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Empress of the North Faces Seven-Week Lay-Up After Striking Rock . . .

The 223-passenger paddle-wheeler Empress of the North, which evacuated her passengers after striking a rock in Alaska's Icy Strait on May 14, will be laid up until July 7 due while she awaits repairs. According to a statement from Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamerica.com), the vessel will soon relocate to Cascade General shipyard in Portland, Oregon, to complete repairs.

Empress's accident occurred around 1:30am on May 14, when the vessel struck a submerged rock in Icy Strait, southwest of Juneau, while en route to Glacier Bay National Park. All passengers were evacuated directly from the vessel onto fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels, and the Alaska State Ferry ship Columbia, and were transported back to Juneau. No injuries were reported among either passengers or crew, and the ship was able to sail back to Juneau under its own power, with pumps running.

It was the Empress's first week of operation in Alaska, and the cancelled sailings represent nearly half her Alaska season.

Majestic America is currently communicating with guests booked aboard the cancelled sailings, offering rebooking on another 2007 Alaska sailing as well as reimbursement for all related incidental charges and a 25 percent credit toward a future cruise. Guests who choose not to rebook will receive a full refund.

. . . But Contessa Soldiers On

While Majestic America's Empress heals in Portland, the line's 48-passenger catamaran Contessa has just begun her first Alaska season for the line, following an extended stem-to-stern upgrade that brought her interiors in line with those of the line's much larger river ships.

Majestic America acquired Contessa one year ago. Prior to that she sailed as Executive Explorer for much-lamented Glacier Bay Cruiseline, which is currently under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Though the ship looks a bit like a wedge of cheese from the outside, she's actually a comfortable and surprisingly fast little three-deck catamaran with nice cabins and a forward lounge/viewing area fronted by a full wall of windows.

"The Contessa provides the ultimate way to experience a one-of-a-kind Alaskan adventure," said David A. Giersdorf, Majestic America's president. "With just 24 newly redesigned staterooms and a fantastic 360-degree viewing platform, we're able to deliver an authentic travel experience in the Great Land that focuses on the wildlife, environment, and culture of one of the most unforgettable destinations in America while traveling in comfort and style. The Contessa has the freedom to visit extraordinary places far off the beaten path and show guests the true beauty of Alaska."

The vessel will spend the summer months sailing sixteen 7-night journeys north- or southbound between Ketchikan and Sitka. The itineraries include stops at Juneau, rarely visited Wrangell, Glacier Bay National Park, Dawes Glacier, and Thomas Bay or Misty Fjords. An expert onboard naturalist accompanies every trip, and many excursions are included in the cruise price.

Contessa's Alaska season continues through September, with its final cruise departing Sitka on September 23. Rates for the ship's 7-night cruises start at $1,699 per person.

Norwegian News, Pt. 1: NCL to Sell Orient Lines' Marco Polo

Orient Lines (tel. 800/333-7300; www.orientlines.com) has been an odd commodity for many years. Founded by British shipping magnate Gerry Herrod, the line was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1998 and has been run as a quiet sub-brand ever since, concentrating on far-flung itineraries aboard its single ship, the venerable Marco Polo. Built as Alexandr Pushkin for the Soviet Union in 1965, the ship was completely rebuilt in 1991-1993, and has maintained a local clientele ever since.

But now, who knows. On June 4, NCL announced the sale of Marco Polo to a buyer identified only as "an established brand." The sale will be effective as of March 23, 2008, with NCL/Orient operating previously announced itineraries until that date.

"Marco Polo has an extremely loyal following and the Orient Lines brand is unique in what it offers," said Colin Veitch, president and CEO of NCL Corporation. "It has been an important part of our business during the transition from the old NCL to the new NCL with the youngest fleet in the industry by the end of this year. We have said for the past two years that all of our older ships would progressively leave the fleet as our new, purpose-built Freestyle Cruising ships arrived. The timing of Marco Polo's departure always revolved around finding a good next owner, and I am pleased to say we have found one. This unique ship will, from the summer of 2008, have a new lease of life serving a new market under an established brand. The new owner will be announcing the acquisition very soon."

Marco Polo's long-time Filipino crew will continue to serve aboard ship through her delivery to her new owner, after which they'll be offered positions aboard NCL's other vessels.

No word yet on whether Orient Lines will continue as a brand or join a long list of admired cruise companies that are no more.

Norwegian News, Pt. 2: Jury Exonerates NCL in 2005 "Rogue Wave" Incident

Every once in a while the cruise biz breaks through to the mainstream media -- usually because of sickness, injury, or death. In April 2005, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) hit the news when a huge 70-foot wave struck Norwegian Dawn head-on as the ship sailed from the Bahamas to New York. Allegations at the time suggested that the company and the ship's captain could have avoided the situation, which caused damage to the vessel's exterior, water damage to 63 cabins, and minor injuries to four passengers. Reports by the Bahamas Maritime Authority (in May 2005) and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (in January 2006) found NCL innocent of fault in the matter, but still the incident lived on in the form of a lawsuit filed by some passengers who claimed NCL had intentionally ordered the ship into bad weather in order to make it back to New York early for a scheduled appearance on Donald Trump's TV show The Apprentice. Their suit sought a $100 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the line.

In September 2006, U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga of Florida denied the plaintiff's motion for class-action certification, instead ruling that any passenger who chose to bring suit would need to prove he or she personally suffered damages as a result of the incident. In an unusual move, the judge ordered that 80 separate trials be held to cover the 400 passengers involved in the case, with each trial covering five passengers' suits. The same jury would sit for all 80 trials.

Staying with me? OK, here's the denouement, at least for this week: At the conclusion of the very first of the trials, which lasted three weeks, the jury took two and a half hours to reach a "not guilty" decision, making it less likely that the remaining 79 trials will go forward.

NCL was understandably pleased: "We have always maintained that this lawsuit existed only in the minds of the plaintiffs' lawyers," said President and CEO Colin Veitch, "and this verdict confirms our belief."

Norwegian News, Pt. 3: NCL Joins Hiring Program for Army Vets

The U.S. Army's Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) program is a partnership between the Army and some 500 U.S. corporations that provides training to help soldiers in their post-service career. Late last month, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) became the first cruise line to sign on with the program, granting priority hiring status to qualified PaYS participants on the company's U.S.-flagged NCL America ships. Under terms of the agreement, interested enlistees will receive specific job training while still serving in the Army, and then interview with NCL upon completion of their service. To date, close to 30 enlisted soldiers have expressed interest in working for NCL America beginning in 2009, in such capacities as bar manager, cook, deck steward, provision master, manifest administrator, printer, youth counselor, and bell person.

Disney's Disney Magic Begins First-Ever European Season

Disney Cruise Line's 2,700-passenger Disney Magic may have been built in Europe, but it's been an all-American ever since, sailing almost exclusively from Florida and only occasionally making the trek west to offer Mexico cruises from Los Angeles. This month, though, the mouse-eared line has gone abroad, beginning its first Mediterranean season with a gala fireworks display marking Magic's arrival in Barcelona on May 24. The Port of Barcelona will serve as homeport for Disney Magic's 10- and 11-night Mediterranean itineraries, sailing through August and visiting Rome, Florence, Naples, Palermo, Sardinia, and Villefranche/Cannes. Limited availability remains for select departures.

"This is a special way to launch our unique Mediterranean cruises," said Disney Cruise Line President Tom McAlpin. "Our guests have told us they want to explore different parts of the world with Disney Cruise Line, and we're delighted to provide them with an authentic European experience combined with a fun, family-friendly cruise only Disney can deliver."

Frommer's writer Heidi Sarna is aboard Magic this week and will be providing a review in a future edition of this newsletter.

Carnival to Hold First-Ever Elvis Cruise

Lawdy, Miss Claudy: On August 30, Carnival's 1,486-passenger Celebration will set sail for the first-ever "authentic, fully licensed" Elvis Cruise, celebrating the life and work of the artist formerly known as "The Pelvis." Put together by Jazz Cruises, LLC, a provider of full-ship charter music cruises, the Elvis bash will feature a bevy of true-life Elvis collaborators, including the TCB Band, the Jordanaires, the Imperials, the Dempseys, Ronnie McDowell, Terry Mike Jeffrey & Band, Ruby Wilson, and others. Your host for the cruise is Jerry Schilling, longtime FOE (friend of Elvis) and author of the book Me and a Guy Named Elvis.

Entertainment and activities will include musical performances; an Elvis tribute contest open to all guests (with $10,000 in prize money); autograph and Q&A sessions with the musicians and hosts; Elvis-themed bingo; and more.

The four-night cruise is scheduled to depart from Jacksonville, Florida, on August 30, 2007, and will visit the Bahamian ports of Freeport and Nassau. Prices start at $750 per person, double occupancy. Booking is available through Jazz Cruises (tel. 800/704-3034; www.theelviscruise.com).

Crystal Plans December Jazz Cruise
Elvis not your bag? For a little more than twice as much money you can get finger-snappin' luxury during Crystal Cruises' winter jazz cruise (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com), departing Miami on December 1 aboard Crystal Symphony, bound for the western Caribbean.

Some 25 musicians will perform nightly throughout the ship, headlined by pianist John Bunch, vibraphonist John Cocuzzi, and trumpeter Warren Vache, Jr. Jazz historian, professor, author, and producer Dr. Robert G. O'Meally will be aboard to lecture on jazz history.

Port calls on this voyage include Key West, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Belize City. Fares begin at $1,645 per person, double occupancy.

Princess News, Pt. 1: Princess Expands Romance Program to Crown Princess

In February, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the TV series The Love Boat, Princess Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) created a "Department of Romance" to create programs that "guide and inspire the line's passengers to rediscover romance and incorporate it into their everyday lives." One of the department's initial offerings, a "Celebrate Romance" class, debuted aboard Emerald Princess and is now slated to be offered fleetwide, beginning aboard Crown Princess in July.

"Celebrate Romance" is a 45-minute multi-media primer on romance through the ages, using interviews, romantic movie clips, and relationship lore and advice to help passengers reconnect with their significant other and keep romance alive.

The class is free of charge and open to all passengers seeking to set free their inner Barry White.

Princess News, Pt. 2: World's Oldest College Grad to Sail Crown Princess

You're 95 years old and you've just graduated from college. What are you going to do now? Disneyland? Nope, you're going to sail with Princess's Crown Princess (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com)and tell stories about her Kansas farm life, and how she was inspired to go for a college degree in her tenth decade, becoming the Guinness world-record holder.

Nola Ochs graduated from the Fort Hays State University in Kansas last month with a degree in history, and was subsequently invited by Princess to sail as a special guest lecturer on the June 17 sailing of Crown Princess, departing Caribbean-bound from New York. She'll be sailing with her granddaughter Alexandra, who graduated in the same class as her grandmother. Ochs will participate in a Q&A session with the cruise director, take audience questions, and share memories of her long life.

"When we heard Nola's remarkable story, we knew we had to invite her on board as a special guest lecturer," said Jan Swartz, Princess' senior vice president of customer service and sales. "We love to bring on interesting people who will enrich our passengers' lives. Nola has obviously been a great inspiration to those who've met her and we think she will be to our passengers as well."

Cruise West Offers Money-Saving "Stow-Away" Program for Flexible Travel

Are you flexible with your travel schedule, and interested in saving some bucks on a small-ship cruise? Then check out the "Stow-Away" program now being offered by Cruise West (tel. 800/296-8307; www.cruisewest.com).

To take part in the program, travelers request a specific itinerary and cabin category and name a 30-day window in which they'd like to sail. They leave a $700 deposit at the time of the request (which must be made 60 or more days in advance), then wait to hear from the line. On the off chance there are no sailings available, the full deposit will be refunded; if the guest declines the offered departure date, the deposit amount may be applied to a future cruise or cruise-tour within 24 months. The deposit is also transferable, but is non-refundable.

So what's the up-side to the deal? If you take the cruise, you get it for 25 percent off.

The Stow-Away program is available in most Cruise West sailing regions, including Asia, the South Pacific, the Sea of Cortez, Costa Rica & Panama, Alaska, and the U.S. East and West Coasts.

easyCruise Begins First Greek Season

When you have a start-up cruise line, and when you only have two ships, and when the total passenger capacity of those two ships is only 270, and when the company is essentially run by one guy, you've got a lot of flexibility. Thus it is that easyCruise (tel. 650/385-0563; www.easycruise.com) has just begun operating its fourth full-season itinerary in only two years of operation, inaugurating a summer of 3-, 4-, and 7-night itineraries in the Greek Isles.

Departing from Piraeus/Athens, the line's flagship, the 170-passenger easyCruise One, will visit a total of eleven ports, making it possible to combine different length itineraries without repeating port calls. easyCruise One will remain in Greece through the fall and winter, offering a Classical Greece itinerary (Oct-Mar) that sails from Piraeus/Athens and visits Corinth, Ithaki, Katakolon/Olympia, Itea/Delphi, and Aegina.

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