personifies the exceptional talent our guests can look forward to when sailing with us, and all of his friends here at Carnival are cheering him on."

Now me, I was rooting for performance artist Leonid the Magnificent, but you can't win 'em all.

Swan Hellenic Returns with New Head, New Ship

Earlier this year, the beloved little British line Swan Hellenic Cruises (tel. +44 (0) 1444-462-180; www.swanhellenic.com) was going through tough times. Its owner, the giant Carnival Corporation, had decided to pull the plug, taking away its only ship, the 710-passenger Minerva II, and transferring it to Princess Cruises as Royal Princess. Then, in stepped a savior in the form of Lord Sterling, aka Baron Sterling of Plaistow, aka Jeffrey Sterling (aka, we presume, Jeff), former chairman of P&O Cruises, who bought the Swan brand from Carnival and set out to find a suitable ship. He did, and for longtime Swan passengers it's the perfect one: the 350-passenger Minerva, which sailed as Swan's sole vessel from her construction in 1996 until 2003, when she began sailing under charter for Abercrombie & Kent and Radisson (now Regent) Seven Seas Cruises as Explorer II.

Renamed Minerva, the refurbished vessel will relaunch the Swan brand on May 23, 2008, offering summer sailings in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, then relocating to South America in November to begin a series of Antarctica cruises. The latter will continue to be offered in association with Abercrombie & Kent.

Royal Caribbean to Toughen Onboard Smoking Policy in 2008

Big news on some of the cruise world's biggest ships: As of January 2008, Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) will prohibit in-cabin smoking on 18 of its 21 ships, with the remaining three (Legend, Rhapsody, and Splendour) adopting the new rules next summer. Additionally, one lounge aboard each ship will be designated totally smoke-free.

"Results from online polls as well as input from all of our international offices worldwide, show very strong support of the new smoking policy," said Alice Norsworthy, Royal Caribbean's senior VP of marketing. "These changes reflect a more contemporary approach to healthier lifestyles and will significantly improve the cruise vacation experience for our guests."

Currently, Royal Caribbean prohibits smoking in restaurants, entertainment venues, corridors, and most of the ship's interior public spaces (except for designated areas of bars and lounges). Guests may also smoke on starboard outside decks and on their private balconies.

See the feature article in today's newsletter for a run-down on smoking regulations at all the major U.S. cruise lines.

Seabourn Lays Keel for Newest Ship

Last week at the T. Mariotti S.p.A. shipyard in San Giorgio di Nogaro, Italy, Seabourn Cruise Line (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com) celebrated the first big step in construction of Seabourn Odyssey, the company's first new ship since 1992. On July 11, Pamela C. Conover, Seabourn's president and CEO, was joined by Mariotti president Marco Bisagno and other dignitaries for the traditional keel-laying ceremony, in which the first section of a new vessel is moved into the building dock. As part of the ceremony, coins are traditionally laid into the keel, intended to bring the vessel good luck. For Odyssey, the coins used were an un-circulated 2007 U.S. Silver Eagle dollar coin and a newly minted Italian one-Euro coin.

Odyssey, which will become Seabourn's flagship upon her launch, is due to debut in mid-June 2009.

Costa Floats First Section of Costa Pacifica, Celebrates Millionth Booking in 2007

Costa Cruise Line (tel. 800/GO-COSTA; www.costacruises.com) continued its busy building streak this month, launching the 416-foot bow section of the new Costa Pacifica at Fincantieri's Palermo shipyard. In August, the section will be towed to the firm's Sestri Ponente shipyard in Genoa, where construction will continue.

Costa Pacifica, which will measure 114,500 gross tons and carry some 3,000 passengers, will be a sister ship to Costa Concordia and Costa Serena, launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively. In addition to Pacifica, Costa also has the 92,700-ton Costa Luminosa and an as-yet-unnamed sister ship being built for delivery in spring 2009 and March 2010.

Looks like they need all that additional tonnage, too: On July 19, the line announced that one million vacationers had booked trips on its ships since the beginning of this year. The millionth, an unnamed Italian family, have been invited to be part of official celebrations planned for the month of October.

Cruise West Renames and Repositions Spirit of Nantucket

Up Alaska-ways, small-ship line Cruise West (tel. 800/426-7702; www.cruisewest.com) has announced that the 102-passenger coastal ship Spirit of Nantucket, which it purchased last year from now defunct Clipper Cruise Line, will be renamed Spirit of Glacier Bay in summer 2008 and repositioned to sail itineraries in its namesake national park.

Nantucket, which sailed as Nantucket Clipper for Clipper, will be the second Spirit of Glacier Bay operated by Cruise West. Its 52-guest predecessor was retired from the CW fleet in 2001.

For the 2008 Alaska season, Spirit of Glacier Bay will offer 3-and 4-night Glacier Bay Highlights cruises that feature two full days in Glacier Bay, cruising round-trip from Juneau. The 4-night cruise also makes a port call at Haines or Skagway. The vessel will be rechristening in Seattle in spring 2008 before heading to Alaska. The ship sails East Coast itineraries through 2007.

MSC Plans December Baseball Theme Cruise

For the fourth straight year, Italian line MSC Cruises (tel. 800-666-9333; www.msccruises.com) will be bringing baseball greats aboard for a winter Caribbean baseball theme cruise, sailing from Ft. Lauderdale December 14 aboard the 1,586-passenger Lirica. Players signed for the cruise include former Yankees Stan Bahnsen and Tom Tresh, former Mets star Ed Kranepool, slugger Ken Griffey Sr., and former catcher/Major League manager Jeff Torborg.

Baseball-themed activities include a player-hosted trivia game; Q&A and autograph sessions; a passenger pitching contest; a story-telling session; and pitching, hitting, fielding, and base-running clinics.

The 7-night round-trip cruise calls at Key West, Montego Bay (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel (Mexico), with two days at sea. Fares start at $479 per person, double occupancy.

Luxe, Family-Style: Crystal Adds Fold-Out Beds for Kids

Luxury lines like Crystal Cruises (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com) aren't what we picture when we think "family cruise," but I guess they know something we don't. Earlier this week, the LA-based line announced that it had added fold-out sofa-beds to the sitting areas in twenty staterooms aboard Crystal Serenity, boosting the ship's third-berth capacity by 15 percent. The changes come in time for remaining summer sailings, as well as Serenity's Thanksgiving voyage in the Caribbean and Panama Canal, for which kids 11 and under sail free (when sharing a cabin with two adults).

"The popularity of family and multi-generational travel is one of the year's top travel trends," says Bill Smith, Crystal's senior VP of sales and marketing. "Families seeking great style and service, especially in overseas travel, appreciate our spacious ships and destination-rich itineraries."

Serenity now offers 157 third-berth options in every cabin and suite category, from standard outsides to Penthouse Suites.

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