Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seabourn Spirit 2009 Food & Wine Cruise - Finally Onboard...Err, I Mean, Home!

We boarded the Seabourn Spirit and it was, as it should be in our dreams, like coming home. Everything was as it was when we left months ago: Consistently exceptional.

As we boarded so late, after our walking wine tour, we had just enough time to go to our suite, see the incredible flower display Pam Conover had placed in our suite (when I die they should be so nice!), unpack (an unusual treat for us!) and head up for the muster drill. This was quickly followed by the sailaway – with champagne flowing…and there is no better sailaway than Venice.

We were invited to dine with the Rachael, Assistant Cruise Director, from South Wales, the first night. At that point I didn’t know if she could sing or dance, but what I did quickly learn was that she was absolutely charming. During dinner the chef, Bjoern Wassmuth, stopped by and let me know that he had arranged “Shopping With The Chef” in Split, Croatia and that we were already on the list. I figured that would be better than the Taste of Split tour I had signed up for, so my plans for a guided trip changed a bit.

Dinner was flawless, both in cuisine and conversation. After a nice tawny port with my favorite, the cheese platter, it was up to the Sky Bar for an evening whiskey, a nice cigar and some good conversation. It was as if I was…no I was…at home.

The next morning, in Optaija, Croatia, I was “blessed” with my tour of Krk Island and Nada Winery starting out at 8:15 a.m. I have Island. It was nice to see the Croatian countryside, and the excellent roads, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for as the ride was long. We stopped at the lovely little town of Omisalj which was very much asleep on the early Sunday morning. From there it was another 45 minutes to Vrbnik, a really charming town which towers over the sea complete with wonderful stone buildings, narrow streets and interesting architectural details.

We were let off at the Nada Winery…and I immediately knew that the winery was not what I thought it would be. We were served original, herb and fig grappa (komovica) before we were escorted into the building’s basement for a promotional video…all before our wine tasting. If you are even marginally interested in understanding a wine, drinking grappa beforehand pretty much assures it will not happen. So I soldiered on…I mean unless it is really bad wine I’ll drink it. Eventually we were seated in a very attractive restaurant where bottles of a white wine (Zlahtina), a red wine (forgot the name) and a dessert wine (Prosek) were set on the table with one glass per person with small plates of a cured ham and cheese. The wines were really nothing to speak of.and no one actually spoke of them. Not much of a wine tasting. It was a wander around town before heading back to the ship after another long drive.

It was, surprisingly,already formal night and we were invited to dine with the Captain, Magnus Bengtsson, which was enjoyable and a good bit of fun. We had a bit of a chat about his time as staff captain o f the Seabourn Odyssey during and after its construction as well as some of the plans for the Seabourn Sojourn.

A nightcap at the Sky Bar and looking forward to Split in the morning.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Seabourn Spirit 2009 Food & Wine Cruise - Walking With Wine In Venice

Saturday started with our small group meeting up for a quick traghetto ride from Ca’ Sagredo Hotel to the Rialto market just on the other side of the Grand Canal. The variety of fresh fish, shellfish, vegetables and fruits were fantastic. It is not, however, anything like, say, La Boqueria in Barcelona. It is smaller, but more importantly, it is not nearly as busy. It is Venice and Venetians simply are not in a hurry…ever. It was a lovely way to slowly start our Food & Wine Cruise.

When we returned to the hotel our sommelier, Mario, was there waiting for us. With degrees not only for wine, but for cheese tasting, I knew things would be interesting, but wasn’t sure how it all would play out. (Lots of lecture and not enough enjoyment makes wine and food rather dull and unexciting.) I was also a bit concerned if we might find ourselves schlepping all over Venice.

Silly me! Mario gave us a true life memory as we did our walking tour the Venetian way: We walked only a little and relaxed, enjoyed some wonderful wines and learned not only about wines, but some of the wines really found only around Venice. But more importantly, we watched the world go by while soaking just being in Venice. The three and one half hours seemed like 10 minutes.

Our first ostaria (wine bar) was only a few minutes from the hotel. We sat outside and enjoyed a Bersi Serlini Franciacorta (2004) Brut Cuvee which is a sparkling wine, which was paired with a very fresh (made that day) mozzarella and tomato combination. This was followed by a Tenuta La Ponca Tocai Friulano paired with bacala and a spicy Asiago cheese that was amazing. (Learning about cheese tasting was really very interesting.) I will spare you the tasting notes, but do consider the wines…if you can find them.

After a leisurely 1 ½ hours tasting the two wines we were off for a ten minute walk to Ostaria al Ponte, which is the oldest ostaria in Venice. The place was jam packed with people and overflowed into the street. With us huddled in a corner with a great view of the place- which looked like it came right out of the movies (not fancy, but ordinary in an extraordinary way), we were served two large wooded platters of a variety of cheeses and two more with a variety of Italian hams. In other words, “the good stuff”. We first tasted a Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso DOC Colli Orientali del Friuli (2005) which was thoroughly enjoyable and then had a wine that just stopped me.

It was Masi Serègo Alighieri Possessioni Rosso Veronese IGT (2006). I looked at Mario and said that the wine was meant to be drunk by itself. It was fine with the meats and cheeses, but to me they actually interfered with the wine. He smiled and said someone called it a “mediation wine”; one you have when you just want to relax and free your mind.

Just as a note, the wines we tasted were not expensive averaging only about 25 Euros each in the ostaria.

We all were up for tasting more, but the time flew and we needed to collect our bags and take a water taxi to the Seabourn Spirit.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Seabourn Spirit 2009 Food & Wine Cruise - The Start: It's All About The Clothes???

The flights to London and on to Venice were fast and, in fact, early. The only problem was that none of our luggage was quite as fast. Apparently there was an issue at London Gatwick and many bags didn’t make the flight. They say they will be delivered this evening. I hope so. I don’t want to start two Food & Wine cruises on the Seabourn Spirit without any clothes!

That said, we are, once again, staying the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel in Venice. We have an incredible room which is just over-the-top. I will post photos later, but suffice it to say the king size bed is dwarfed, the furnishings are spectacular and the plaster ceiling you can stare at for hours. Oh, and did I mention, the Grand Canal is right outside our window. Did I mention anything about our luggage?

Our room actually wasn’t quite ready when we arrived at 12:00 p.m. so we took a little stroll to a restaurant we enjoyed the last time we were in Venice (for the Inaugural Cruise of the Seabourn Odyssey). We were greeted with belinis to relax us. We decided on a carafe of a local prosecco and I started with sardines which were fried and then sautéed with sweet onions. After watching so many cooking shows and reality shows going on and on about risotto (and truly never having one that made me happy) I said, “I gotta be able to have good risotto here”. So we ordered the seafood risotto.

Having a nice wait while it was prepared we watched some of the everyday Venetians go about their business. At about 1:30 p.m. school must have let out for there was a long parade of middle school age children going this way and that with their backpacks, and smiling, but never in a rush. This is Venice, of course.

Our risotto arrived before we could see it. It had that wonderful scent of the sea…from a good distance. Suffice it to say it was magnificent. I now know what they were going on about being able to taste each little pearl. And right about then I was thinking, “The world is my oyster.” I think there is something about some clothes that I am supposed to tend to, but I just can’t remember what it was.

After a sleep and shaking off the time change, it was time for drinks on the Grand Canal and then some dinner. A few of us went to a nice restaurant where we enjoyed reuniting and catching up on things. I could not resist the spaghetti with cuttlefish ink followed by a really delicious seafood soup with clams, mussels, scallops, prawns, langoustine, chunks of fish and a wonderful tomato and olive oil broth with just a little bit of spice…of course coupled with a nice local white wine.

Then back to the suite for a relatively early evening. Opened my luggage and…it all just came together: We are having a wonderful time in Venice, looking forward to our wine walk tomorrow and then our boarding the Seabourn Spirit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Berlitz 2010 Scores: Seabourn is the World's Best Cruise Line

Douglas Ward annually publishes his Berlitz ‘Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships’. In the about to be released 2010 edition (the 25th edition) he ranks every Seabourn ship in its uppermost echelon.

Mr. Ward bases his review on a plethora of items with each weighted as he deems appropriate: Cabin storage; amenities; service; food quality; ship facilities; decor; etc. If you read Mr. Ward's reviews of virtually every cruise ship out there, you will find that he has some definite likes and dislikes and standards which may or may not be the same as yours. For example, comment is regularly made on the cheese selections which for most would not be sufficiently high on the one's rating radar to mention it when going to press. (I happen to love cheese, so I enjoy his comments, but I am fascinated that he tends not to mention whether a proper cup of tea can be obtained.)

Some refer to the annual review as a "bible". I think that is a bit of an overstatement. It can be a valuable resource, however. The information and ratings, even with Mr. Ward's personal preferences, are about as objective as anything out there. No ballot stuffing. No kissing up to a particular cruise line. So what you have is one man's measuring of how each ship matches up with his ideal cruise ship. As I said, it isn't perfect, but when trying to objectively find information about a particular ship and comparing one ship to another I don't think there is a better single source out there.

It is reported that for 2010 the Seabourn Odyssey was the top Seabourn ship with a total of 1,787 points out of a possible 2,000 (second in the ratings only to his longtime favorite Hapag Lloyd’s Europa ). Following very closely behind are the Seabourn Legend which scored 1,779, the Seabourn Spirit at 1,700 and the Seabourn Pride with 1,769.

You will note that the Seabourn Odyssey did not rate that much higher than the Seabourn triplets...(or is that the triplets did not rate that much lower than the Seabourn Odyssey?). That is, I mentioned, a function of what Mr. Ward places emphasis on. You will also note that the Seabourn Legend rated slightly higher than its two virtually identical sisters. (Interesting as the Legend has only one lavatory sink in each suite, while the Pride and Spirit have two. Possibly there was an incredible meal, a special wine or better cheese to bump up the Legend's rating?)

Overall that indicates there is - as there should be - a great consistency among and between each of the four ships. And, of course, that Seabourn has the top fleet of luxury cruise ships...from cuisine to service...out there.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Is Regent Seven Seas Changing Its Tune? Is It Now Not Overpromising? Is It Getting It Right?

I have harped on Regent Seven Seas claims of "6 Star Luxury" not only because it is hype, but because it simply has a history of not delivering it either in consistent luxury quality food or service.  As I have said, there is always a danger in over-promising and under-delivering.  Create reasonable expectations and then exceeding them is magic...for the cruise line and the guest.

Tonight I want to a Regent Seven Seas seminar which was, refreshingly, absent hype.  Gone was any reference to "6 Star" anything. No mention of superior cuisine or service.  "Luxury Goes Exploring" was gone.  Now it is "The Most Inclusive Luxury Cruise Experience Ever". Any you know what, I can not only live with that, I can work with it.

Yes, there was a comparison of a Silversea cruise with a Regent cruise showing Regent was a better value when you consider it being air inclusive (or take a credit), tour inclusive (if you take those tours), etc.  But what was really interesting to me was that comparisons were made to Holland America and Princess cruises.  The discussion was of included drinks and water, gratuities and tours (and, yes, comparing the free Regent tours with Holland American tours is fair.)  Honestly, when you make those comparisons, Regent may start looking like a viable option if you want to upscale (not not luxuriate) your cruise. 

You need to be careful when comparing prices for the "free" airfare and the value of the "free" tours, but I think the exercise may well be worth undertaking when comparing Regent to premium lines.  That is, obviously where I think the Regent product (other than its outstanding suites) more accurately compare. And where it gets interesting is that Regent's cuisine and suites do significantly exceed Holland America's and Princess's cuisine.  (Nice bonuses that might give Regent an edge when it comes out slightly more expensive for the value cruiser.)

And, more importantly, by lowering the bar of performance and raising the bar on marketing value, Regent has a much better chance of having happy passengers which means it will have a greater chance of repeat business and referrals.  As I have repeatedly said: Regent is not a bad product - far from it.  It is just that Regent is not the luxury product it has been marketing itself as; no less one which exceeds the standards of Silversea or Seabourn.

I think Regent may be getting it right.  (But then again, it is raising its prices on at least 36% of its 2010 cruises by $500 or more effective September 30, 2009...and that might well hurt the very comparisons I just told you about.) 

Goldring Travel's 2009 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Spirit - Some Pre-Cruise Thoughts and My Plan

Organizing this year's Food & Wine Cruise has been a bit "interesting" and a bit frustrating. But, in the end, it will be a great time and a wonderful experience.

The economy took a toll with not only some cancellations immediately after the stock market meltdown, but with an unfortunate last minute cancellation. Making matters worse (at least for me), contrary to what you have heard, this particular cruise has been oversold for many months! So people that were interested in joining the cruise after the cancellatoins were unable to...even if they were willing to pay for an upper suite! That, obviously, left me with a smaller group than normal, but some great opportunities to do things a bit differently.

The first thing I did was create a more intimate special event. Rather than a more formal wine tasting onboard the Seabourn Spirit, I arranged a walking wine and food tour in Venice with a a certified Italian Sommelier (AIS) and Master Cheese Taster (ONAF) where we will sample no less than 6 wines and quite a number of cicchetti (Italian tapas, if you will) after an early morning (at least for Venice) wander through the Rialto Market.

Then I decided that with a more intimate group I had the ability to take a really hard look at Seabourn's new Epicurean Collection of shore excursions. While, for example, Regent Seven Seas is focusing on no additional cost and more crowded tours, Seabourn eliminated its somewhat underutilized complimentary Seabourn Experiences on most cruises, and has upscaled its offerings and truly limited the number of people who can participate in certain of them. (Remember, I don't believe in the "a group is joined by the hip" approach, but rather there are limited - but worthwhile - group the Venice walking tour.)

For example, in Montenegro I am going to try out the "Montenegro's Resplendent Cuisine and Wines" Epicurean Tour , where we will start the day with a guided 1½ hour walking tour of Kotor's old town with its narrow streets and medieval plaza and then walk to Galion Restaurant and sit on its enclosed terrace cantilevered over the water where we will enjoy an introduction to Montenegrin wines while absorbing the breathtaking views of the Bay of Kotor. Your tasting will be lead by either a local winemaker or sommelier and will include wines made from local grape varietals like Vranac and Krsta, along with wines made from more familiar Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Our expert will talk about the different grape growing regions of Montenegro and reveal a few of the unique winemaking traditions. After the lesson, you'll enjoy more Montenegrin wines paired with a 3-course meal prepared by Galion's executive chef.

In Split, Croatia we will have a walking tour of the Old Town followed by trip to TERRA wine cellars, apparently in very unique old house, where we will have with a tasting of some of the region's various cold game cuts, traditionally prepared salamis, domestic deserts, and a great selection of Dalmatian wines.

In Triese, Italy we will travel to Duino Castle (about 30 minutes away) to explore its gardens and history and then it will be off to Castello di Spessa, the hospitality facility of the Pali Wines Group, to visit the prestigious cellar and taste some superb wines. Since the 16th century, Castello di Spessa has been producing top quality wines, but its present cellar is a fitted out old military bunker that built at the end of the '30s and used during the Second World War. We will then sample award-winning red and white wines in a charming 18th century atmosphere with exceptional scenery; again part of Seabourn's Epicurean Collection.

Uncharacteristically, I will be partaking of yet more organized shore opportunities. While I will most definitely have time to explore the port independently, I am using this cruise to sort of test out the extensive use of Seabourn's shore experiences so that I can let you know how they measure up. Sometimes challenging your comfort level can be doing the "ordinary", I guess. (I am not sure Seabourn offers "ordinary" and these experiences are nothing like those offered on larger ships, but it is probably as close as I am ever going to get!)

I will also be hosting the Ensemble Travel Group's complimentary shore experience in Kopor, Slovenia...where we will be visiting Šmarje near Capodistria, in the heart of Slovenian Istria, where there are the vineyards and olive orchards of Ludvik Nazarij Glavina. During the visit to the wine cellars there will be a tasting of five wines and grappa accompanied by a snack of local specialties such as homemade breads, olives, cheese and olive oil.
So, for me, if gout doesn't set in...or some other malady from excessively enjoying ones self...I am sure to have a great experience learning about some places I have never been...and one I love. Heck, isn't food and wine the key to an area's culture and history?

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Change in Cruise Line Pricing Is Happening!!!!

As you know I have long been a critic of looking at the advertised "discounts" by the cruise lines.

It doesn't matter if Silversea or Seabourn or Celebrity or Carnival is offering a 30% off fare in its brochures because, obviously (at least to me) they have never offered the cruise at full fare, so the alleged discount is no discount at all.

Of recent vintage that non-existent 30% discount has been transformed into 60+% discounts...and I won't even get into how that discount is calculated differently by various lines. Yes, there are some excellent deals, but they are not, by any means, 60% off.

The result has been clients calling me up asking why the "discount" isn't greater on one sailing versus another one; while they (it would seem, logically) never actually looked at comparing the actual cost of the cruises. If a cruise discounted 40% costs more than a similar cruise discounted 30%, obviously the better idea is to go with the lower cost cruise, not the more highly discounted one. It is, alas, soooo confusing to many cruisers.

It was reported this week that United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that as to Silversea's offering huge alleged discounts, the practice must stop. So Silversea cannot utilize the 60% off marketing ploy it continues to use in the United States. It delayed the production of its UK brochures as well, while it formulated its new marketing strategy of booking earlier will result in greater savings.

As I noted in a recent post, this most definitely is not a Silversea issue, but rather an industry issue. In fact, the article references Crystal Cruises also reformulating its UK marketing strategy...and Crystal doesn't discount as a rule, but adds value in onboard credits and such.

While I suspect the change will not be happening too quickly in the U.S., at least you know better to not be misled by outrageous discount claims.

And, by the way, that is why I am a good travel agent. I have NEVER sold a cruise based upon an advertised discount rate. I ensure better for my clients. It takes more time, but in the end my clients receive excellent value for their money...And I also ensure they are on the correct cruise and itinerary (as a great price on the wrong ship and/or going to the wrong places isn't a deal at all!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Regent Seven Seas - Raising Prices and Questions About It's Value

I kid you not, yesterday within but a few minutes of each other I received two emails. One was from Regent Seven Seas and another was from a client of mine who has cruised on Regent, among other lines.

The Regent email stated, in part:

2010 - Our Most Inclusive Year Ever...Prices Increase October 1, 2009....With many 2010 cruises already sold out, time is running out for you to take advantage of our exceptional savings offers. After September 30, 2009, prices will be increasing on nearly half of our voyages. You will still be able to enjoy Unlimited Complimentary Shore Excursions and Included Air, but 2-for-1 Fares plus up to an additional $1,000 per guest savings will no longer apply on select 2010 cruises effective October 1, 2009. But don't wait until then - book now as space is limited, many cruises are already sold out, and some suite categories are already full!

The client email (which was also posted on The Gold Standard Forum) stated:

Eric, I had to get this off my chest. Yesterday, I received 2 huge Regent books. One for Winter-Spring and one for Europe 2010. I assume you received them as well.

Forget the hype, did you take a look at the "list" pricing on these cruises ? I mean, really. What sane person would even swallow the prices they post as list. Add to that the prices they claim they save you for "complimentary" shore excursions. All they did was hyper inflate those prices as well. What they discount down to is still so high... I would never book Regent. Add to that....their food is mediocre and the service...horrible. Last year I ordered a lobster tail on formal night. It came still in the shell and after 5 minutes ....had to REQUEST a waiter remove it from my shell. As for their morning Veranda restaurant...try to get a second cup of coffee was like trying to stop a speeding bullet. Next to impossible.

Anyone sailing on Regent nowadays is being robbed.

Okay, I feel better now.

I previously wrote about the problem with faux discounts, but let me repeat it here.  Cruise lines make up the "Brochure Rate" and they make up the "discount".  As no one ever, ever, ever, pays Brochure Rate there is no such thing as an actual discount off of that.  The actual base rate would be what is commonly referred to as an "Early Booking Savings (EBS) Rate".  I don't care if it is Regent, or Carnival or Seabourn, virtually ever line does it.  (I know of cruises that have a 50% discount...and that is for 2011 sailings!)  Therefore, taking the extreme, if a 2011 cruise has a 50% discount already and it is then advertised with a 60% discount, the actual discount is actually no more than 10% (and how it is calculated can actually bring that figure down to around 7%).

But I digress, what Regent has done is not only exploit that concept, but added another layer: Marketing that you are getting a huge value in "free" tours which are, in real terms, just like the "free" drinks:  You are paying for them up front even if you don't use them. 

And that is where the problem becomes exacerbated:  Most "luxury" cruisers either don't take ship's tours or the ship's tours that Regent is offering as complimentary.  Supplements abound for better tours and limits are placed on the "free" ones.  So people are paying a premium for...what???

But there is more:  People are willing to pay if there is quality provided.  Honestly, though, I have never seen the number of complaints about the poor quality of Regent's service that I have in the past year or so.  I saw the product slipping for quite a while, but now it is just appalling.  Yes, you are going to get those that say it is the best while, if you read their words, the cruise actually (dare I say it) sucks.  And, to be fair, there are those that will have a really great cruise experience.  But there are many that just are not happy. 

And as a travel agent, you do not pay me to simply take your order.  You pay me to make sure you are the best cruise for you.  Not the one I make the most money on.  Not the one that gives me an incentive to book them.  Not the least expensive one.  The "best" one for that individual client.  And with the complaints flowing and the inconsistencies unable to be ignored, how the heck do I recommend Regent Seven Seas to my cruise clients???  Do I say, "You might have a great time; you might not."?

Well, as you can see, when Regent jacked up the prices and then gave the illusory big discounts one nerve was struck.  When the service and cuisine went from very good to no so much so, another nerve was struck.  And just as I work extremely hard to earn my client's business - not just for the present cruise but the future ones - Regent needs to do the same; especially now that many people are pained.

Me thinks there needs to be some fence mending by Regent Seven Seas...and starting with strengthening the product would be a great thing.  While the pricing methods of the cruise industry cannot be changed overnight, if the perception is that there is real value, luxury clients will pay a premium.  But if Regent continues to tell its guests that it "6 Star" and delivers quality that is "4, no 2, no 5, no 3, no 4 Star" it will find itself in a bad place.

Seriously, is it that hard to make a decent cup of coffee and serve it?  Can there be a system to serve everyone at a table at the same time?  Can pizza be removed that is more than 10 minutes old?  I mean they can do it at the local diner, why can't Regent do it consistently.  People will happily pay for it!!!!

Silversea Silver Spirit - A Short Video, Some Details and Some Thoughts

Ralph Grizzle, the Avid Cruiser, has created a short video of the new Silver Spirit as she is on her sea trials. I thought it might be of interest to you:

For those of you panicked that the ship will not be finished in time, know that the shipyard has a history of completing on time or early and that much of what needs to be installed is waiting in warehouses. Much gets done to make the ship look "done"; especially in the final weeks (not months). The soft goods are up to Silversea and I have previously reported on same.

I am holding out before commenting on the interiors any further. I am not seeing anything that makes me terribly excited so far. For example, the pool area is actually quite ordinary. (I haven't seen stacking three whirlpools so close together before, so maybe there is a concept there that hasn't been explained or developed, but that is about it for something of note that I see.)

Similarly, the spa is reported to be a mere 6,000+ square feet. That seems quite small when considering it is to service 540 luxury guests. By comparison the new Seabourn Odyssey's spa is 11,400 square feet and services about 20% fewer guests (450).

Most importantly to me, the essence of luxury cruising is the staff and crew. Other than Silversea announcing that every suite will have a butler (though what that butler substantively does in addition to what is normally provided...other than allowing you to see another uniform...hasn't been disclosed), Silversea has not advised how it plans on servicing 25-35% more guests than it does on its other ships or what it is doing to assure the staff on the Silver Spirit is fully trained and won't deplete the top staff on its other ships. (By contrast Seabourn made a big deal of its Seabourn Academy for its new staff...and it has, well and truly, paid off with consistently great service on all of its ships.) Silversea, if there is a program in place to assure great service, please let us know.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 - A New Source for Cruise Industry Information

Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) has announced it has a new website, .  It is not a place for gossip or inside industry news, but rather a resource for all those questions about health, safety and environmental issues, including data and useful links.

It is not a site for most, but for some it may well be a treasure trove of answers to questions about regulations and operations.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Some Inspiration to Book a Cruise Before The End of This Year - A Little Contest.

I thought I would share some photos from my cruise on the Celebrity Equinox...just to inspire those who are thinking or should be thinking about cruising later this year (and there are some great values - even over the holidays).

Today only, September 15, 2009, Celebrity is running a special on the same cruise I took and two others:

13 Night Ancient Empires Cruise on Celebrity Equinox from Rome departing 10/10/09
11 Night Wine Cruise on Celebrity Mercury from Vancouver departing 10/12/09
17 Night Eastbound Panama Canal Cruise from San Diego departing 10/23/09 (very limited availability)

And, for some fun: The first person to email me with the location of each photo from my cruise on the Celebrity Equinox (the country is good enough) in the correct order, you will receive a $150 onboard credit on your next 2009 Celebrity cruise. (It doesn't have to be one of the three mentioned above.)

That is in addition to my normal discount/added benefits! New bookings don't try cancelling and rebooking as that doesn't count.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Civility - What The Heck Happened To It...And How Do We Get It Back?

As you know I had an incredible time on the Celebrity Equinox. Celebrity did virtually everything it could do to provide me with an excellent premium cruise experience. The only problem: The lack of civility of some adults and the lack of supervision/discipline of some of the children.

As you also know I have been a staunch critic of some posters on and the site's luxury board host's obvious permission for some favored posters to attack the opinions that disagree with the "everything is wonderful" stance of some or "I prefer Line X over Line Y". The problem: The lack of civility.

Last night I watched President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress about his healthcare proposals. At one point in the speech Representative Wilson, from South Carolina, shouted to the President of the United States, "You lie!". I was mortified. Was it because I agree with President Obama on healthcare? Whether I do nor not is actually irrelevant. It is because there was a total lack of respect for the Office of the President and for the Congress. The problem: The lack of civility.

During breakfast at the local bagel shop this morning I was talking with some of my "breakfast buddies" about the incident and mentioned the foregoing. One person responded, "Obama is a not entitled to respect." I responded, "Regardless of whether you love or hate the guy, isn't the Office of the President entitled to that respect? I mean aren't judges entitled to it? Or teachers? Parents?" The response was, "You only give someone respect because you want something from them!" I was, once again, mortified. The problem is again, a lack of civility.

I am a member of the local Board of Education for grades K - 8 (5 to 14 year olds) and had a meeting this morning. I had the opportunity so I asked the superintendent this morning about the incident during the Obama speech and, without getting into too many details, I wondered if Civics - how our government works and why - was taught to the children. His response was that it is a great idea, but the State doesn't include it in the mandated curriculum. So I thought (but did not say) it must be the same sort of people as Congressman Wilson that established the mandated curriculum.

Now, clearly respecting positions irrespective of the person (be it the President or a teacher) is important, but so is being civil to the person irrespective of the position. And, as conduct has clearly devolved to the point that too many are not civil to either the position or the person, the infamous Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" comes to mind. [When was the last time you heard that? Thought so!]

I have been reading a longtime violator of these simple civilities travelogue of her time presently onboard the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. She has complained that service in La Veranda is so poor that she avoids the dining venue except for breakfast with service ranging from "good", to "spotty" to "non-existent"; Prime 7 received a "mixed" review; any special requests were either not performed or were done...but with special note of how hard a task it was, the "new" ice cream was nothing special and the "new" pizza was "dried out"; there is vibration felt throughout Prime 7 and the most aft suites, etc.

What is remarkable about the thread (found here is that since the comments are from her, rather than someone else, the comments from others are "civil". (How many threads on the Regent board have been removed, abandoned, edited, etc. because of the incivility of her relentless attacks, clutter and cheerleading demanding that the very same things are untrue or excusable?) To be fair she is not the only one who engages in such conduct, but she is to many infamous.

There are quite a few people that post on The Gold Standard Forum simply because an intelligent (civil) discussion with differing views can be had.

Civility is a good thing. Not "chair hogging". Making sure your children don't overrun whirlpools and adult areas, being sure they know how to "share" the space and respect others' needs. Weighing how important the result is before picking a fight in the dining room. Eventually, people might just let you off the elevator before getting in or hold a door open.

And then, whether you posting on a message board or are the President of the United States, you just might be able to express your opinion without someone, with a lack of civility or respect, interrupting you and calling you (actually or in effect) a liar.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Silversea Silver Spirit - Some Discussion of Design

On The Gold Standard Forum there is a bit of discussion about the conclusion by one member of the "press" (Anita Durham-Potter - "From what I've seen -- when finished -- Spirit is a lot prettier and better planned than Seabourn Odyssey."

I have taken issue with that opinion because it is simply a bald statement unsupported by facts or examples. I am not saying it isn't true, but that I think the public is entitled to something more than hype or conclusions. This lead me to the following forum post which I want to share, with slight modification:

Noting that it is extraordinary for a cruise line to give the "press" access to sea trials and to allow them to photograph the various public spaces, a "red flag" most certainly has been hoisted. My question is "Why?" It is, alas, a question based upon a long history and many experiences where unfinished work (Anita Durham-Potter says 65%) does not accurately reflect the finished product (good or bad). Soft goods are very important.

Also, my concerns over everything being brown apparently are well-placed. Unless there are extraordinary soft goods, fabrics, and furniture this could be a real issue. Again the question is "Why?" A lack of contrasts and compliments tends to reflect immature (simplistic) interior design or a "offend no one" approach. Maybe some people will like it. But a monolithic approach to color usually is a warning that things are lacking in spatial design as well.

Most importantly, I don't need anyone "telling" me there is good design. I need someone to "show" me or "explain" it to me. Anita Durham-Potter has discussed suite amenities, but nothing of substance. (And, BTW, a butler cleaning my glasses? "Pretentious" is not a strong enough word to describe it. I do not think, even in the superyacht industry, asking a person to wipe anything personal to me is appropriate...for the person or myself.)

Now, as to substance, I can talk a bit about BAD design as I see it. I have taken one of Anita's photos to explain.

- The shower is small and I have concern for any larger and less mobile guests. Shaving legs??? And with the showerhead on the back wall, it means you are blessed with staring at the wall rather than having any feeling of openness. (Seabourn Odyssey, just as an example, has the showerhead on a side wall, so you can look out of the shower and feel a bit more open. Note: I have commented on its showers being a bit tight, too.)

- The storage shelves are too far from the vanity and look sufficiently close to the shower door to create a possible problem with being hit upon entry/exit and/or a drying towel knocking things off of them.

- The oversized vessel sinks are nice, but there is no real estate for toiletries.

- The faucets are quite utilitarian.

In another photo it looks like the access to the bathroom will be quite narrow as it conflicts with the bed. (As there are only two cots present and the one closest to the bathroom is sans mattress I must withhold judgment, but express my concern.)

I don't want to be seen as bashing the Silver Spirit, which is not yet complete, but I have an excellent source who is very critical of the furniture, fabrics and fittings, and the photos tell me a lot. Maybe that is why I am called "Iamboatman"...because it is more than being about "the cruise" and "selling it" to me.

Seabourn paid my way to go on the Inaugural of the Seabourn Odyssey, but I called it as I saw it...and Seabourn knew I would and I did. The fact that I was very impressed is not hype, I gave very detailed reasons why. I did the same as to the Celebrity Solstice/Celebrity Equinox. All I ask is that those that have access to the Silversea Silver Spirit give facts not hype.

Now, the reality of it is that "brown" is not going to horrifically offend and may well not be boring in the end and the bathroom is not going to make or break a ship or a cruise. Further, until the ship is further along, the ultimate overall design cannot be fully evaluated. My comments are not intended to "bash" the ship or Silversea, but rather to show how unsubstantiated comments are so easily dismissed or discounted.

Also, please keep in mind that I firmly believe the real "software" - the staff and crew - make the most difference and are the most critical factor when evaluating a ship. Cuisine is important too. That is why I am very much looking forward to my cruise on the Seabourn Spirit. If not for those things, it probably would be seen as nothing more than an older ship that is past its design prime.

So I will continue to provide facts, information and opinion on the Silver Spirit and I will not allow my ultimate desire for a having more luxury products to sell cause me to encourage you to book a particular ship because of some short term benefit to me...or even just wishful thinking.

In the meantime, best of luck bringing the Silversea Silver Spirit to market as a first class luxury cruise ship!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Silversea Silver Spirit- Some Details About Dining and Design

As the Silver Spirit engages in its sea trials, the time has come to explore this ship.

First, Silversea has started a blog on its newest ship, which is scheduled to debut on December 23, 2009, the Silver Spirit. You can find the blog here: .

The place to start, I guess, is the ship's focus on dining venues. It boasts it will have six dining venues, though others have said it will have up to ten. The venues include:

The Restaurant - The main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner with exclusive menus by Relais & Châteaux.

La Terrazza - An indoor/outdoor restaurant with buffet-style dining for breakfast and lunch. In the evenings it is transformed into an la carte for venue with Italian cuisine.

Stars Supper Club - I am interested to see how well this venue works out. It is, I understand, intended to be more "old school" but with a modern touch, designed for pre-dinner cocktails and post-dinner dancing and nightclub-style entertainment with live music. If Silversea does this right it can be a real winner.

Le Champagne - This is Silversea's extra cost six-course culinary experience where fine wines are paired with a set tasting menu.

Sehshin Restaurant - In a somewhat disturbing trend (at least for me), Silversea has added a second extra cost restaurant, this one focused on Asian cuisine ranging from Kobe beef to seafood.

Pool Grill - Casual poolside dining for lunch and dinner including food from the grill and freshly made pizza.

There is, of course, another venue for dining: Your Suite. This is a very popular option, as well.

Someone posted on The Gold Standard Forum that the Silver Spirit looks like it is better designed and prettier than the Seabourn Odyssey. I am not sure how one draws that conclusion, but it is a good springboard for some of my following comments.

First, I know the "photos" are computer generated, but I am disappointed by two things right off the bat: Everythings seems so brown; and, the chairs seem to lack any style. I am interested to see what Silversea actually does with the final finishes. Understanding it has a more limited budget than anticipated (due to the economic downturn and very slow bookings), this may well still be a work in progress.

Second, I am not in favor of extra costing dining venues on a luxury cruise line. I can appreciate and accept having to pay extra for fine wines, but not food. Therefore, with a set menu, La Champagne I guess makes some sense. Expanding it to the Asian restaurant is a bit troubling. If I dine in Sehshein one time and order some nice sushi and a Kobe beef steak, the cost to Silversea might be $75.00. How does that really compare to my ordering a bit of caviar each day? (Is that extra cost now?) By comparison, on the Celebrity Equinox I paid less than $150 per day, so a $30 charge for dining in Murano (or lesser amounts in the other specialty restaurants), just makes economic sense.
I also found the comment that the Silver Spirit was better designed than the Seabourn Odyssey of interest. So I took a look at the deck plans. I am not seeing anything in layout that is better; different, but not better. For example, the casino and shops are on Deck 8 with no other reason to be there, the spa is similarly segregated from the rest of the ship, there are three restaurants converging on the same entry, etc. On the other hand, the Panorama Lounge does look like it will be a very nice venue.

Also, a point I have not made before: Why did Silversea name it ship with the same name as a Seabourn one, the Seabourn Spirit? Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but then again, it may be designed to confuse the marketplace. In the "spirit" of hoping for a "whisper" of good faith and no desire to "cloud" the issues, I do not want to over"shadow" the fair "wind"s desired for this new ship. So let's opine about what we know and not turn things into a Silversea vs. Seabourn thing. They are two different products and, as noted in a prior blog entry, there is very little cross-over between the lines.

I hope to receive more details on the new ship soon.

You can join the discussion on the related thread on The Gold Standard Forum.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Virtuoso Travel Consortium Votes Seabourn Best Small Ship Cruise Line

Virtuoso, one of the premier travel consortiums (I belong to another, Ensemble Travel Group), has voted Seabourn Cruise Lines as the best small ship cruise line. (A travel consortium is a group of affiliated, but independent, travel agencies.)

This "award" is far more relevant to me than, say, the Travel & Leisure/Conde Nast/Port Hole polls. The reason: It is voted on by generally high quality travel agents who have booked their clients on Seabourn and have to deal with Seabourn from a business perspective. And there is no ballot-stuffing possible.

I believe one of the keys to determining if a cruise line is good for the clients is how they respond to, and work with, travel agents.

I find Seabourn to simply be the best...without question.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Celebrity Equinox - What Happens When A Class Act Meets Highly Discounted Cruise Fares (It Isn't All Bad!)

As I am flying back to the United States after my 13 days on the Celebrity Equinox, I am watching a cute movie about a budget tour group in Greece, “My Life in Ruins”. I think it is appropriate movie when I write about what happens when a cruise line provides a truly extraordinary ship, with wonderful and knowledgeable staff, good to excellent food, a charming, incredibly proud and well communicating captain…and highly discounted fares.

With 2, 800 passengers there are bound to be a few of “them”, but as our cruise entered its second week it became clear that there were many people of various nationalities that lacked the manners and class that is normally found on a Celebrity cruise. Some made it a point that the cheap fares were the reason they took this particular cruise.

Now, I am not just talking about people cutting queues or being a bit too loud or teenagers taking over the whirlpools and the adult solarium. I am talking about packs of British children running wild; two women physically fighting in the dining room; a teenager systematically stealing cameras (like the idiot couldn’t figure out he was being taped); the seeming theft of a wallet from the basketball court – found in a teenager’s pocket (Excuse: Lost and Found was closed. Huh?); two families being involuntarily disembarked in two different ports, with the second family refusing to leave the ship in Alexandria so the Egyptian police had to come onboard to forcibly remove them. ..delaying the ship from departing for 2 hours. (Seriously how stupid can you be? Refusing to cooperate with the Egyptian authorities…and remember my comments about Egypt.)

Obviously the former “minor” issues existed in large part because the latter issues kept the security staff and officers very busy; too busy. And fortunately other than abandoning my usual regular use of the whirlpool and my DW’s concerns over finding a lounge in the sun, those events did not actually affect my holiday.

However, one thing did happen that really angered me...for a short time. We purchased a water pipe in Egypt. Security confiscated it when we returned to the ship. While this puzzled me, it didn’t really make a difference, so I went with the flow. I was told to contact Guest Relations on the last day to recover it. On the last day I dutifully went to Guest Relations and was told that I would not be able to retrieve it until I was walking off the ship (and, therefore, would not be able to properly pack it for the trip home.) I was not pleased and asked why. The reason: I could use it for drugs.

With that I went ballistic. For Celebrity Cruise Lines to essentially accuse me of having drugs onboard the ship was an insult I was not willing to accept. If there was a real concern about my having drugs my cabin would have been searched and, to be sure, I doubt I would have been invited to dine with the Captain, have a tour of the bridge, etc. Clearly, Celebrity really had absolutely no concern that I had drugs onboard and, like magic, about 5 minutes later the water pipe was delivered to my cabin with a very sincere apology and the offer of bubble wrap or anything else I needed. The reason for security’s over-reaction: The inability to differentiate among guests. (It is not that the talent isn’t there, it is that with so many problems it is not very practical. That, to me, however is not an excuse; only an observation.)

This brief event did not, in any substantive or emotional fashion, adversely affect my cruise. It was an error due to the circumstances created by others, the error was recognized and the situation quickly resolved. I give Celebrity credit for that, but not for the event happening. (How many times have you encountered bad decisions being made worse by a person’s refusal to admit his/her error? Kudos really are appropriate IMHO and makes me feel a whole lot better about the event.)

Now, clearly these things are not luxury experiences. And when you hear many people, in different accents, say that this cruise was the most expensive they have ever taken (and it was deeply discounted) you cannot help but conclude that it was “price” not “product” that attracted the majority of the passengers. I will not go into figures, but it was obvious to even the most untrained eye that most people were not spending money. The shops sales were very slow, most of the bars were very quiet in the evenings, wine sales were clearly way off, the slots were very quiet, most of the casino dealers were bored frequently and even bingo was pathetic.

Ironically, the events of which I have spoken really didn’t affect me because I took advantage of Cellar Masters for after dinner drinks (wine and otherwise), Murano, Silk Harvest and Tuscan Grille for many dinners, enjoyed my double balcony, partook in the extra cost wine courses, had two 2 day private overnight tours, etc. So it is, in fact, because I “luxed” up my cruise that I was hardly touched by the problems which plagued this cruise.

To put it in perspective, my children stated that on a scale of 1 to 10, the cruise was a 12. My DW said it was an 8, but solely because of the crowds fighting for and hogging lounge chairs and some pretty poor passenger conduct; not because of anything Celebrity did. For me it was a truly outstanding cruise for which I really could not ask Celebrity to do more (other than the one short and quickly rectified slip up). It wasn't a Seabourn cruise, but to expect same would be both unrealistic and unfair.

While the highly discounted prices caused some issues on this cruise, the fact remains that I still firmly believe that Celebrity provides "The Best Bang For The Buck In The Business".

What I would recommend is that I would avoid the month of August (when all of Europe is on holiday); especially if the cruise fares are so highly discounted…unless, of course, those discounts are so significant that it allows you to overlook the potential for similar problems or, like me, you are traveling with children and don't have much of an option.

Do I recommend Celebrity? Absolutely. The Celebrity Equinox? Absolutely. This cruise? Absolutely. We had an incredible time,met some very nice people, had wonderful dining and enrichment and travel experiences.

My Next Vacation Experience - NOT!

You have to see this to believe it:

What To Do In Norway 


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Celebrity Equinox - The Last Dinner (Tuscan Grille) and Disembarkation

On the last evening of our cruise we had a family dinner at Tuscan Grille, the steakhouse on the Celebrity Equinox. It was not planned that Tuscan Grille would be the best place for a family to dine together, but it was.

We were seated at the best table in the house, overlooking the ship’s wash. Beautiful. Everything from the overflowing choices of breads, antipasti that was fantastic,etc. was spot on. Lots of comfort foods and very good to excellent steaks. Fried calamari, crostini with various toppings (tapenade, sundried tomatoes, cheese, etc.), steak tartar, etc., then rib eye, filet mignon, mixed grill all were prepared and presented deliciously. (My rib eye was a bit fattier than I would have liked, but as I was not paying by the ounce or some outrageous ala carte price, simply cutting away that portion was an easy solution.)

Our waiter insisted we at least try the pasta, which I did. It was well prepared in a light tomato sauce; tasting of high quality ingredients. (I must admit we kind of skipped desserts as the meal was so big.) And the wine list was paired very well with the menu. 

Once again the décor was wonderful. Big leather wingback chairs with beautiful dark wood tables and even unique silverware.

My only disappointment is that we did not dine here earlier. I am usually not a fan of steakhouse cuisine, but the menu variety and preparation was so good and the feel of the restaurant so comfortable that to me calling it a steakhouse is “unfair”.

After packing and a nightcap at the Martini Bar (with its very cool ice bar…pun intended) it was off to our last night’s sleep and a very civilized disembarkation.

The Celebrity Equinox has a new, improved, disembarkation system. Rather than being forced out of your cabin at early hours to huddle in the public areas, you are given a time to meet in a certain area and are disembarked within 5 minutes of getting there. You are also given tags with numbers rather than colors, so when you get to the hall you simply look for your number and your bags are there.

For us, we were given a disembarkation time of 8:45 a.m. and an invitation to a VIP lounge (actually Cellar Masters) where continental breakfast was served. We arrived at 8:20 a.m. for a quick breakfast and Celebrity was so efficient, that we were called to disembark at 8:30 a.m. As we were independent and our car was not to pick us up until 9:00 a.m. we were allowed to stay longer. Very civilized.

A word of caution: Even though Celebrity was very efficient in its disembarkation, the port was very inefficient in getting vans and busses to the pickup area. There was actually a delay of almost an hour so some people were left wandering and wondering where there private transfers were. (And I highly recommend private transfers in Civitavecchia because it is so unfriendly to taxis and so far from any real source of taxis.)

Ramses Tours and Egypt - Some Additional Thoughts

As you know I write exactly what I think and am honest with the good and the bad.  Well, today I received an email from Ramses Tours very upset with my last entry both as it relates to my impressions of my tour and of Egypt. I write with integrity and those that read my blog know that I stand by what I say and will correct any error and will readily amend what I say if it add content or context.

What I think is very good news is that Ramses Tours has been extremely responsive to me and what impressed me is that the first email expressed concern and requested I let them know what I liked and what I didn't like.    It did not use the "You should have told me sooner when I could have done something" excuse or, frankly, any other excuse.  Then we had a bit of an email discussion and came to a quick and fair resolution. This is a refreshing approach and I give Ramses Tours a lot of credit for being responsible for what happened.

I think it is important to remember when traveling that there are so many variables and that sometimes an operator or hotel or travel agent normally provides a wonderful experience fails to provide that though the intentions are otherwise.  A luxury hotel can have a miss with the front desk, a guide can be less than what is expected because of a personal problem or whatever, a bus can break down, a site can be unexpectedly closed.  You may recall my recent post about "The List". The key is not to focus on what went wrong or who dropped the ball, but on enjoying every moment you can. 

I cannot tell you my tour with Ramses Tours was perfect.  What I can tell you is that the most important aspect of the tour for us - seeing the ancient sites - was overall a great experience.  While I can complain about the van or my desire for a guide that went the extra for me, I can't complain that we had two adjoining rooms at the best hotel for our trip.  I can compliment that arranging for us to be at the Giza pyramids first thing in the morning was huge and greatly enriched our experience from just being there in solitude to experience quiet awe, to photos, to visiting the interior of the Cheops pyramid to our extended camel ride.  These things were arranged with Ramses and not another tour operator...and if the other tour operators had arranged these things I guess I would not have been there first, would I?

I do not want anyone to think I am endorsing or not endorsing Ramses Tours.  What I am telling you is that a decision as to which tour operator to use should be based upon many factors.  My personal experience was far more good than it was bad.  My guide was there when he was supposed to be (unlike my driver in Kusadasi), I went to the sites I wanted to go to (no sorry, we can't do that because of X or Y), I was protected from a major baksheesh incident when the tourist police wanted me to have protection for the day and Ramses made sure that didn't happen and, without limitation, I got back to the ship on time.

One thing you might want to keep in mind (and something I most certainly will).  Because of Ramses Tours quick response to me and its fair treatment of me, I am pretty confident that the experience let downs I had will not be so quick to recur. I have seen hard evidence that it has a concern over the quality of its product...possibly moreso because of what I previously wrote, but nonetheless it is there and it clearly is at the fore of its present concerns.

Another thing I want to mention, along those same lines, is that while my overall impression of Egypt is one of huge cultural differences and lots of pollution, they are not a reason to avoid visiting the country.  Seeing the Cairo Museum was definitely a great thing and visiting all of the ancient ruins was truly awe inspiring.  Remember that experiencing travel is not always the most comfortable and the ones that are challenging may well hold the greatest highlights.  (Read my comments about the Jerusalem Hotel - which I just recommended to a very experienced travel client of mine today - and you will understand what I mean.)

So don't start a "List" and don't say I won't use or won't see.  Remember what we really want (I hope) is to travel.