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Panama Breaks Ground on Canal Expansion

On September 3, the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal got its start when demolition experts blasted away a hillside near the village of Paraiso, north of Panama City. Some 30,000 invitees and spectators -- including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who oversaw the 1977 treaty that arranged for the canal to revert from U.S. to Panamanian control -- were on hand for the event.

"It's a historic day," said Dani Ariel Kuzniecky, Panama Canal Authority chairman and Panamanian Minister for Canal Affairs. "Expansion will have a significant role in world trade and the maritime industry. This project brings a true sense of pride and a real sense of responsibility. We are ready to meet the demands ahead and, truly, the best is yet to come."

The groundbreaking is the first concrete step in a multi-year effort put into motion by a Panamanian national referendum on October 22, 2006, when voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to widen and modernize the canal.

Built with American funding between 1880 and 1914, the Panama Canal was the first shortcut carved between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas and remains the only one today. The route is about 50 miles long and includes passage through three main locks, which, through gravity alone, raise ships over Central America and down again on the other side. Between the locks, ships pass through the massive, 164-square-mile Gatun Lake, an artificially created basin poised 85 feet above sea level in Panama's interior.

At its construction, the canal was able to easily accommodate the largest ships in the world, but today many tanker, cargo, and passenger ships are far too large to pass. Those built to what's become known as Panamax specifications -- just small enough to squeeze through -- do literally that: The maximum beam (width) for a Panamax ship is 106 feet, just four feet narrower than the walls of the canal locks. Sitting in a lower-deck lounge of such a ship and watching the walls go by just an arm's length out the windows to either side can be a very disorienting experience.

"We all know about those who risked so much and tried so hard to build the Canal more than 100 years ago," said Panama Canal Authority administrator/CEO Alberto Alemán Zubieta. "As we dig, as we build, as we expand the Canal, we will be thinking of those pioneers while also looking to the future. A future that is bright for the Canal and world trade. A future that is bright for Panama."

Panama's expansion plan calls for the digging of a new, 60 per cent wider channel that will parallel the existing canal along its narrowest sections on either side of Gatun Lake. It will effectively double the canal's capacity, and from a cruise perspective will allow the largest cruise lines greatly expanded flexibility. Royal Caribbean, for example, will be able to reposition its huge Voyager and Ultra-Voyager ships from the Caribbean to the Mexican Riviera and Alaska, if it so chooses, and Cunard will be able to sail Queen Mary 2 between the seas rather than making the trek around Cape Horn.

The expansion is expected to be complete by 2014, and will eventually be paid for by higher tariffs on vessels using the canal.

Cruise Biz Contributes $35.7 Billion to U.S. Economy, Says Industry Group

A new report prepared for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) marketing group says that in 2006 the cruise biz generated a total of $35.7 billion in gross U.S. economic output and supported 348,000 American jobs, paying $14.7 billion in wages.

The report shows total cruise industry spending increased by 10 percent in 2006. Approximately 80 percent of the benefit was concentrated in ten states -- Florida, California, Texas, Alaska, New York, Hawaii, Georgia, Washington, Illinois, and Massachusetts -- but the report claims that overall spending had an impact in all 50 states, via direct purchases of goods and services by the cruise lines and spending by crew and passengers of goods and services related to cruising, including pre- and post-cruise stays, airfare, and lodging. The final $35.7 billion figure also includes indirect economic impacts, such as transportation services to deliver finished products to the cruise lines and utilities needed to run manufacturing equipment.

Wonks among the Frommers.com readership can view the entire report at CLIA's Web site, www.cruising.org.

Cunard News: QE2 Celebrates 40th Anniversary (by Breaking Down) while Queen Victoria Takes Shape

The unintended message at Cunard (tel. 800-7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com) this week was apparently "Out with the old, in with the new," with the grand dame QE2 celebrating her 40th anniversary, her mortality, and her impending retirement even as Cunard's new Queen Victoria takes shape at Italy's Fincantieri shipyard, preparing for her December debut.

QE2, which launched on September 20, 1967, and is due to retire in November 2008 to become a floating hotel in Dubai, had an inauspicious beginning to her anniversary week, experiencing engine problems after departing the port of Dubrovnik, Croatia. An expert was flown in and, after a 24-hour delay the old ship resumed her itinerary. Good thing, too, because on September 15 she's due to start her 40th anniversary voyage, a round-trip from Southampton that will visit many sites integral to the ship's history. On September 20, she'll visit Greenock, Scotland, where she was built and launched exactly 40 years previous. A celebratory lunch will honor 100 workers who helped build the ship, and the exact moment of her launch -- 2:28pm --will be marked by the sounding of the ship's whistle.

In addition to QE2's 40th, the voyage will also celebrate two other dates from Cunard history: the 100th anniversary of Mauretania's departure from the Tyne for her first sea trials (September 17) and the 40th anniversary of the original Queen Mary's final departure from New York (September 22).

Meanwhile, in Italy, Cunard is busily preparing for the launch of its newest vessel, the 90,000-ton, 1,980-passenger Queen Victoria. This week it announced that she'll be named by the Duchess of Cornwall (nee Camilla Parker Bowles), wife of Prince Charles, who will also attend the ceremony.

"This will be an historic occasion. We are most honoured that Their Royal Highnesses have accepted our invitation and that Her Royal Highness will name our newest Cunarder," said Carol Marlow, president of Cunard Line. "Every one of our Cunard Queens has been named by a member of the royal family and we are therefore delighted that Queen Victoria will follow in that tradition. In addition, this particular ceremony will mark the beginning of a new era, as it will be the first time in our 168-year history that we will have three Cunard Queens in service at the same time."

The ship will continue Cunard's tradition of being the only line offering a first-class section. As aboard QE2 and Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria will offer the Queens Grill and Princess Grill restaurants, catering solely to passengers booked in upper-end Grill-category accommodations. The Grills share the concierge-staffed private Grills Lounge, Grills Courtyard (for al fresco dining and afternoon tea), and Grills Upper Terrace sun deck, where servants provide cool towels, Evian spritzes, fresh fruit, sorbet, and tea sandwiches while passengers luxuriate.

The Grills will be accessed by private elevator, to keep out the riff-raff cabin-class passengers.

In other Queen Victoria news, Cunard has announced that four theatrical productions featuring 16 classically trained singers and dancers will form the core of QV's inaugural season of entertainment. The theater where they perform will feature sixteen private opera-style boxes with seats for just 48 upper-crust guests, who will be served by white-glove ushers. The shows themselves will be themed on international dance, Riverdance-style Celtic music and dancing, great paintings, and (surprise!) the Victorian era, "the apex of the British Empire." Pretty hoity-toity for a company based in the desert outside Los Angeles . . .

Norwegian Coastal Voyage Changes Name to Hurtigruten

Linguistics time! In Norwegian, the word hurtigruten means "coastal voyage," and that's exactly what the line that goes by both those names has been doing since 1893. That's the year Captain Richard With sailed the first express steamship from Trondheim to Hammerfest, up the Norwegian coast. Six years later, the route was extended from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north, and ever since, a fleet of ships has been providing passenger and cargo service along that route. In Norway, the company that runs those ships has been known as Hurtigruten, but for the benefit of linguistically challenged Americans, it's been marketed in this country for several years as Norwegian Coastal Voyage.

One must always be careful when naming a company that the moniker you choose can keep up with changes to your business. Witness Royal Caribbean -- originally a Caribbean-only line that's now saddled with its sunny island name even when hawking trips to Alaska, Italy, and Russia. Norwegian Coastal Voyage recently faced a similar problem. A few years ago, it began offering trips to Antarctica, which is almost as far from the Norwegian Coast as you can get and still be on this planet. Since, for better or worse, the NCV brand isn't quite as identifiable as, say, Coke, the folks in charge had an opportunity to change, and change they did. Thus, beginning immediately, Norwegian Coastal Voyage will revert to its native language and be known throughout the world as Hurtigtruten (www.hurtigruten.com).

Say it with me -- it's fun: Hurtigruten (Her-te-grew-ten). There, you're an internationalist.

EasyCruise Purchases Second Ship, Ends River Cruise Operation

EasyCruise (www.easycruise.com), the anti-cruise-line started up in 2005 by easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, has just announced that its 2008 season will see the introduction of a second ship to its small fleet.

To be rechristened easyCruise Life, the 12,600-ton vessel began her pre-easyCruise life as Lev Tolstoy, built in 1981 by the Black Sea Shipping Company for cruise ship and ferry use in the Soviet Union. In the intervening years she's also sailed as Natasha, Palmira, and Farah. EasyCruise will customize the vessels to match its distinctive "easy" brand experience. She'll carry over 500 passengers -- more than double the size of the line's first vessel, easyCruiseOne.

Beginning in April 2008, easyCruise Life will offer itineraries that take in six different Greek Islands, including quiet Syros and Samos and lively Kalymnos, Kos, Paros, and Mykonos. EasyCruise will also visit Turkey for the first time, with a full day and night in Bodrum. Passengers can join the cruise in either Athens (on Saturday) or Bodrum (on Monday). The line's original ship, easyCruiseOne, will also remain in Greece, offering flexible itineraries that range from 4 to 14 nights, visiting ports such as Poros, Mykonos, Paros, Sifnos, Ithaki, Paxos, Corfu, Kefallonia, Zakynothos, Itea (for Delphi), and Preveza, plus the Albanian port of Agioi Saranta. "Albania is starting to arouse people's interest," said Haji-Ioannou in announcing the itineraries. "It's an exceptional country and from the port of Agioi Saranta we will offer tours to Butrint, which is a superb world heritage site."

The announcement of a new ship and new itineraries comes soon after easyCruise abruptly cancelled its season of river voyages in Holland and Belgium, which was to have continued through late September aboard the chartered river vessel M.S. Frontera, aka easyCruiseTwo.

According to the line, the plug was pulled "due to the financial situation of Boonstra Riverline," the company that owns Frontera and has been operating it as an easyCruise franchise.

EasyCruise is compensating passengers affected by the cancellation, offering a full refund for both cruise and other travel arrangements, as well as a complimentary cruise on easyCruiseOne.

Carnival News: New Adult Areas, New Ship from San Juan, New Piers at St. Maarten, and the Old Celebration Says Adios

Four quick news blurbs from Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800-327-9501; www.carnival.com):

1. Serenity for All, with ID: Following the lead of sister line Princess Cruises, which debuted the its canopied, adults-only "Sanctuary" outdoor lounge on Crown Princess last year, Carnival has just announced a brand new adult area for its ships called "Serenity." The area will debut aboard Inspiration when it returns from dry dock in early October, and will then be rolled out to her Fantasy-class sister ships by 2009. Located on a secluded aft deck, Serenity will feature plush chaise lounges and chairs, with colorful oversized umbrellas, a shaded relaxation area, two whirlpools, and attendants to bring drinks to your chair.

2. Victory Is the New Destiny: Beginning in November 2008, the 2,758-passenger Carnival Victory will be deployed year-round on 7-night southern Caribbean departures from San Juan, Puerto Rico, replacing her older sister ship, Carnival Destiny. Her itinerary will pay an overnight call at the La Romana/Casa De Campo resort in the Dominican Republic, and make daylong visits to St. Kitts, Barbados, Dominica, and St. Thomas.

3. La Celebración Va a España: In partnership with Orizonia Corporación, Spain's largest travel company, Carnival Cruises' parent company, Carnival Corporation, recently finalized plans to create Iberocruceros, a new cruise line targeting the Spanish market. The new line's fleet will be comprised of three ships: Orizonia's 1,244-passenger Grand Mistral (the former Mistral of Festival Cruises) and 834-passenger Grand Voyager (the former Olympic Voyager of Royal Olympic Cruise Line), plus Carnival's 1,486-passenger Celebration, currently the second-oldest ship in the company's fleet after 1985's Holiday. Celebration is scheduled to enter service with Iberocruceros in late spring 2008, after an extensive renovation.

4. Mo' Piers for Maarten: Down in the Caribbean, the popular port of St. Maarten will soon get even more populous, as Carnival Corporation has finalized an agreement with the St. Maarten government that will allow it to build a new two-berth cruise pier able to accommodate some of the largest of today's megaships. The new facility, combined with the island's existing four-berth pier, will make St. Maarten one of the largest cruise ports in the Caribbean. Under the agreement, Carnival Corp. has provided financing of $34.5 million for construction of a new pier and has guaranteed a certain number of passengers to the island. Carnival Corp.'s brands -- including Carnival, Princess, Holland America, and Costa -- will enjoy preferential berthing rights at the new facility for the 20-year period of the agreement. Construction on the new pier is scheduled to begin in December 2007, with completion projected in 2009.

Cruise West Sends Spirit of Yorktown for Makeover

In 2006, family-owned small-ship line Cruise West (tel. 800/296-8307; www.cruisewest.com) purchased the 138-passenger coastal cruiser Spirit of Yorktown from rival Clipper Cruise Line, which was ailing then and has since folded. After operating her for a year she must feel like part of the family, because this week the line announced that it will sink $2 million into a large-scale renovation of the small vessel, redecorating and renovating her public corridors, her lobby area, and her panoramic Observation Lounge. In addition, four cabins will be rebuilt to include private teak-floored balconies large enough for a café table and two chairs -- a real rarity in the small-ship market -- and art from the West family's private collection and pieces commissioned from Alaska Native communities will be installed all around the vessel.

The upgrades will be completed in November and December, just in time for Yorktown's first Sea of Cortéz holiday cruise, departing December 22, 2007.

"Spirit of Yorktown is a beautiful ship that will look better than ever," said Dick West, Cruise West's chairman and managing director. "We are particularly pleased with the new art program. . . .In addition to art from my family collection, we have commissioned pieces from local Alaskan communities that we visit. The community of Metlakatla has been commissioned to recreate a healing blanket that adorns a wall in their Long House. This blanket represents the healing of families from all tribes who have been affected by drugs or alcohol. It's a very special piece which incorporates the tribal symbols of the Alaska Native clans, and we will be honored to have it onboard one of our ships."

Yorktown's renovation and art program will be the model for a similar program that will be implemented aboard the rest of the Cruise West fleet over the next two years.

Crystal Cruises Plots Course for 2009 World Cruise

It's round-the-world time for luxe line Crystal Cruises (tel. 888/799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com), which this week announced it's first truly circumnavigational cruise in seven years, aboard the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity.

Scheduled to depart Los Angeles on January 21, 2009, the 105-day cruise will visit 46 destinations in 17 countries, including Mexico, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Eastern and Western Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Russia, before arriving back in Los Angeles on May 7. Among the highlights are:

  • Five maiden calls in Rangiroa (French Polynesia), Napier (New Zealand), Komodo (Indonesia), Sihanoukville (Cambodia), and Petropavlovsk (Russia).
  • First time Crystal has called in Bali since 2000.
  • First time Crystal has called in Alaska since 2005, with scheduled stops in Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands), Kodiak, Seward, Glacier Bay, and Ketchikan.
  • Overnight stays in Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, Osaka, and Yokohama, and two-night stays in Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong.
  • Seven individual segments available, for as few as 12 days.

World Cruise fares will be available on October 15, 2007.

Norwegian Cruise Line Launches Bermuda Golf Program

What exactly is the lure of Bermuda? Perfect beaches? Sure, they're nice. Lovely landscapes and a mix of British and Caribbean culture? Yep. Twisting, narrow roads that are nearly impossible to drive? Gotta love 'em.

For some people, though, the lure is golf -- which makes sense considering Bermuda has the highest concentration of golf courses per square mile in the world, along with unpredictable and challenging Atlantic winds, firm greens, and spectacular views.

To take advantage of this bounty, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) has just launched a new Golf Bermuda program, offering guests advanced tee time bookings, Callaway rental clubs, transportation to and from the course, and assistance with planning golf tournaments.

"Based on the popularity of the NCL America Golf Hawai`i program, we decided to enhance our current Bermuda golf offerings to make it easier and more convenient for our guests to experience the island's vast array of world-class courses," said Scott Rogers, NCL's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "NCL's Golf Bermuda provides guests the resources to enjoy golf the Freestyle Cruising way: more options for whenever and wherever they want to play."

Golf packages range from $85 to $269 per person, and includes access to Bermuda's most popular and scenic courses, including:

  • The Ocean View Golf Course, rated four stars by Golf Digest and located just outside Hamilton.
  • The challenging, 6,100-yard Belmont Hills Golf Club, designed by Algie M. Pulley, Jr. and the most extensive course-rebuilding project on the island to date.
  • The Mid Ocean Golf Club, located in scenic Tucker's Town and home to one of the greatest golf courses in the world.
  • The par-71 Port Royal Golf Course, offering some of the most challenging holes on the island.
  • The Tucker's Point Golf Club, named by Travel + Leisure Golf readers in 2005 as one of the top three courses in the categories of Best Golf Resort and Best Restaurants in the Caribbean.
  • St. George's Golf Course, situated on the eastern tip of the island and offering breathtaking ocean views at every hole.
  • Riddell's Bay Golf Club, Bermuda's oldest golf course, having been around since 1922.

NCL currently has four ships offering Bermuda itineraries. Norwegian Dawn sails 7-night Bermuda and Bahamas cruises from New York through August 25, 2007. Norwegian Crown sails round-trip from New York on 7-night itineraries through October 28, 2007. Norwegian Majesty sails round-trip from Boston on 7-night itineraries through September 30, 2007 and one five-day itinerary on October 7, 2007. From October 28 through November 10, 2007, Norwegian Majesty sails round-trip from Charleston on 6- and 7-night itineraries. Norwegian Spirit sails round-trip from New York on an 8-night Bermuda and Eastern Caribbean itinerary through the end of August.

Silversea Taps John Cleese for 2008 World Cruise

Ultra-luxe line Silversea Cruises (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com) has grabbed actor and comedic legend John Cleese for Silver Shadow's World Cruise 2008. The Monty Python creator is set to join a knockout mix of guest speakers and enrichment specialists that includes actress Polly Bergen, film critic Rex Reed, TV chef Cat Cora, cookbook author and TV personality Ted Allen, photojournalist Steve McCurry, and fashion and celebrity photographer Stephanie Pfriender Stylander.

Cleese will entertain Silversea guests as host of the January 16 segment of the cruise (#3802, sailing from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego), sharing insights and anecdotes from his film and television careers, from his two best-selling psychology books, from his time teaching at Cornell University and helping run a successful training film production firm, and from his stint as the voice of god in the Broadway hit Spamalot.

Regent's Mariner to Host Acting Legends for Theatre-at-Sea Voyage

No introduction required: On February 21, 2008, the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner of Regent Seven Seas Cruises (www.rssc.com) will host the 35th "Theatre at Sea" festival, presented by the Theatre Guild. Aboard for performances and after-parties will be stage and screen legends including theater, film, and television icon Eli Wallach; Academy Award-winner Patricia Neal; TV and Broadway legend Ed Asner; four-time Drama Desk Award-winner Tovah Feldshuh; television star and former Miss America Susan Powell; Helen Hayes Award-winner and director Lee Roy Reams; film and television actress Anne Jackson; and Broadway stars Karen Mason and Richard White.

The 12-night Amazon River voyage sails from Manaus (Brazil) to Fort Lauderdale, calling at Parintins and Santarem (Brazil), Devil's Island (French Guiana), Barbados, Dominica, San Juan (Puerto Rico), and Grand Turk (Turks and Caicos). Highlights include a trip to Manaus's Opera House, shopping excursions, a reception with the governor of Barbados, and a call at Brazil's Boi Bumba Festival. The itinerary also features three days at sea. Prices start at $5,295 per person, double occupancy. Chartered economy airfare is available for $700 per person. For information, contact Theatre at Sea (tel. 800/752-9732).

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