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Empress of the North Strikes Rock in Alaska, Evacuates Passengers

It's the start of the cruise season on Alaska's Inside Passage, and that means it's time for the ceremonial "striking of the rock" by a small cruise ship. This year the honor goes to Empress of the North, an old-timey, paddlewheel-style vessel operated by Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamerica.com). At around 1:30am on May 14, the 223-passenger 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. Once all passengers were safely off the ship, her crew sailed her back to Juneau as well, under her own power and with pumps running. The cause of the incident (aside from the obvious) will be investigated in Ketchikan, where the hull is being repaired.

All passengers aboard this sailing will have their travel costs paid for by Majestic America, and are being credited for a replacement cruise in the future.

It's actually been a few years since one of Alaska's small cruise ships had a run-in with the state's firmament. In late May 2004, the 76-passenger Wilderness Adventurer of now defunct Glacier Bay Cruiseline sustained minor hull damage after striking sharp ice that had calved off from Sawyer Glacier. Later that same summer, the 128-passenger Clipper Odyssey of now defunct Clipper Cruise Line ran aground off the Aleutian Islands. And in July 1999, Cruise West's 96-passenger Spirit of '98 struck a rock while en route from Seattle to Juneau. Generally speaking, the cause of these small-ship accidents is the same as the thing that makes people book them in the first place: Because of their shallow draughts, they can sail closer in to shore -- closer to wildlife, forest scenery . . . and rocks. Gotta watch out for those.

Royal Caribbean Names First Female Captain of a Major Cruise Ship

Chalk one more up for equality: Earlier this month, Royal Caribbean International (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) named Swedish marine officer Karin Stahre-Janson as the company's -- and the cruise industry's -- first-ever female captain. A smattering of female officers serve with various American cruise lines, but until now none has commanded a major cruise ship.

Stahre-Janson began her career with Royal Caribbean in 1997, starting out as first officer on Viking Serenade and Nordic Empress, then serving as chief officer on Vision of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas, then becoming staff captain on Brilliance of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas, and Majesty of the Seas -- the latter the ship she now commands. Prior to joining Royal Caribbean, Captain Stahre-Janson worked for nine years in cargo shipping, primarily on petroleum and chemical tankers.

"We are tremendously proud and pleased by Captain Stahre-Janson's promotion," said Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean International. "This is historic news -- for our company and the entire cruise industry -- and a tremendous inspiration for women in any line of work, particularly a maritime career."

Now let's just see if she's paid as much as the male captains . . .

INTRAV Sells Remaining Clipper Cruise Line Ships

Clipper Cruise Line, which went into limbo in early 2006 after parent company INTRAV sold half its fleet, slipped further into nothingness last week. On May 9, INTRAV and its parent organization, First Choice Expeditions, announced that they had sold the two remaining Clipper ships -- the 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer and the 128-passenger Clipper Odyssey -- to International Shipping Partners (www.isp-usa.com), a passenger-ship management company that charters out about a dozen crewed cruise vessels, day-cruise vessels, and ferries.

INTRAV will operate Clipper Odyssey's sailings through September of this year. In April 2008 she'll begin a five-year charter with exploration-cruise operator Zegrahm Expeditions (tel. 800/628-8747; www.zeco.com). INTRAV will operate Clipper Adventurer through winter 2007/2008, following which she'll be chartered out to travel companies Noble-Caledonia (UK) and Albatros Travel (Denmark) for the summer. For winter 2008/09 and the following four winters she'll sail under charter for First Choice and its Quark Expeditions brand.

According to an International Shipping Partners spokesperson, the company has also acquired ownership of the name Clipper Cruise Line, but has no plans to use it at this time. The names of the individual Clipper vessels will stay the same.

INTRAV will now concentrate on offering river voyages in eastern, western, and northern Europe, plus land, air, and safari journeys and customized travel programs.

Princess Christens One New Ship, Recruits Godmother for Second

On Mother's Day, Sunday, May 13, Princess Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) officially christened its newest ship, the 113,000-ton, 3,080-passenger Emerald Princess, at a TV-centric ceremony in Piraeus, Greece, the port city for Athens. On hand as co-godmothers were TV moms Florence Henderson (Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch) and Marion Ross (Marion Cunningham from Happy Days) and their TV daughters Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady) and Erin Moran (Joanie Cunningham). The christeners were joined by Gavin MacLeod, Captain Stubing from TV's The Love Boat.

Emerald Princess is a near-identical sister ship to Crown Princess, launched in 2006. She'll sail a debut season of 12-night cruises in the Greek Isles and the Mediterranean before repositioning to Ft. Lauderdale in the fall for winter Caribbean sailings.

Meanwhile, Princess has selected a godmother for its other new ship, the much smaller, 30,200-ton, 710-passenger Royal Princess, a former Renaissance vessel acquired by the line in March from Swan Hellenic. Doing the honors at a naming ceremony in Portofino, Italy, on June 14 will be Lorraine Arzt of Beverly Hills, California -- Princess's most-traveled passenger, who recently celebrated her 4,000th day at sea aboard the line's ships.

Arzt began cruising with her late husband, Joe, in the early 1970s aboard P&O's Spirit of London (later renamed Sun Princess); spent 17 years as a regular passenger aboard the original Royal Princess (now sailing as P&O's Artemis); and spent about ten months of each year aboard Sea Princess until the new Royal Princess debuted on April 19, when she promptly moved into her suite.

Plans had originally called for Emerald Princess and Royal Princess to be christened together on May 12 at the Greek Island of Santorini, but the recent sinking of Louis Cruise Lines' Sea Diamond in that island's waters forced a change in schedule.

Italian Lines Costa and MSC Launch New Megaships

It was a week for new megaships at Italian lines MSC Cruises (tel. 800/666-9333; www.msccruises.com) and Costa Cruises (tel. 800/462-6782; www.costacruises.com), with MSC launching the new 92,400-ton, 2,550-passenger MSC Orchestra and Costa going supersized with the 112,000-ton, 3,780-passenger Costa Serena.

MSC Orchestra, a sister-ship to 2006's MSC Musica, was christened by actress Sophia Loren at a gala ceremony in Civitavecchia, Italy, on Monday, May 14. This marks the fourth MSC ship for which Ms. Loren has served as godmother -- a singular distinction in the cruise biz. Composer Ennio Morricone, who has scored literally hundreds of films in a career approaching its 50th year (including Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars and Marco Bellocchio's Fist in the Pocket), was also on hand to conduct a special orchestral concert. Orchestra begins sailing 7-night Mediterranean itineraries round-trip from Venice on June 2.

Costa opted to conduct a more Gallic ceremony for Serena, choosing young French actress Marion Cotillard (who stars as chanteuse Edith Piaf in the new bio-pic La Vie en Rose) to christen the vessel at the French port of Marseille, on May 19. Serena is a sister-ship to Costa Concordia, launched in summer 2006. She'll sail weekly 7-night Turkey/Greece itineraries from Venice through November.

Both Orchestra and Serena are now the flagships of their respective fleets.

Silversea Installs Stem-to-Stern Wi-Fi Across Fleet

Ultra-luxe operator Silversea Cruises (tel. 877/215-9986; www.silversea.com) has just announced that it's expanded wireless Internet access to every spot on its four ships, enabling Type-A's who travel with their laptops or Blackberries to check their e-mail anywhere on board.

"Today's luxury travelers are often working professionals who travel with laptops and PDAs in tow, and they appreciate being able to access the Internet from anywhere on the ship," said Tim Rand, Silversea's CIO and vice president of information technology. "This expanded Wi-Fi coverage is the perfect complement to the cellular phone service we also offer to help our guests stay in touch."

With this announcement, the four Silversea vessels become part of a very small group of full-access cruise ships at sea today, along with Seabourn's three small luxe ships and Carnival's huge Carnival Valor.

Carnival Rolls Out E-Ticket Cruise Documents

Following the lead of Princess and NCL, Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) last week introduced paperless e-tickets for all cruises aboard its 22-ship fleet. Booked and paid guests can now access their travel documentation and information 24 hours a day via a secure area of the Carnival website.

Guests who prefer to stick with paper can opt to have traditional cruise documents mailed to them or their travel agent some 30 days prior to their cruise.

NCL Shows Off Top Suites in New Online Portal

See, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) has these suites, the Garden Villas and the Courtyard Villas. The Garden Villas are the biggest accommodations at sea, stretching out over 5,750 square feet and sleeping six people in private bedrooms, with private baths, big balconies, a totally private courtyard with hot tub and sunbathing area, a butler, etc., etc., etc. They're perched way up at the top of Norwegian Dawn, Gem, Jewel, Jade, Pearl, and Star. The ships Gem, Jade, Jewel, and Pearl also have something called the Courtyard Villas, which is sorta the same idea except broken up into a sort of condo arrangement -- you only book one of the bedrooms, and you and the other Courtyard Villas guests have access to the courtyard and all the goodies.

Them's the goods, but usually only the guests who book them get a good look inside. Well, no more. Now NCL has a new website, www.nclsuitesandvillas.com, designed specifically to show off those suites to all and sundry. If you've got a few thousand extra bucks to plunk down on one, super. If not, you can always look at the nice pictures and fantasize.

In other news, you can expect to see the line's advertising showing up in some unconventional places this summer -- such as 16-ounce aluminum bottles of Bud Lite, and dry-cleaning bags bearing the slogan "Our dress code: Wear something." It's all part of the line's push to get its casual "Freestyle Cruising" message out to the general public -- or at least to those who drink beer and get the clothes dry-cleaned.

Disney Jumps on Cell Phone Bandwagon

The cell-phonification isn't complete quite yet, but it took one more step in that direction last week when Disney Cruise Line (tel. 888/DCL-2500; www.disneycruise.com) announced that it had engaged Wireless Maritime Services to create a wireless cellular network aboard the twin ships Disney Magic and Disney Wonder. In a nice touch, though, service will only be available in guest staterooms, keeping things quiet out in the public areas -- or at least as quiet as they can be on ships that often carry 1,000 kids.

Service is already available aboard Disney Magic, which has just begun its first European season. Disney Wonder will be wired for cellular by mid-summer. More than 340 worldwide cellular providers (including US carriers Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Alltel) will be supported by the network, and guests will be billed by their cell phone provider according to their plan's roaming rates.

Crystal Serenity to Host Tommy Dorsey Orchestra on Fall Transatlantic Cruise

The perfect cruise soundtrack depends, of course, on your personal taste, but Big Band music does seem to have some inherent connection with big passenger vessels -- for which we can variously blame 1940s newsreels, Abbott and Costello movies, or just the fact that many of today's older cruisers have a thing for the music of their youth.

In any case, here's the skinny: On November 9, the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serentity of luxe line Crystal Cruises (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com) will set sail from Lisbon, Portugal, on a ten-day, Miami-bound Big Band and Ballroom Dance cruise headlined by the legendary Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, now led by trombonist Buddy Morrow.

Throughout the cruise, the Dorsey Orchestra will perform nightly sets and host a Big Band Afternoon Teatime. Guests can view classic Big Band movies such as The Glenn Miller Story, attend afternoon dances and swing lessons, take part in trivia contests, and more. Serving as guest lecturer will be jazz historian, conductor, museum curator, and Big Band saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, who will conduct informal talks on Big Band theory, the evolution of jazz, and the lives of some of the great players, from Louis Armstrong to the Dorsey brothers.

The 10-night sailing includes port called in The Azores and Bermuda, the latter for an overnight. Fares begin at $2,995 per person, double occupancy.

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