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Lesson of the Week: Don't Sail Past Somalia

The cruise world got an unexpected jolt Saturday when reports came in that Somali pirates had staged an early-morning attack on the 208-passenger Seabourn Spirit, en route from Alexandria , Egypt, to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Pirates? Strange but true: Piracy along the 1,880-mile Somali coast has been an escalating problem since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Said Barre, leading to a period of civil war. The country has had no effective central governmental authority since that time. Since March of this year at least 27 pirate attacks have been reported, including two on ships carrying food aid from the World Food Progamme.

The vessel was about 100 miles off the Somali coast when the attack occurred. According to a statement issued by Seabourn (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com), the Spirit "was approached by two small armed boats, the occupants of which attempted to board the vessel. . . . The ship's crew immediately initiated a trained response and as a result of protective and evasive measures taken, the occupants of the small craft were unable to gain access to Seabourn Spirit." Reports indicate the captain attempted to run over one of the attacking boats.

The pirates were armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Some reports claim that an unexploded grenade remained lodged aboard the ship, where it was to be removed by U.S. officials in the Seychelles Islands. No passengers were injured in the attack, though one crewmember was hurt by shrapnel.

According to a November 2 report on the U.S. National Geospacial-Intelligence Agency's Maritime Safety Information pages (http://pollux.nss.nima.mil/index/index.html), "(Somali) pirates are reported to have used previously hijacked ships as bases for further attacks. . . .Victimized vessels report two to three 6 to 9 meter speedboats with 3 to 6 armed men per vessel armed with AK-47s and shoulder launched rockets, opening fire on their vessels in broad daylight in order to intimidate them into stopping. To date, vessels that increase speed and take evasive maneuvers avoid boarding while those that slow down are boarded, taken to the Somali coastline, and released after successful ransom payment, often after protracted negotiations of as much as 11 weeks."

Conservationists Save Baja Whale Habitat

As anyone who's cruised the waters around Mexico's Baja Peninsula can attest, one of the area's most miraculous assets is its population of gray whales, which arrive in these warm waters each winter to birth and nurse their calves. For years, their habitats in the bays and lagoons of Baja's western coast have been threatened by industrial development, but recently local and international groups took a giant step toward protecting San Ignacio Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last pristine gray whale birthing lagoon on the planet. On October 25, the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance and the local Ejido Luis Echeverr¿a land collective signed a binding deal that will forever limit development on some 120,000 acres of the lagoon's shores. In return, the members of the land collective will receive an annual cash payment of US$25,000 from a trust fund established by the San Diego-based International Community Foundation.

The funds will be paid in perpetuity and used to jump-start environmentally sustainable development projects. A separate deal, expected later this year, will limit development on a further 30,000 acres in exchange for a one-time $545,000 cash payment.

The Ejido Luis Echeverr¿a is one of many such groups that have traditionally controlled about 80 percent of Baja's land. Recent changes to Mexico's laws have made it possible for the ejidos to sell their lands to the private sector, and in the face of endemic poverty many have chosen to do so, transferring control to developers and land-speculators. Many residents of the affected areas make their living through fishing and ecotourism, and are often eager to protect the natural systems that allow their businesses to survive. While the deal to protect San Ignacio Lagoon is the first of its kind in the region, the Conservation Alliance hopes to persuade other ejidos to sign similar deals, in the process protecting up to a million acres.

"The idea is that the community itself decides, 'This is what we want for the future, and this is how we can best use our resources,' " said Miguel ¿ngel Vargas of Pronatura, Mexico's oldest and largest conservation group. "We're hoping for a domino effect."

U.S. groups involved in funding the alliance include the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org) and the international conservation group Wildcoast (www.wildcoast.net). More information can be found at www.wildcoast.net/mznews/archives/000111.html.

Several small-ship cruise lines offer Baja cruises, including:

Small-boat whale-watching excursions are usually a highlight of these cruises.

Norwegian Dawn to Visit Bermuda in Summer 2006-2007

Signaling the increasing acceptance of megaships into the formerly strictly controlled Bermuda market, Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) has announced that its 2,224-passenger Norwegian Dawn will visit the island in summer 2006 and 2007 as part of a new itinerary that also makes an overnight call in Nassau and spends a day at NCL's private Bahamian island, Great Stirrup Cay. The first season of the new 7-night itinerary leaves New York on Saturdays beginning May 13, 2006, and runs through the August 26, 2006 cruise. After its new Bermuda/Bahamas season, the ship will return to its previously published Canada/New England itineraries.

Carnival News: Destiny Pretties Up, New Chef Steps Out & Beds Go Online

So what's going on in the world of Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com)? A few mostly unrelated news blurbs . . .

Down in Freeport, Bahamas, the 101,353-ton Carnival Destiny emerged from a 21-day dry dock with several upgrades and updates in place. On deck 11, a new teen club includes three large-screen plasma TVs, music listening stations, video game pods, a dance floor with sound/light system, and a bar serving nonalcoholic drinks. Elsewhere, the Millionaire's Club Casino got a new poker pit, new lighting, and new furniture, while the ship's 48 suites and penthouses were redone with new bathrooms, carpeting, and wall coverings.

So much for cosmetics. Over in culinary land it's just been announced that French master chef Georges Blanc will sail aboard Carnival Liberty's first-ever Presidential Wine Club Cruise, sailing to the western Caribbean December 4-10. Blanc, who recently inked a deal with Carnival to provide specialty menus, will be one of several experts assembled for the cruise, including Steve Hosmer of Allied Domecq, Agnes LaPlanche of Mumm and Perrier Jouet, Peter Spann of Broadbent Selections, and Carolo Dumont from Campo Viejo. The cruise will be overseen by Carnival president and CEO Bob Dickinson, the Presidential Wine Club's jobsake. The cruise will feature welcome and farewell receptions, five wine tasting seminars, a question-and-answer session with Dickinson, group dinners for Presidential Wine Club Members, and three "sponsor dinners" where complimentary wines from Allied Domecq, Broadbent Selections, and Domaine Carneros will be poured. Information on the wine club is available at www.presidentialwineclub.com.

Lastly, we come to a good night's sleep, and if you've had one recently aboard a Carnival ship you can now recreate the experience in your own home sweet home. "Carnival Comfort Beds," which began appearing in the line's staterooms in early summer, are now available online, either as a complete package or in their individual components. Complete "Stateroom Bedding Sets," which include four "New Generation" non-allergenic microfiber pillows, two pillow shams, down duvet, duvet cover, and sheet set, start at $399. Prices for the Carnival Comfort Bed mattress/box spring start at $999, with queen and king sizes also available. See www.carnivalcomfortbed.com for details.

Theatre-at-Sea Celebrates Thirty Years on Radisson's Navigator

The Theatre Guild's Theatre-at-Sea Program celebrates its thirtieth birthday in 2006 aboard Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (www.rssc.com) and its 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. Departing April 21 on a 15-night transatlantic crossing from Fort Lauderdale to Monte Carlo, the cruise will feature Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ed Asner, Academy Award winners Patricia Neal and Cliff Robertson, Tony Award winner Leslie Uggams, and actors Gena Rowlands, John Tillinger, and Lee Roy Reams. Onboard productions will include musical and comedy showcases, scenes from popular dramas, and a selection of short sketches and show tunes. In a rare opportunity to get up close and personal, guests will also be invited to attend several private parties with the celebrities. Onboard parties will encourage guests to interact with the performers, and an optional $400 post-cruise package in Monte Carlo will include a visit to the Princess Grace Theatre to meet its acting company.

The cruise includes eight days of open-water cruising and seven days along the Mediterranean coast, visiting Madeira (Portugal), Casablanca (Morocco), Málaga, Palma de Mallorca, and Barcelona (Spain), and Sète (France). Onboard programs will also include optional Le Cordon Bleu cooking classes ($395 per person for three 2-hour classes) and lectures on the world's oceans by experts from Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. Per-person prices start at $3,845. For more information or to book the Theatre at Sea cruise, call tel. 800/752-9732.

A Trump Christens a Jewel, but Who'll Put a Name to Freedom?

Different cruise lines take different approaches to the once very formal ship christening ceremony. Gone (almost) are the days when the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II launched the Hamburg-Amerika Line's Imperator, though last year Queen Elizabeth II was persuaded down to Southampton to pop the cork on Queen Mary 2. For the most part, though, stars of one type or another -- the new royalty? -- get the honors. For Norwegian Cruise Line's (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) newest, the 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel, the honors went to Melania Trump, the new wife of one of today's most unlikely stars, real estate mogul Donald Trump. The new Mrs. Trump did the honors at an official ceremony at the Port of Miami on November 3.

Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com), on the other hand, is taking a new approach to the whole godmother routine. Between now and December 2, it's taking suggestions from the public about who should christen the new Freedom of the Seas, which will debut as the largest passenger ship ever in May 2006.

The contest, being run in partnership with NBC's Today show, encourages people to nominate someone in their lives who's "demonstrated exceptional spirit, courage and integrity." It can even be yourself, just as long as you possess good moral character. To enter, go to http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9085102, complete the online application form, and write an essay of no more than 500 words explaining why you or your inspiration would be the perfect godmother -- or godfather: In a break from resent tradition, Royal Caribbean is opening the contest to men as well. All entries must be received by 5pm EST, Friday, December 2, 2005. The winner will receive one cruise a year for the rest of their lives on any ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, for themselves and a guest.

Queen Mary 2 to Offer Brooklyn-Hamburg Crossings in '06

Transatlantic crossings between the U.S. and Germany were once commonplace, but since then they've mostly gone the way of the zeppelin. For 2006, though, Cunard Line (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com) will offer four 8-night crossings west- or eastbound between Hamburg and Queen Mary 2's new American homeport on New York's Brooklyn waterfront. The trips include a daylong stop in Southampton, England, normally QM2's eastern homeport. Eastbound crossings depart Brooklyn July 8 and August 17; westbound crossings depart Hamburg on July 16 and August 25. Fares start from $2,199.

The Brooklyn facility is part of New York's cruise expansion plans, designed to ease overcrowding at the city's historic west side piers. Though not yet completed, it accepted a visit on September 24 from P&O's Oriana, en route from the UK to Boston. Work continues to deepen the channel, upgrade passenger facilities, and reinforce mooring points in anticipation of the pier's official opening in April 2006.

Deilmann Expands Special-Interest Cruises for 2006 River Sailings

German line Peter Deilmann Cruises (tel. 800/348-8287; www.deilmann-cruises.com) has just announced a schedule of special-interest river cruises for 2006, expanding on its successful introduction of the program this year. On tap: music, golf, gardens, cycling, and hiking cruisetours.

  • Two music cruises are scheduled. The first, aboard the Mozart on the Danube, April 2-9, will pay tribute to the composer's 250th birthday. The second, aboard the Cezanne on the Seine, Sept. 2-9, will sail from Paris to Rouen visiting Versailles, Giverny, and Honfleur.
  • Six escorted garden cruises will sail in April, June, July, and September on the Seine, Danube, Rhine, and Rhône rivers, plus the Dutch-Belgian canal system.
  • Six golf cruises are planned on four rivers on the Princesse de Provence, Cezanne, Heidelberg and Mozart with departures between May and September.
  • A full fifteen cycling cruises will depart between April 30 and Sept. 17, aboard several different vessels.
  • The new hiking theme cruises will feature the Princesse de Provence on Rhône sailings round-trip from Lyon, with three departures in May, June, and October.

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