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Sea Diamond Sinks in Aegean

Last week, the 1,537-passenger Sea Diamond, a 21-year-old vessel operated by Cyprus-based Louis Cruise Lines (www.louiscruises.com), became the first large cruise ship in nearly a decade to sink while carrying passengers. The ship went down near the Greek island of Santorini in the early morning hours of April 6 after striking an underwater volcanic reef which tore a hole in her starboard side. All but two passengers and all crew were safely evacuated from the vessel. Two French passengers -- a 45-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter -- are still unaccounted for.

Sinkings are extremely rare in the cruise business. The last major vessel to sink while under passenger service was Sun Cruises' Sun Vista (formerly Meridian of Celebrity Cruises), which suffered an engine room fire in May 1999 and subsequently went down, after all passengers and crew were evacuated. In 2000, the budget vessel Sea Breeze sank off the coast of Virginia while sailing without passengers, soon after parent company Dolphin Cruises declared bankruptcy. All 34 crew were safely evacuated by the Coast Guard.

Holland America Sells Windstar Cruises to Ambassadors International

On February 22, in a surprise move, the travel services and event-management company Ambassadors International announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire motor-sail line Windstar Cruises (tel. 800/258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com) from Holland America Line. Last week, that sale was finalized, and Windstar found itself with a new home.

Ambassadors is the company that made big cruise news last year by buying Delta Queen Steamboat Company and American West Steamboat Company and merging them into a new river and coastal cruise entity called Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamericaline.com). The new line is based in Seattle, which is also home to Windstar and Holland America.

"Windstar Cruises delivers exactly the type of intimate, extraordinary cruise experiences of outstanding quality and value that we are focused on delivering to our customers," remarked Ambassadors International Cruise Group President David A. Giersdorf. "We could not be more pleased. We look forward to welcoming the exceptional officers, crew members, and employees of Windstar Cruises to the Ambassadors family."

Windstar's three distinctive motor-sail vessels -- the 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit and 308-passenger Wind Surf -- were built between 1986 and 1990, but have been exceptionally well maintained. Wind Surf completed an extensive enhancement and renovation program at the end of 2006, and both Wind Star and Wind Spirit are scheduled to undergo similar renovations in 2007.

Norfolk, VA, Opens New Cruise Terminal

On April 7, Norfolk, Virginia's new Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center (www.cruisenorfolk.org) was officially opened in anticipation of the April 28 arrival of its first summer-resident cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Empress of the Seas.

The facility, which was named for a fort built on the site "in the form of a half moone" in the late 17th century, is just steps from the heart of the city and next door to Nauticus, the National Maritime Center (tel. 800/664-1080; www.nauticus.org), a museum dedicated to U.S. naval sea power. Inside, displays offer facts about the original fort, while outside is a 3,400-square-foot Promenade Deck overlooking the Elizabeth River and a 9,600-square-foot Lido Deck letting on to views of downtown Norfolk.

Ships sailing from Half Moone this year include:

  • Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas: 5-, 6-, and 7-nights round-trip to Bermuda, April-June.
  • Carnival Victory: 6-night Bahamas, 2-night cruise to nowhere (June and Oct).
  • Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas: 8- & 9-night New England/Canada, 5-night Bermuda, and 9-night eastern Caribbean (June-Sept).

Additionally, the new port will see calls by three in-transit ships in the fall: Fred. Olsen Cruises' Black Watch on Oct. 22, Seabourn's Seabourn Pride on Oct. 25, and Princess's Grand Princess on Oct. 28.

Celebrity Set to Upgrade Mercury for Summer Alaska Season

The 77,713-ton, 1,896-passenger Mercury was built by Celebrity Cruises (tel. 800/437-3111; www.celebritycruises.com) back in 1997, the last of the five newbuilds planned and executed under ownership of the legendary Chandris shipping family. The Chandrises had a vision for Celebrity: It would be a line like none other, mixing a respect for shipping traditions with an entirely modern design sensibility. Not long after Mercury left the shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, Celebrity was sold to Royal Caribbean.

Ten years of sailing later, Celebrity is set to send Mercury in for a week of intensive reconstruction at a San Francisco dry-dock, leading up to her re-debut in Alaska next month. Improvements will include:

  • New balconies:
Verandas will be added to fourteen 210-square-foot aft staterooms.
  • New shops: The ship's "boutique boulevard" will be retooled to include a high-end cosmetics store with resident skin-care specialist; a high-end, appointment-only jewelry store; and a dedicated destinations store featuring merchandise from the region in which the ship is sailing.
  • New fitness equipment: All equipment in Mercury's large gym will be upgraded to include new strength training and TV-enabled cardio machines.
  • And more: On the theory that it's the little things that count, Mercury will also get all-new bedding; an upgraded pool deck; and new carpeting in the main restaurant, martini and champagne bars, Cova Cafe, Fortunes Casino, guest corridors, staircases, and main foyer.
  • The restored Mercury will sail Alaska from May through October, stop off for a few cruises in Hawaii, then begin Celebrity's first season of Australia/New Zealand cruises in December.

    MSC Plans Fourth Musica-Class Megaship

    Hey, MSC Cruises (tel. 800/666-9333; www.msccruises.com), what's with all the new ships? After already building or announcing construction of five big new megaships in the past two years, MSC has upped it to six with an order for a fourth vessel in its 89,600-ton, 2,500-passenger Musica class, this one to be named MSC Magnifica.

    The announcement was made on March 29 by MSC Cruises CEO Pierfrancesco Vago and Jacques Hardelay, CEO of shipbuilder Aker Yards France, where the new vessel will be constructed. Aker Yards has produced five vessels in MSC's current fleet -- the midsize Lirica, Armonia, Sinfonia and Opera and the megaship MSC Musica, as well as mega-sisters Orchestra (to be launched in May 2007) and Poesia, due in spring 2008.

    Carnival Plans Upgrades for Old Fantasy-Class Ships

    Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) began launching its 2,040-passenger Fantasy-class ships in 1990, when the pop charts were dominated by the likes of Vanilla Ice and Paula Abdul. The line launched eight of those ships before 1998 (the year of Celine Dion's Titanic hit "My Heart Will Go On"), but today we live in a different world, a world where Paula Abdul says nice things about Sanjaya Malakar and Titanic director James Cameron is making his next film almost entirely using computer animation.

    In other words, it's time to spruce up those old ships, 'cause the '00s have turned out to be even weirder than the '90s.

    Last week Carnival released plans to add new children's water parks, a new pool deck design and features, and a new adults-only "Serenity" deck to the ships' open decks, beginning aboard Inspiration and Imagination during their upcoming fall dry-docks and rolling out to the other Fantasy-class ships during scheduled dry-docks in 2008 and 2009.

    The new features are just part of Carnival's "Evolutions of Fun" program, a $250 million initiative designed to upgrade the Fantasy-class vessels' overall guest experience, from stateroom amenities to restaurants and leisure amenities like New York-style delis in the buffet restaurants and miniature golf courses out on deck.

    Many of the "Evolutions of Fun" enhancements have already been completed on Fantasy, Ecstasy and Fascination, and some are in place aboard Sensation, Elation and Paradise.

    Princess Adds Spice to Onboard Cuisine

    Starting aboard the two new ships debuting later this month -- the 116,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Emerald Princess and the 30,200-ton, 710-passenger Royal Princess -- Princess Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com) is planning a general enhancement of its onboard culinary program, covering the following areas:

    • New dining room menus: Menus in the ships' main dining rooms have been expanded to include a greater variety of starters, main plates, pasta dishes, spa-cuisine dishes and desserts; a larger number of dishes derived from the pan-Asian, Mediterranean and Latin American traditions; more dishes prepared using pan-searing, grilling and braising techniques; and a wider choice in breads, including whole-grain, flatbread, and focaccia.
    • Contemporary presentation: Tables will feature custom white oversized china and leatherbound menus.
    • In-cabin pizza delivery: Want a pie to go? For a $3 service charge, the pizzeria will deliver one to your cabin in a classic pizza box, along with plates, napkins, and cutlery.
    • Cookies-and-milk breaks: Every afternoon, a "cookies and milk break" will be held in the atrium, with a different flavor of oven-baked cookies every day.
    • Enhanced buffet service: Princess will be fancying up its buffets, with tables pre-set with cutlery and napkins. Servers will be standing by to provide beverage service at each table.

    Emerald Princess debuts April 11 and will sail an inaugural season of Greek Isles and Mediterranean voyages. Royal Princess -- a former Renaissance vessel acquired by the line in March from Swan Hellenic -- joins the fleet April 19 and will offer a selection of Mediterranean and Holy Land voyages. The culinary changes that debut on the two ships will gradually be rolled out to the rest of the Princess fleet in 2007 and 2008.

    NCL to Offer Big-Screen Nintendo Fleetwide

    Late last year, the Nintendo video game company launched Wii, a system built around a motion-sensitive controller that lets people bowl, box, or play golf, tennis or baseball by mimicking the sports' movements. This month, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) signed a deal with Nintendo that will put Wii systems in place aboard all fourteen of the line's ships. Systems will be set up in each ship's atrium, where guests will be able to play against each other via large video screens, either one-on-one or as part of organized tournaments. Two Wii kiosks will also be installed in each ship's Kid's Crew playrooms.

    Regent Expands Jean-Michel Cousteau Environmental Program for Kids

    At the polar opposite of video bowling, Regent Seven Seas Cruises (tel. 800/285-1835; www.theregentexperience.com) has announced an expansion of its partnership with ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau and his Ocean Futures Society, which will now present an "Ambassadors of the Environment" program for kids during the line's summer Alaska sailings aboard the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner.

    The program will teach kids aged 9-17 about life in the ocean and on land, touching on glacial geology and a variety of native animals, fish, birds, and plants. Special emphasis will be placed on sustainable living, examining the traditional lifestyle of Southeast Alaska's native Tlingit people and ways in which kids can help protect the environment after they return home. Participants will receive a CD containing an Ambassadors of the Environment presentation and library of images, which they can use to teach their class, scout troop, or friends what they learned during summer vacation.

    Cousteau, the son of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, and an acclaimed oceanographer, educator, and environmentalist in his own right, has been a long-time partner of Regent Seven Seas, offering an Ambassadors of the Environment program for young guests on Regent's Tahiti cruises and leading enrichment programs for adults aboard Regent cruises in Tahiti and South America.

    The per-child cost of the Ambassadors program is $110, which includes all shipboard activities and one shore excursion in either Ketchikan or Campbell River, depending on the itinerary. The program will be offered on 11 one-way, 7-night cruises between Vancouver and Seward, Alaska, between June 6 and August 15, 2007. Ports and natural areas visited on the cruise include Hubbard Glacier, Sitka, Skagway, Juneau, Tracy Arm Fjord, and Campbell River (British Columbia). Per person fares start from $3,697.

    SeaDream Introduces Express Luggage Service

    Do you really, really hate carrying your luggage to the airport, checking it, then waiting at the other side to see if the airline has managed to lose it again? And is avoiding all that worth, oh, say, $1,000 to you? If so, ultra-luxe SeaDream Yacht Club (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) has a deal for you: Sign up for the "Dream Luggage Express" and Luggage Express of Boca Raton, Florida, will arrange to pick up your bags at your home and send them right to your stateroom aboard the 110-passenger SeaDream I or SeaDream II.

    Rates for the service range from approximately $705 for Caribbean voyages to $1,565 for Mediterranean voyages, with that price covering two suitcases weighing approximately 50 pounds each, coming from the northeast USA, shipped round-trip. Passengers can arrange Luggage Express service through the SeaDream website.

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