Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part IX

Our final day was our only tender port. With an arrival of about 10:00 a.m. and a shortened time in port (it was supposed to be 10:00 p.m., but was shortened to 6:00 p.m. so the casino and shops could open for a few hours) I thought there would be a line for the tenders. Nope. We were on the first tender with room to spare. Crystal Cruises’ guests tend to take their time. I never saw anyone rushing.

Today was our Cupcakes and Wine Tasting Tour through Santa Barbara Adventure Company. As I am not one who finds the wines of the Santa Ynez Valley too compelling, I thought combining an adult wine tasting tour with a children’s cupcake tasting tour would be a good idea. It was…other than the eight, rather cognitively challenged, girls having a bachelorette party sharing the van with us. They were nice enough, but the constant inane drivel in high squeaky voices could lead you to drink. Fortunately, I was in the right place!

The drive from Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley was 45 minutes of nice views. Upon arrival we visited Kalyra Winery, which is owned by an American surfer-dude type and an Australian. The result was a nine wine tasting that ran from awful to “I could drink that with a burger”. It is not a place I would recommend for a serious tasting, but the people were friendly, my daughter loved the dogs lying about the place (and noted the sign that said “No dogs allowed in the Tasting Room”…how Australian!) and the views were nice.

Next stop was Lincourt Winery…a big improvement. Here we had more of an actual wine tasting of eight wines including comparing its unoaked and oaked chardonnays as well as pretty decent pinot noir and merlot. The setting, in this old farm, was upscale and beautiful with the tasting, and our included deli lunch, in a large gazebo with wonderful views of the valley with the mountains in the distance. Ironically, after I mentioned we were on a cruise, the person holding the tasting started talking to me about cruises and how much he enjoys them; sort of getting himself off track about the wines…but I was, obviously, happy.

So as we ate our lunch the bachelorette party began to mellow a bit and there was enough outdoors for the sounds to dissipate and we could have a nice chat among ourselves and with the guides (there were two similar tours being run by Santa Barbara Adventure Company that day). The second guide was a young, good-looking, fellow who was recently graduated University of California, Santa Barbara and was guiding wine tours as he was finding himself (presumably on dad’s nickel) while his father was urging him to go to law school. I gave him some fatherly advice: “If you are going to be spending your father’s money either way, why not go to law school and learn something. It doesn’t mean you have to be a lawyer. Heck, look at me (sort of)!” His buddy started laughing and said, “You have got him pegged!”

After a leisurely walk around it was time for the third winery, err ‘um, cupcake bakery, at Saarloos and Sons tasting room in “downtown” Los Olivos, California really is not about the wines. It is about the family’s other business: Enjoy Cupcakes. When you walk in you are directed to a small glass bakery counter and are presented with six different cupcakes in a paper tray (like you would get a burger and fries in). The cupcakes change each week and, as of last week, they had come up with over 290 different cupcakes.

Each person, with six decadent - I mean seriously decadent - cupcakes in hand, was directed to a tasting bar where we were given a brief description of each wine that supposedly paired well with each cupcake. Folks, let’s be clear: Other than a sauterne, Muscat, Riesling or other high sugar-content wine there is no such thing as a legitimate pairing such as what was offered. But, at this point it didn’t matter. My kids consumed each delicious cupcake quickly as this is what they had been waiting for (with attendant stomach aches following shortly thereafter) and I feigned that I was engaged in some sort of authentic experience. The wines (each with photographs of family members aligned with a story about the wine) were drinkable…but then again after eating such wonderful cupcakes, unless the wine was terrible it would taste OK.

But, alas, the purpose was not to be serious. It was to have fun! How serious could a “Wine and Cupcake Tasting” tour be? And fun we did have. So if you are in Santa Barbara and are looking for a low-key, somewhat different, experience just for fun, you might well consider this.

Dropped back at the ship (after a quiet ride...since the bachlorette party was on a wine and sugar high/crash)it was time to pack. OK, first a soak in the hot tub, then pack. OK, maybe a bit of a rest and then pack. OK, how about sitting out on the balcony and enjoying the view of the Santa Barbara beaches, sailboats, kayaks and a few sea lions? OK, now we packed.

But our time on the Crystal Symphony was not over.  We had to dine at Silk Road one more time. Kathleen took wonderful care of us, including our children – who were fully prepared as they had previously dined by themselves at the Sushi Bar. After another round of Nobu’s special sashimis I had a wonderfully prepared Black Cod (a larger version of what I had the prior time). Beyond full, I was graciously asked twice if I would like more, but still full of cupcakes, I had to begrudgingly decline.

It was then time for one after dinner drink and a quick visit to the casino. (I mean we did leave Santa Barbara a bit early so the casino could be open, so I was sort of obligated.) I quickly hit for $360 and headed straight back to my cabin to show my wife the three crisp $100 bills so I could disprove her belief that I always lose money in the casino.

As Crystal Cruises has a policy of requesting no bags be put out before 8:00 p.m. (so the corridors are not filled while people are going to dinner – a nice touch), it was time to pack the final bits and put our luggage outside of our door. We had noticed that there were very few bags in the corridor when we walked back and now I know why. The crew must have radar (or watch security cameras) because as soon as I put the first bag in the hallway someone appeared to assist me with the rest of the bags…and they were gone.

After I finished my Glenfiddich while sitting on the balcony as we sailed to Los Angeles, it was time for bed…and then a very civilized disembarkation. Our disembarkation was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. without any rush to leave our cabins. So it was up to the Lido for a leisurely breakfast where we were greeted by many of the staff wishing us, by name, a safe journey home and a friendly “Hope to see you back onboard soon”.

Next up my final thoughts.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Use Caution When Reading Cruise Critic - Self-Importance Rather Than Substance Is The Rule! (Crystal and Seabourn Examples)

I am not quite finished with my review of my experiences on the April 17, 2011 cruise of the Crystal Symphony, but last night I wandered over to Cruise Critic to see what was posted by any of the 15 or so members that were on the same cruise. Keeping in mind that those 15 people represent less than 2% of the people on the ship and only one of the 15 actually posted anything about the cruise (representing less than 0.1% of the passengers). 

The one poster is a retired actuary from Maryland going by the moniker Rafinmd.  He posted his travelogue, most of which was more perfunctory  - lists of foods, events, etc. - than interesting (not a criticism, but an observation); possibly because his view is from an actuary who also writes about his exercise routine. 
(I look at these things because who writes or observes is generally extremely important when I consider what the poster writes...You should too.)

Then I read this following post:

"My afternoon excursion was "Volunteering at Fort Stevens State Park"...At 1PM 19 of us were escorted out to a waiting school bus for the 30-minute ride to the park...We were taken to a beachside parking spot near the 1909 wreck of the Peter Iredale. We were given gloves and bags and headed out to pick up trash on the beach. I walked about a half mile up the beach and collected a full bag of trash, mostly plastic and about 50% appeared to be bottled water discards, by far the largest single category. While sunny, there was about a 30mph wind on the beach and we were all quite ready for warming up on the bus when we returned from our rounds."

If you recall, my family (four of the group...and my children were not doing this voluntourism work for school credit, but because giving back to the community is the right thing to do - and my son is engaging in another  beach cleanup this weekend...on the East Coast!).  I wrote in this blog:

"In the afternoon our family of four headed off in a school bus to Fort Stephens State Park along with 15 other guests to clean the beach. It was a brisk 38 degrees and the winds seemed like they were blowing at a constant 30 miles per hour, but the sun was shining and doing something good for a community in definite need of assistance made it quite enjoyable. The ironic thing is that the beach – to our New Jersey family – seemed incredibly clean. But after walking a mile or so into the wind we collected probably 25 pounds of garbage and the entire group probably collected about 75 pounds in total..."

Now, there is no question that volunteering, especially on a cruise, is a good thing and I do not want to take away from that, but...and it is a big "BUT"...Rafinmd claiming of collecting a full bag of garbage (mostly of plastic bottles) while walking a half mile on the same essentially clean beach my family of four walked over a mile on and saw nothing of the sort, just didn't happen.  Why would he write such a thing?

It is an example of many Cruise Critic posters' need to express their self-importance.  It is this self-importance that colors so many of the posts and threads.  The example above is rather benign as to anyone seeking information about a cruise or cruise line, but it undeniably says to those reading and responding to the post, "Hey, look at me!  I am important and special."  As I say to my kids when they ask me if they are special (an absurd "feel good" practice our schools once used),  "You have earn being special.  You will always be special to me, but to everyone else you may just be a pain.  Earn it; don't ask about it."

Applying this to something a bit more relevant:  The few posters on the Seabourn message board about the new website or, in fact, anything new about Seabourn.  The new management is bad, the new website is bad, the service onboard is going to be bad, etc., etc., etc.  What the heck is this all about?  Simply stated, it is about self-importance. 

If those folks said anything good it would diminish their need to exist.  It would - heaven forbid - mean that Seabourn will survive and thrive without them.  That their input, their complaints, their demands, their taking away precious staff time needed to address real issues with such pressing issues as a hyphen being dropped from a name, the two meaningless zeros eliminated from the past passenger numbers, etc., all would be irrelevant. 

Those few needy and self-important posters want to complain because, as we know, people do not watch NASCAR to see cars going in circles. They watch for the crashes.

Has any of them taken the time to figure out that with those "horrific" changes are not crashes, but signals of a a vastly improved Seabourn guest experience starting with research and ending with your post-cruise experience?

Rather than criticizing, but actually looking at the new Seabourn website as it exists, many things are actually quite obvious.  For example:
 
* Each past guest can see the number of Seabourn cruises they have taken (and eventually days)? 
 
* You can manage your preferences globally and not just by individual cruises (and that that information is already populated from your last cruise)? 
 
*  When all the links are fully functional (like the links were put there just to be there!) you will be able to toggle from category to deck plan to shore excursions to port information to pricing without having to open multiple windows?

Remember when the Seabourn Odyssey was announced and it would be the end of Seabourn?  Do you remember the infamous Martita stating that she would NEVER sail on the larger Seabourn ship and now she sails them on the crossings?  Remember Marja complaining unmercifully about this and that and how poorly she was treated...and then finds herself back onboard.  Remember Keith1010's pontifications?

These people claim to have some sort of personal connection with Seabourn, but when you read their comments you come to realize they only have a personal relationship with themselves and simply use Cruise Critic and Seabourn (or whatever cruise line) as vehicles for their psychosis.

Please remember that these folks represent an infinitesimal number of cruise passengers, so their comments represent less than .01% of the entire cruise experiences.  That is right, far less than 1 in 10,000 experiences overall and 1 in 450 or 600 or 1,000 on any particular cruise!

If you don't post on Cruise Critic, ask yourself why.  And if the reason is "those people" or a desire to remain anonymous or a feeling that your opinion is personal to you and not of weight to others, then consider those points when reading the garbage "those people" write.

Remember it is supposed to be about the cruise and the experience...not making the poster expressing his/her need for self-importance relevant to you or your cruise.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum • Seabourn's New Website

Here is a good discussion of Seabourn's new website: The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum • View topic - Seabourn's new website

You will read about how the website is up and only partially running right now because the new reservations system needs a place to put information...information that the old website and reservations system simply could not handle.  It is, alas, a work in progress that when completed in the coming weeks will be far more robust and filled with information.

If you have any questions, concerns or complaints, please post them.  You can even post anonymously.  (The easy directions how to do so are posted on the forum.)

So join the conversation and let us know what you think.

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part VIII

Two incredible dining experiences are the highlights of this article...and that is after our incredible dinner at Silk Road on the Crystal Symphony.  But first some observations after spending a few days on the ship.

My time on the Crystal Symphony has, so far, been a very relaxing and enjoyable experience. There are definitely differences as compared to Seabourn, but as I will discuss later, so many similarities to Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, that if you like a certain style, Crystal really should be at the top of your list of options.

One thing to consider is that the concept of the ship being too big is simply a fallacy. The Crystal Symphony has a quiet elegance and more than enough informality to make it a very comfortable ship with plenty of space for even those demanding privacy and/or intimacy.

On the one sea day I awoke in the morning and slipped out to use my sea day to check out the ship in more detail. Crystal had show cabins available, so I took advantage of the opportunity to take photographs of every category other than the Crystal Penthouse to have as a good reference. I attended a bit of two enrichment lectures and both were excellent. I hit the casino and went directly to the slot machine that had, just the night before, given a Connoisseur Club friend fits the night before…and made a decent winning. I saw the Card Room was quite active with bridge players (and I knew better than to disrupt that group!), the Computer Lab was being utilized for a course on Photoshop and the midship Bistro was really a hub of activity for guests and staff. I also saw a yoga class being held in a lounge.

This confirmed that while the Crystal Symphony may be larger than the other luxury but it truly has an incredibly diversity of possible activities; noting that I have not mentioned everything that Crystal offered that day, but what I saw walking around in just one morning!

Lunch on our sea day was to be an All American Buffet. It was pretty ordinary for me. One of the few disappointments I encountered. If there is one area of the ship that I would change it would be the Lido. It just seems like there is such a classy ship…and then that. The Trident Grill is a great space and seriously underutilized...other than for late breakfasts and afternoon naps.

Another thing that has struck me is that while Crystal Cruises is not all inclusive (though it will be as of March 2012…eleven months from now) it not only is a non-issue for me, it opened up my mind to different wine selections. You never, and I mean never, show your card. You are discretely given a folio with your charge. As in any hotel, country club or fine restaurant, you just sign. And since you are not in the “I do not like the wine selection this evening” mode, you look at the wine list and truly consider your wine selection as part of your dining experience. I hate to say it, but this cruise – because of the way Crystal does it – has made me feel a bit cheap when I drink wines that other cruise lines, including Seabourn, offer that aren’t exactly what I would have chosen for a particular meal.

Now Dining Experience No. 2:  The Vintage Room Dinner. This is true dining and social experience held in a private room with 10-12 guests, the head sommelier, a wait staff of three, some excellent wines and small, but delicious, dishes. What I expected was a paired tasting menu with appropriate wines and explanations provided. That I did receive, but what I also received were refills on the wines as if I was attending a dinner party rather than a wine tasting. The sommelier orchestrated the evening flawlessly providing just enough information and humor to make the evening and conversation flow (except for two snobbish women at the far end of the table…their problem!).

Our cuisine consisted of Lobster and Asparagus Salad, Dover Sole, Porcini Mushroom Risotto, Rack of Veal, Blue Cheese Tart and Crème Fraiche Souffle. But without question, the cuisine was secondary to the wines and the evening is all about wine…maybe a bit too much wine! A very readable explanation of each wine was provided, but not studied. I have since read the information and it is more about the winery and background information, but with tasting notes; a very nice presentation. We shared a Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, a fantastic Dagueneau Pur Sang, Shafer Chardonney, a favorite of mine: Antinori Tignanello, Lail Cabernet and then a Trockenbeernauslese and, finally, a very nice Moscato. (You can do the pairings if you like.)

And just to show you how convivial the evening was, I teased the sommelier about loving the Tignanello, so after we were done he opened another bottle! With a fine glass of wine to end the evening I headed off to the Connoisseur Club for a cigar...joined by my daughter for a nice chat.  A great evening and a better end to it!

The next day found us in San Francisco. After finally visiting Alcatraz (well worth it…and be sure to book ahead…noting that doing this through the cruise line would be totally unnecessary) and taking walk over to Fisherman’s Wharf to see the sea lions (again) it was time for a highly anticipated Chinese culinary treat.

Dining Experience No. 3: Lunch at Jai Yun.  Jai Yun looks like a typical, décor challenged, Chinese restaurant in any Chinatown. But Jai Yun is special…very special. You cannot walk in and have lunch or dinner. It is a Reservations Only restaurant because the chef/owner goes to the markets each morning to purchase the freshest and finest items available on that day. Neither the charming chef nor his assistant speak much English, but they are warm and friendly…once you let them know that you have a reservation.

We had our choice of tables because – get this – we were the only ones in the restaurant (save one person who came in looking for lunch, but he didn’t have a reservation).  We pick a table and the feast begins…but do not think of gluttony. Think of expertly prepared small plates with just enough for the four of us…lots of them.

Shortly after we sat down eight different white dishes appeared with a variety of flavors from seemingly unnaturally green vegetables, to delicately pickled white cabbage with chilies, to slightly smoky mushrooms, to… And then, after a short break, one dish at a time ranging from a perfectly fried straw mushroom dish to a delicate sweet and spicy fish, to a fantastic abalone preparation, to a rich clear tofu and on and on and on, until it ended in a braised beef shank that was incredible. We lost count, but figure we had at least 20 different dishes; each one memorable and playing off the one before, while setting you up for the next one to come.

But I guess we paid the chef the best of compliments: He saw I was showing my children how to suck the marrow out of the shank bones and he motioned that we must be hungry…so he cooked us two more dishes. The last one I still taste: Miniature eggplants, partially peeled, fried and then blessed with a sweet sauce with hot chili peppers.

If this genius (and incredibly kind man) was to move his mastery of Chinese cuisine into some fancy restaurant with elegant dishes and waiters flying around with expensive wines offered with each course, he could easily charge triple what we paid…but then the focus on the food and the care put into it would be lost. Jai Yun is perfect just as it is.

Now, after a needed walk back to the ship, and a more needed soak in the hot tub (finding that the circulation is just fine without the noisy blower on and it is more relaxing) it was time for…uh, dinner. But the cuisine is so good we had to at least sample. So I made meal out of three appetizers and was more than content.

Tomorrow is our last day: Santa Barbara, California.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part VII

Dining on Crystal Cruises has been a real treat. My feeling is that overall Seabourn has the edge if I was to take the entire day’s meals, including presentation, into account. However, it is not a contest and I am very comfortable in saying that Crystal has some options that are better than Seabourn and visa versa.

If I were to compare breakfast offerings and the manner of offering them, I give the three larger Seabourn ship’s a definite edge; especially when it comes to variety and presentation. Various types of herring, more diverse cured meats, easily obtained poached eggs, etc. and a modern presentation in an upscale setting is more to my liking. However, on Crystal Cruises you really want for nothing, breakfast offerings are available from very early to well past 11:00 a.m. and, for example, you can sit in The Trident Grill area or on the aft deck of the ship and comfortably read a book or write your blog because the Crystal Symphony is larger and has sufficient space for same and eat breakfast as you wish.

I have not yet, and probably will not, try the main dining room for breakfast or lunch. There just is not enough time on a seven day cruise with only one sea day. But I can say that I am not in love with the Lido buffet. The offerings are fine…an upscale expectation of what you would receive on a premium line, but at least for me, no “wow factor”. The setting is a very traditional Lido so it is a bit noisier and tables closer together than I prefer. I did, however, really enjoy my lunch today sitting outside on the aft deck and, to be sure, the food was fine. Nothing struck me as memorable, however.

Dinner is, to be sure, another story. Here Crystal really shines. (Sorry, I didn’t see the pun until I was re-reading this before posting…but it fits so I am leaving it in.) I have written about my two dinners in the Main Dining Room and my Prego experience, so you know I am a very happy camper. But only now can I write about the Nobu overseen Silk Road.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I have to give Nobu’s Silk Road a 12. Yes, skeptical and jaded Iamboatman gives a cruise ship restaurant an over-the-top rating.

Everything in Silk Road is exceptional. The décor is perfect, the spacing between the tables (and the size of the tables) are great. The service is outstanding. And I have to say our waitress Katherine was so charming and gracious and informative...oh, and she was a great waitress too. Now down to the important stuff: Food.

I started my meal with a spicy seafood soup that had layers of flavors that built on each other, using the heat of the spices as an after-note. This was followed by some sort of tiny peach (I forget the type) that incredibly cleansed my palate so it would be ready for my sushi and sashimi. (I actually should have had the sushi first, but there was a sudden rush at the first come-first served sushi bar (there are only 8 seats, but they get priority…and rightfully so), so we switched just as a matter of convenience.)

I tried all four of the Nobu specials: Salmon tartar with Caviar (great flavors with a surprising wasabi kick), Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno (one of the best things I have ever eaten), Tuna Tataki with Ponzu Sauce and then White Fish “Nobu Style”; all presented in a beautiful platter with each in its own small plate; a work of art! And they were “required” to be eaten in that order. But, in interest of research I also ordered Octopus sashimi and a Soft Shell Crab Roll. My wife ordered the House Special Roll and it was, to be sure, special.

My wife then ordered a Salad with Tuna Sashimi and I the Lobster Spring Rolls. Mine were fine – not a homerun though, but hers was outstanding. Just the flavor and colors/textures of the lettuce made me happy.

Now it was on to the main course. On strong recommendation from clients of mine I ordered the Nobu Box which is a three course meal consisting of a fabulous Shrimp Tempura, one of the best pieces of Black Cod I have ever eaten and Wagyu Beef…again eaten in that order. Outstanding. My wife ordered the Lobster and it was excellent…though I really didn’t want to interfere with my dinner by sampling hers.

By the way my wife drank a favorite wine of mine for seafood and mildly spicy foods: Conundrum. I had a small carafe of the Nobu sake, which was kept cold in a very unique presentation. Our dessert…which was totally unnecessary and really just picked at…was coupled with some excellent Green Tea.

It is here when I do not think of comparing Silk Road to Seabourn’s 2 (because they are just so different and unique in their own rights), but Regent Seven Seas’ Prime 7 or Signatures. There is just no way you can with a straight face claim they are in the same league. Elegant and graceful presentations of outstanding cuisine versus a crab leg on a plate or Signatures’ tired and uninspired continental menu (but that restaurant is soon to be replaced; ‘nuf said.)

There is a fine art to luxury culinary experiences and, without question, Crystal Cruises has hit the pinnacle with Silk Road. Or has it?

Why do I say that? Because tonight we are attending the Vintage Room Dinner; a $200 per person dining experience for only 12 people where the food is supposed to be secondary to the wine…and every person I have spoken to about it has said it is extraordinary. I will, most certainly, let you know.

But before I do, I have to pose a very legitimate question: With some very interesting itineraries (like this one or the Crystal Serenity’s present one along the west coast of Africa), strong service (which I will talk about more later), real quality enrichment programs, extraordinary dining experiences, and more, how much should the size of your accommodation affect your decision as to which cruise to take? Where does the value lay for you?

I do not want to give an answer here. I have to rest my stomach and my palate for this evening…Off to the hot tub!

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part VI

We arrived back in Seattle and were forced to engage in a rather curious Immigration experience: The entire ship had to offload and remain off the ship until every passenger had cleared Immigration…and there were no Customs formalities, leaving me to wonder what will great us in Los Angeles when we disembark. I have never experienced this procedure and it baffles me, but…

Since we were off the ship early, we took a walk back to Pike Place Market before the crowds descended and it was, as always, enjoyable. The family enjoyed the fish flying and my daughter later reflected that the Pike Place Chinese Restaurant is her favorite Chinese Restaurant ever. We were back to the terminal by 10:00 a.m. for our tour of the Boeing Factory and immediately boarded the bus. I won’t bore you with the tour, which I had taken on a VIP basis previously, but I do highly recommend it. I think it is great to better understand what it is you are flying in…just like I think it is better you know more about what you are cruising on!

Back on board the Crystal Symphony my daughter and I hit the hot tub, kept at a perfect 104 degrees, and she wandered off to the pool, kept at a perfect 85 degrees. No drinks are allowed in the hot tub and, as such, I miss my champagne. It is not, however, a big issue; just a comment that some may be interested in. There are very few people that are using the hot tub and less using the pool. In fact, the pool deck is pretty much all but abandoned except for a few lounges or sofas and two walkers; exercisers; not elderly…and I do feel a need to clarify this point as the demographic truly is elderly. In fact, if you were to eliminate the people that took this cruise because it was highly discounted I am confident the demographic would push even higher. And on this point, I find it surprising. Crystal Cruises tries very hard to provide an excellent, and luxury, experience to all age groups, and I am a bit baffled why it doesn’t have more success.

Jumping a bit out of chronological order, my children are – when onboard – frustrated and disappointed. There are very nice, friendly and engaging, counselors (some of the nicest I have ever met), the room service is wonderful, the video library diverse and robust, Xbox and Playstation available, a heated pool, dedicated children and teen spaces. Seriously, what more could you ask for? How about “children”! There are supposedly 30 children on board, but I haven’t counted more than eight…and they are of diverse ages. Even if there are 30 children, this week is Spring Break for many, Holy Week for others and, to be sure, an easy week for children to be pulled out of school for a few days so there should be far more.

This, of course, puts me – as a travel agent – in a really difficult position. I know Crystal Cruises provides everything that children would want and need…things that, for example, Seabourn and Silversea probably never will…so on paper Crystal is a great luxury option for families. Heck, Crystal Cruises even has promotions for one child free in each cabin (not that I can imagine three people functioning in the standard cabins), multi-generational promotions, etc. I am told that during the summer there can be 60 to 200 children onboard, but cruises lines cannot live by 6-8 week booking periods…and that cannot be Crystal’s intention. I am going to work on this…because Crystal Cruises should be an excellent family option for more than a few weeks a year.

Even for the middle-aged cruiser (at 53 I am hoping, despite my children demanding that I am “old”, that I middle-aged) I am finding a few, but limited, numbers of people my age. To be sure I have met and enjoyed chatting with some extremely nice people, including an extended family from the Dominican Republic, and a South African family, but the vast majority of the guests are from North America and are older. Again, I need to figure out why people are paying for suites on Celebrity or Princess when they could/should be cruising on Crystal Cruises. OK, back to the ship.

Because of the timing of the Immigration inspection and the Boeing tour, we only had a light breakfast and it was after 2:00 p.m. when my family returned to the ship. (I had business in Seattle, so I did not get back until about 4:00 p.m.) The Trident Grill fills our need with nicely prepared burgers, steak sandwiches, soup of the day, chili, excellent sweet potato or regular fries (nicely presented in miniature fry baskets) and such. I do really like this mid-ship space and only wish the weather was warmer so that the magradome could open and the fresh air make this space even better.

After my “scheduled” hot tub soaking and a bit of writing/emails, it is time for another fantastic dinner. I start with six large, plump, and definitely fresh oysters, followed by a huge portion of domestic (responsible!), but still quite good, caviar with the trimmings and, appropriately, a mother of pearl spoon – so the metal of normal silverware doesn’t off the taste of the fish eggs, and then an excellent marinated quail. (I did try a small, and excellent, slice of the Chateaubriand…but purely for research purposes.) My wife ordered the Butter Poached Lobster with a citron sauce and it was excellent.

I do have a criticism however. I wanted to have a Riesling with my dinner as a nice, dry, one can really accentuate the flavors of seafood…and I will be hosting a river cruise through the Rhine and Mosel in April and need to learn a bit more, so cruises are a great opportunity to do so. Not only was the wine far higher on the sugary sweet scale than could even marginally be appropriate, it was the most expensive Riesling offered by Crystal. Life is not perfect…and this should be my biggest complaint…but it was a bit miss by the sommelier!

The next morning we arrive in Astoria, Oregon. After our breakfast in the Trident Grill we head out to wonder the town before our Voluntourism tour in the afternoon. We are met by some of the friendliest people working so incredibly hard to make sure our time in Astoria is the best possible. And those folks were not only present at the ship, but throughout the town. I mean I am talking about the nicest, friendliest, people I think I have ever met in a cruise port…ever.

But then there is the town. The economy has obviously hit this town hard with vacant shops, for sale or lease signs everywhere and, unfortunately, not much to offer. I am confident that if I spend the day in town I would have found a hidden gem. I did see a small restaurant offering razor clams (a favorite of mine), but we just didn’t have the time. There is a Maritime Museum that I did want to visit, but was outvoted. I did hear excellent reviews of it, so if Astoria is in your places you should visit this museum.

In the afternoon our family of four headed off in a school bus to Fort Stephens State Park along with 15 other guests to clean the beach. It was a brisk 38 degrees and the winds seemed like they were blowing at a constant 30 miles per hour, but the sun was shining and doing something good for a community in definite need of assistance made it quite enjoyable. The ironic thing is that the beach – to our New Jersey family – seemed incredibly clean. But after walking a mile or so into the wind we collected probably 25 pounds of garbage and the entire group probably collected about 75 pounds in total. We did take time to photograph the Graveyard of the Pacific’s bounty of driftwood on a blackish sand beach before heading back to the school bus and then our ship. After that I made some small purchases – more as a show of our appreciation of the town’s efforts than a real desire to purchase anything – and it was back onboard for the sailaway in the hot tub.

Dinner will be a separate article…because it was that good!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part V

Our first full day is in Victoria, British Columbia and, to be sure, is where the difference between going with the flow and checking it off your list came to the fore.

With two lazy children in tow, they missed the regular breakfast in the Lido. This wound up being a good thing. Crystal has a late riser’s breakfast in the Trident Grill that, to my mind, is much better than the standard buffet breakfast offered…and in a nicer setting. (The breakfast buffet offers very fresh and well presented standard offerings. As a comparison, both Celebrity and Seabourn offer far greater variety, but the quality of what is offered is, nonetheless, excellent…and I don’t think the sort of variety offered by Celebrity is necessary with the demographics of this cruise.) The Trident Grill has a good number of items, cooked to order eggs and such, so I am not sure of why it is so underutilized as a breakfast option. In a way it is a cross between a buffet and the dining room. I like it very much…so much so that if I do not have plans, I would delay my breakfast (not my coffee!) until the Trident Grill opens.

After breakfast, we took the Crystal Cruises’ complimentary shuttle bus into town; not having anything planned and with no expectations at all.  We started off by visiting the Pacific Undersea Gardens as an assumed to be hokey family experience. It actually is a small, but very well done, exhibition of Pacific Northwest marine life, including a diver handling a giant pacific octopus and wolf eel in what seemed like a family owned and operated venture right in the Inner Harbour. My wife loves a carriage ride, so it was off to the horses just steps away for a 45 minute journey through Beacon Hill Park.

After a wander through the town, we were walking toward the very impressive Empress Hotel and we see the awning of Miniature World. Yes, it is a tourist trap if there ever was one. But I have to admit it was pretty amazing, the photographs look fairly realistic and the kids enjoyed it. (Nirvana to Miniature World in a few days.) Can’t make it up!)

It was then off to The Empress Hotel for high tea. The price is not for the faint of heart, but the tea was excellent and “the show” was enjoyable. It was not my cup of tea, but it was an experience that was an enjoyable bit of family time and my wife was happy.

Back on board the Crystal Symphony in the late afternoon, it was time to test out the hot tub. It is a very large rectangular tiled affair that is more akin to a jetted pool than the whirlpools you find on most every other cruise ship. The water is kept at a great temperature and there are plenty of strong jets. It is definitely more of a communal experience…more Asian, if you will. Three tiny notes: I am not thrilled with being in the center of the ship around all the lounge chairs. (On this cruise they are pretty much empty, though, as the temperatures are in the 40’s.) Because the whirlpool is so large the motors are larger so it is a bit too noisy to comfortably have a conversation with anyone other than the person right next to you. You have to physically exit the hot tub to restart the jets.

Time to get ready for dinner…and that is when the size of the cabin shows itself. It is sufficiently narrow that when one person is at the vanity it is almost impossible to reach the refrigerator or safe as you weave behind the glass and wood table and the leather sofa. Sitting at the sofa and writing, say my blog, was not a problem, though. It is, however, manageable. Similarly, the bathrooms are tight and you do need to be careful to put your things away so that your partner will be able to layout his/her toiletries. The showers are quite good, the towels are large and of good quality and the Aveda toiletries are not miniatures, so they are easily handled. I do like glass vessel sinks a lot.

The Dining Room itself is not a “modern marvel”, but it is very attractive and, as with the rest of the ship, comfortable and very well maintained. It also has waiter stations set up so that they have the least impact on your dining experience. There are many tables for two and the tables are spaced sufficiently apart that you have a fairly private dining experience. Here too there is a stylistic difference in waiter service. A card is placed at your table letting you know the name of your waiter and assistant each evening. I guess it is nice to know their names, but I would rather learn them through interaction. Certainly not an issue; more of a “nice to know” comment. The sommelier is very good and efficient and takes the appropriate time to chat with you. Coupled with excellent table settings and lighting, there is no reason you would not have a luxury dining experience.

Dinner was excellent. Each dish was very well prepared and presented nicely. The service was so efficient we asked that it be slowed down a bit. (I think may have been caused, in part, by there being so few people dining late.) One of my Crystal clients strongly recommended the Weiner schnitzel and they were right. My wife had a “fall of the bone” lamb shank that was rich and delicious.

One thing that I find a bit awkward is that the Dining Room menu is not available on the television (at least I haven’t found it) and it is not in the daily program. As such you must ask your room stewardess to supply you with one if you are someone who likes to contemplate you dinner before arriving in the restaurant. Also, my children prefer dining in their cabin so we must ask for the menu and then provide a number of each item they would like to our stewardess rather than room service. Ultimately it is a bit more stylistic than anything else, so once you know it is a very easy process…and you do have the benefit of truly seeing the entire menu as presenting in the Dining Room.

As I am not big on the shows, it was back to the Connoisseur’s Club for a cigar and a whisky before calling it an evening.  It is not, at least on this cruise, heavily used, but there are a few friendly people that stop in, a very good cigar collection and...what's not to like.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Seabourn in Seattle: A Visit to Seabourn's New Offices and The Launching of the New Seabourn Website

This afternoon I took a tour of Seabourn’s new offices and chatted with a number of the Seabourn staff, both old and new. Actually, I was the first official visitor of Seabourn’s new offices! They are still unpacking boxes, but the offices are up and running. (I even had a chance to welcome Bruce Good – whom many of you know – as he just arrived in Seattle the other day, who was busy unpacking.)

Most of my time was spent with John Delaney, Seabourn’s Senior Vice President discussing not only some of the behind the scenes issues that he, Seabourn’s President, Rick Meadows, and the staff are addressing, but the vision of Seabourn moving forward. The vision is, unequivocally, that Seabourn is going to “improve”; not “change”. While the past few months have involved back office changes and improvements of monumental proportions, in the coming weeks there will be some changes that guests will see.

What do I mean: Check out Seabourn’s new website: http://www.seabourn.com/ . It was just launched this afternoon! It is not shockingly new, but it has far greater usability and a logical flow of information. I will review it shortly, but my first impressions are very good…and it does not shock your senses of what Seabourn is about.

So to answer the skeptics and those that just are curious:

Yes, Seabourn’s offices do have their own front door – located on the third floor of the building which houses Holland America. And, yes, Seabourn’s name will be on the outside of the building.

No, not all of Seabourn’s operations are totally separate from Holland America’s…but that was never the idea. The concept is to utilize the resources of Holland America, not be Holland America. To that point, in every single area of operations there is a sign overhead identifying the areas where people are working primarily or exclusively on Seabourn from finance to reservations to e-marketing. (And trust me, Seabourn signs were not mounted from the ceilings in honor of my visit!)

Yes, Seabourn is different from Holland America and it will never be treated the same. Without question there is a concentrated and effective effort for those who did work for Holland America to think “Seabourn” and not “Holland America”. There is no question that confusion or melding of the product is not going to happen.

And, for the big YES: The triplets: Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend are staying in the fleet! I can’t get into the specifics, but the ships are going to be invested in so that they can provide some truly unique experiences on itineraries that they were made to (and used to) cruise: small ports, exotic ports, and extended cruises. It is going to take some time to put all of this in place, but not that long.

Seabourn sees great things coming and I believe the new management has a lot of surprises coming. The amount that has been accomplished in such a short period of time is, to be sure, remarkable. Once that infrastructure change is completed the good stuff will follow.

And while all that is happening you will continue to have the same excellent experiences you have been enjoying on your Seabourn cruises.

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part IV

Up early for our train ride to Vancouver and we have our second sunny day in a row. The Amtrak station is, to say the least, a bit tired and a mere remnant of its important past. The train, however, was just fine. Our four hour journey went quickly with some nice, but not outstanding, views.

We arrived in Vancouver at 11:30 a.m., but with boarding scheduled for 3:00 p.m. we were a little concerned about what we were going to do. Not a problem. We were met with an apology…that our luggage would not be available until about 3:00 p.m. but we could go right onboard. Just as we boarded an attendant took our carry-ons, tagged them, and said they would be delivered to our suite.

My family’s first impressions of the ship (which I will detail later) were very good. It is extremely well maintained with numerous public areas suiting a wide variety of desires. After a wander around we had a very nice lunch in the main restaurant. I have a very pretty and tasty seafood salad and a perfectly cooked, and tender, petit filet mignon. Our bar waiter freely poured complimentary champagne; a bit on the sweet side for me, though.

After lunch we headed up to Deck 11 to the Trident Bar & Grill while waiting for our room to be readied. It is a very pretty area under a magrodome filled with comfortable wicker seating and pleasant green umbrellas, creating a sort of wintergarden. The staff is very friendly and genuinely wants you to have a great experience. One thing the staff does that is a bit different for me is they each ask me my name when introducing themselves so that they will know and remember my name. It feels a bit awkward the first couple of times, but once you understand the purpose, it seems like sort of a Crystal ritual and makes you feel part of the staff’s experience rather than the object of it.

After a nice glass of wine it was time to head to our room. First, facts are facts; the rooms are definitely on the smaller side. The closet space is just enough, but there is plenty of drawer space. That said, the rooms have high quality finishes with whitewashed oak, a leather sofa, comfortable chair and a nice, firmer, bed. The deck has two reclining aluminum with mesh seating chairs a decent sized table and real teak decking. The bathrooms are compact, but very functional with two glass vessel sinks and a tub/shower combination. Counter space (nice granite that it is) is, however, at a premium. There is a TV/DVD above the cabinet that houses the safe (at eye level) and the refrigerator (stocked with complimentary soft drinks and water). The library has a very good selection of DVDs to select from.

Settled in, I took a second wander around the ship and the family voted to stay onboard even though we were not departing Vancouver until midnight.

We dined at Prego, the Italian specialty restaurant and both the service and the food were excellent. I enjoyed excellent Spaghetti Vongale and then perfectly prepared Striped Bass in a very classy, yet comfortable, setting. Everyone enjoyed their respective dishes equally, though my son did say that he felt the duck was flavorful, but a bit overdone. The sommelier was very good, providing some appropriate guidance in a knowledgeable, yet inoffensive, manner. Excellent!

Still settling in, the kids opted for some videos and room service (yes, after dinner room service), my wife an early evening in the stateroom and I headed to the Connoisseur’s Club for a whiskey and a cigar. This is a stately space with very comfortable chairs with appropriately dark wood, rich fabric and leather furnishings and a strong selection of cigars. I met a very nice extended family from the Dominican Republic with the father being on his 13th Crystal Cruise. His only disappointment was that he was not able to have the Spaghetti Vongale that evening, so he booked Prego for the next night. Service was appropriately friendly, but inobtrusive.

One thing that I like is that there is no showing of your room key for charges in the restaurants or bars. It is more hotel-like with you merely signing your name and providing your room number. After they know your name, your bill is presented with your name and room number already printed on it. I like this very much in a pay-as-you-go setting as it is no different than a Four Seasons or Fairmont setting. (Crystal Cruises is going all-inclusive in March 2012, so this distinction will soon be irrelevant.)

As I wrapped up my evening, I drew some initial impressions…all subject to modification as this cruise continues on:

- The demographic, even during this Spring Break cruise, is remarkably older. As a frequent cruiser on Seabourn I can tell you that the age disparity is quite noticeably older on this Crystal Cruise. I would say that I, at 53, am probably in the youngest 10% (5%?) of the cruise guests.

- There is a decided mix of Japanese (no wonder as Crystal Cruises is Japanese owned and this cruise is focused on the West Coast with its higher Japanese populations); Central Americans (I am not sure why…yet); and, elderly.

- There is no way around the fact that the standard and veranda cabins are small. There has to be a balancing of getting more options out of the ship (as compared to, say, Seabourn or Regent or Silversea…which I will discuss later) versus getting more out of your standard accommodations.

- The ship is immaculately maintained with décor that is generally quiet, but comfortable with hints at being modern. The focus is definitely on meeting the demographics, but looking to attract a more youthful market. I do need to better explore the ship to comment on more of the spaces.

- Crystal Cruises’ staff know how to do everything well…and they do. It is a different style than Seabourn’s (just as a point of comparison), but I am still getting my head around the differences. That is not a bad thing; just something different.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part III

Our journey begins with an ordinary flight on an overcrowded plane leaving from an airport jammed with families like mine getting away for Spring Break. As I am sure my regular readers can guess: one of our bags was lost. (This trip should be different?) Fortunately, it founds its way to Seattle and was in our room by the next afternoon.

We arrived at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel and were whisked up to our Deluxe Executive Suite on a corner of the hotel, giving us plenty of windows in a very comfortable suite; but on a low floor so there was a good bit of noise from the road. At special rate of $199 per night I really cannot complain at all. The service has been friendly and efficient.

As our six hour flight (with not very good pay as you go airline food) and lost luggage had us very much awake at 10:00 pm Seattle time we decided to have a bite to eat. Being a bit frugal, I purchased the Entertainment Book (on sale for $13.50) and saw that the highly rated Shuckers restaurant has a “buy one, get one free” entrée offer…and it is located in the Fairmont. What a great meal! I had Scallops with Wild Mushrooms, Green Beans and Crab-infused mashed potatoes. (Being late I just tasted the potatoes.) It was excellent…seriously excellent…as was everything the family ordered.

Now, nicely satiated, it was time to sleep…for a couple of hours. My phone rings and it is American Express. Somehow my credit card number had been stolen so the Fraud Unit was calling me. American Express cannot get me a new card until I return to New Jersey. Oh well. The biggest issue I have is I need to get back to sleep.

After a lazy start, it was time to get moving. We take a short walk and then take the Seattle Center Monorail to the, you guessed it, Seattle Center. We were going to see the new Nirvana exhibition at the Experience Music Project; very appropriate as Seattle is the home of grunge music. The building is, shall we say, unique but inspiring. The exhibition was not going to be open for an hour as there was a private event finishing up. This gave us the opportunity to explore the museum and explore we did. What a great place.

(Hint: The Entertainment Book has a “buy one, get one free” coupon for both the EMP and the integrated Science Fiction Museum, so we had two free entries; saving $30.00.  That put my savings at $60.00 for a $13.50 investment, but there is more to use in Vancouver!  Don't be shy, things like The Entertainment Book are great investments when you travel and the establishments offer the coupons for a reason.  just make sure you use them for what you want to do; not because there is a coupon.)

After marveling at a two story sculpture made up of approximately 700 guitars and other musical instruments we entered into the Jimi Hendrix exhibition. (The museum is named after the Jimi Hendrix Experience.) I felt at home. I also felt weird that here I was loving the Jimi Hendrix exhibition while we waited for my son’s interest, Nirvana, was just next door. We then went up to the second level where they have the real “experience music” exhibition. It is a fantastic place where you can try out all sorts of musical instruments/equipment and it even has studios where you can learn, hands on, how to use, say, a mixing board. The interaction and excitement was a great thing to see. (We spent some time remixing some Annie Lenox music.)

It was then time to attend the sellout session of the weekend, the panel discussion by three of Nirvana’s roadies about what it was like to be on the road with the iconic punk/grunge band. I found it interesting, but my kids found it incredible. Definitely a unique and memorable experience; with everything from reflections of nine guys hitting the road in a van to playing before over 100,000 people.

After that it was off to see the Nirvana exhibition, which at that point actually felt secondary as the panel discussion was so personal, the “stuff” to look at seemed detached. The exhibition, however, was really done well and was also very interactive.

Then back onto the monorail and a short walk to Pike Place Market; a favorite place of mine. With fish flying in the air and tulips and other flowers everywhere, the frenetic pace of the market was really enjoyable. We took a needed break, however, for lunch. We ate at Pike Place Chinese Cuisine; a two table wide cramped little restaurant with a pushy, but friendly, owner that promises a table in two minutes, but has you order your lunch and wait 20 minutes for the table to clear. It was, to be sure, well worth it. This tiny restaurant makes some wonderful food. I had a very fresh seafood soup (a little light on the seafood, though) and an excellent fried oysters in ginger and green onion dish. The wine offering was “chardonnay”…that’s it. Again, every dish was very fresh and tasty.

After walking the market some more, and exploring the many shops, fish stalls and flower stands, it was a leisurely walk back to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel for a needed rest before dinner.

Dinner was at The Brooklyn, a Seattle staple for excellent seafood, which is only two blocks from the hotel. It has an older, stayed, but classy, décor and some really excellent seafood. My appetizer of fresh oysters, Dungeness crabs and large shrimp with three sauces was awesome. Followed by fresh halibut, I was very happy. My family ordered the Bouillabaisse and also the farmed sturgeon and they were perfectly prepared. We have been spoiled.

Tonight is a relatively early evening as we have a 7:40 am train to catch to Vancouver to start our cruise on the Crystal Symphony.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part II

How to Make a Seemingly Ordinary Cruise Itinerary Extraordinary

I have to admit that when I booked my family's April 17, 2011 Pacific Coast cruise on the Crystal Symphony my focus was more on "getting on the ship" and doing so when my children were on Spring Break than I was where it was going.  (Yes, going on cruises is a wonderful thing, but first and foremost I am "Dad" and leaving my children for a cruise is not one of my favorite things, so there has to be a balance.)

Originally this cruise had a totally different itinerary, but with the recent undesirability of cruising within Mexico this Pacific Coast itinerary was created.  The itinerary includes Vancouver, Victoria, B.C., Seattle, Astoria (Oregon), San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles.  It sounds nice, but not very exciting.  But a good travel agent...or anyone willing to think outside merely ship's tours...can make it a unique and exciting week.

Vancouver is nice and it is pretty, but not really a great city for sites or children.  So, instead, we are flying pre-cruise to Seattle.  Originally we were going "budget" staying in a suite at the Holiday Inn due to its location.  But I received a great offer from Fairmont Hotels (You really should join its President's Club) and now we are staying in a Deluxe Executive Suite for only a few dollars more than the Holiday Inn and are walking distance to Pike Place Market; a mandatory place to visit.

Other than that and the Space Needle, what are we going to do?  With a 15 year old son who loves his electric guitar and has a giant poster of Kurt Cobain and the Jimmy Hendrix Experience on his wall...we are going to the Experience Music Project (named after Hendrix) where there is a new Nirvana exhibit opening.  (If you don't know who Nirvana is just trust me it is cool.)  Oh, but there is more.  In sort of a surreal "experience", I discovered that there will be a "panel discussion" between three of Nirvana's roadies; and we will be attending.  (Still trying to get my head around some party animals having a panel discussion, but that is what makes it fun.)  Dinner will be at a great seafood restaurant, The Brooklyn.

Now, how do you get from Seattle to Vancouver?  Plane, ferry, automobile?  How about what is supposed to be a really beautiful train ride. Yep.  A four hour  train ride in Business Class depositing us in Vancouver for just before noon.  We will check-in, drop our bag and then head off for a wander around the city and, in all probability, touristy horse and buggy ride and a nice lunch before boarding the Crystal Symphony around the scheduled 3:00 p.m.  After getting settled we will have one of probably only two family dinners (the kids want and need there vacation too!) at Prego, Crystal's Italian specialty restaurant.

Victoria, B.C. is a "take a breath day" and I am sure we will consider a wander over to the Butchart Gardens, but $100 for a this family to walk through gardens might not be the ticket.  The Pacific Undersea Gardens might be more to our liking.  Who knows?  One of the things I teach my kids (by example) is that planning everything makes sure you miss a lot.  Wandering around is a good thing.

When we return to Seattle the next day, we are going to the Boeing Factory in the morning.  I was there fore a VIP tour during the American Superyacht Forum a few years ago.  It is just plane cool  (Get it?)

I will then leave my family and visit Seabourn's new offices in Seattle meeting up yet again with John Delaney, Senior Vice President and, probably, Rick Meadows.  I am very much looking forward to seeing the new operation (albeit I know everyone is still settling in) and will let you know how "separate" Seabourn is from Holland America; rhetoric aside.  (So far, I must say, it seems like things are pretty much separate.)

In Astoria, Oregon we will be engaged in a Voluntourism project organized by Crystal Cruises where we will head off in a school bus to help clean up Fort Stephens Sate Park; a most worthwhile 3 hours of our afternoon.  Astoria makes a big effort to promote itself, but I find there is a bit too much promotion.  That leads me to believe that the best thing to do in our morning there is to...wander.  I am confident something beautiful and/or interesting is going to find us.

After a day at sea, we are in San Francisco.  We have been there many times, but...as it seems is the case with almost everyone I speak to...we have never been to Alcatraz.  Now we will be.  (I am amazed at how quickly the tickets for this trip sell out.  I booked our early morning trip weeks before our arrival and the entire morning was almost sold out.  You must plan ahead.)  After that we head off to Chinatown for a lunch in a small Chinese restaurant that supposedly has almost no decor, but an incredible chef that determines his menu each day.  As our time in San Francisco is short, with a 4PM departure, that is all we have time for.

Our last port is Santa Barbara.  With so many wineries and so many touristic wine tasting opportunities and, of course, my children in tow, what to do?  Oh, what to do?  How about a Cupcakes & Wine Tour.  Yes, that is correct.  We are going on a Santa Barbara Adventure Company tour that includes wine tastings at a number of wineries, a cupcake tasting with six different wine-laced cupcakes, and a deli-style lunch at one of the wineries.  Seriously, what kid doesn't love cupcakes and what a great diverse day that could have been really boring if we just did stuffy wine tastings all day. That evening is our second "family dinner" where we will dine in Crystal's Silk Road Asian restaurant overseen by Nobu.

Now all I need to do is find time to enjoy the Crystal Symphony and all she has to offer.  And, of course, my fingers are crossed that we will be able to dine in the Vintage Room.

The alternative: Fly to Vancouver the day of the cruise, take ship's tours each day so that you see "stuff", but never really engage the communities you are visiting.  Yes, there are those that live by that formula and are very happy.  But, alas, if you always line up in the main salon waiting for your tour number to be called, you will most definitely miss the proverbial boat.

From my perspective, we have taken a cruise where we could visit some ports and transformed it into a "travel experience" balancing the ship's offerings, some unique opportunities available in various ports...if you dig a little bit and, of course, time to discover by just wandering around. 

As a final thought for now:  That is our plan.  Does anyone really think I am going to totally stick to it?

Do you have any questions, thoughts or want to discuss this or any other topic?  Join the discussion on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Cruise Critic and Seabourn: Host Dan is Known to Assure a Wealth of Misinformation...So Why Does Everyone Email Goldring Travel as a Result?

I find it remarkable that Cruise Critic continues to allow Host Dan to prostitute the Seabourn message board so that misinformation can reign supreme. 

As the most recent example, there is presently a thread about who will be the master of the Seabourn Quest. A long time poster, Martita (the one with pajama parties, stuffed monkeys at the Sky Bar, flashing light buttons and headbands, etc.) incorrectly posted some drivel about who the master of the Seabourn Quest will be.  Another, obviously better informed, poster advised that her information was simply incorrect.  Martita responded that she had received her information from Pamela Conover (whether true or not) and the other poster advised he/she received his/her information directly from the Captain. Host Dan removed the post advising that latter little tidbit leaving the impression that (a) there was no response; and (b) Martita's information was weighty and accurate.  Why?

Now, who is the captain may be very important to some - those who will be on the Maiden Voyage and those who find interacting with the captain to be an important part of their cruise experience - but to others it is a matter of self-importance (that they somehow have inside information).  The problem is that Host Dan has an agenda and, as such, has a history of unnecessarily assuring this favorite posters can say what they want no matter how incorrect it is because, I guess, it is his sand box.

And so the emails start flying to me.  "Eric, Iamboatman, Goldring Travel...please tell me what the truth is!  I know you keep saying the information on Cruise Critic is not accurate, and I do believe you, but I just read X.  Is it true?"

Host Dan and Cruise Critic is doing a disservice to Seabourn; a disservice to its advertisers; a disservice to the cruising public; and, of course, a disservice to truth and honesty.  (Over a year ago I wrote the following article:  Do Cruise Critic and Other Message Boards Have An Obligation To The Public? .  Take a moment to read it, if you will.)

So what is more important to Cruise Critic:  Host Dan's ego and agenda; Martita's need to portray herself as an insider; or, providing accurate information to the cruising public which, in turn, benefits the cruise lines and its advertisers?

And we had to ask this questions because????

Join the conversation...and it is a long one...on The Gold Standard Luxury Travel ForumHost Dan is at it Again and  Do Cruise Critic and Other Message Boards Have An Obligation

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Regent Effectively Run Solely By Oceania Executives

I know that many people, including Mark Conroy, have been a bit bitter and off-put by my claims over the past two years that Regent Seven Seas Cruises pretty much no longer exists as a DISTINCT entity/brand and that it is, little by little, being subsumed within Oceania Cruises.

Today that process has gone yet a little further. According to a Prestige Cruise Holdings press release (PCH owns both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas cruise lines):

While Frank J. Del Rio, remains chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, Bob Binder, formerly the President of Oceania Cruises, has been promoted to Vice Chairman and President of PCH thereby putting him in the position of now overseeing both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas including the global expansion of the PCH brands and maintain relationships with several of the company's largest retail partners.  Bruce Himelstein, formerly with Ritz Carlton and then Kerzner International, (and who had nothing to do with Regent Seven Seas) has been appointed president of Oceania Cruises and succeeds Binder.

Meanwhile, Victor Gonzalez, executive vice president of passenger services for Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, will step into an expanded role and report directly to Del Rio. His responsibilities now include all aspects of call center management, yield and revenue management, training and development, and guest relations. Howard Sherman, senior vice president of revenue management for both brands, will now oversee air services and continue to report to Gonzalez.

Frank A. Del Rio (fondly known as "Frank Jr."), who is responsible for hotel and land programs and shore excursions for Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, will assume the title senior vice president of port and destination services, with operational and relationship responsibilities for more than 350 ports worldwide. Del Rio will now report to Robin Lindsay, executive vice president of vessel operations for PCH

Let's review, the above confirms that Oceania executives now run literally every aspect of Regent Seven Seas Cruises from passenger services, hotel and land programs, guest relations, training, call center management and even revenue management now belongs in the hands of those who have run Oceania Cruises.  It is, to be sure, curious that Mark Conroy remains out there as the alleged President of Regent Seven Seas when, as reported in Terry Breen's blog, he talks about what some of the coming changes to Regent will be (elimination of a World Cruise, elimination of most gentleman hosts, elimination of Signature's specialty restaurant, including pashminas and binoculars in upper suites -yeehaw!) and, interestingly how he seems to be unhappy with some of the prospective changes which the actual management appears to be moving towards...like higher yields by increasing single supplement charges.

And, let me be clear, I am not picking on Mark Conroy.  To the contrary, it is absolutely clear to me that he is essentially the last remaining vestige of Regent Seven Seas Cruises and as long as Oceania Cruises believes there is a marketing advantage to keeping him around it is going to do it.  He may not be doing much else, but he does what Oceania wants him to do.

And now you may return to your Regent cruise...where if you pay enough you get to board early, book your specialty dining earlier, book your tours earlier, get use of a pashmina and binoculars, and even have a faux butler.  It is so, how do I say it?  Oh, yes:  It is so Oceania.

BTW, remember the hype about if you paid the new higher rate on Regent you would get a "free" pre-cruise hotel night?  I just booked some guests on Oceania for June 2012.  Do you know what they were offered?  You guessed it:   A "free" Prue-cruise hotel night and transfer.  It sounds so, how do I say it?  Oh, yes:  It is so Regent Seven Seas.

OK, now even I am confused.  What is the real difference between Regent and Oceania especially when considering Oceania's new Marina/Riviera ships (and the departure of at least the Insignia)?  Oh, yes.  This one I have:  Regent is inclusive and more expensive because it is marketed that way.  Effectively nothing...and I mean nothing...else.

The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas is just about complete.  To me that is a good thing.  Because I believe Oceania Cruises is a very good product.

Australians Frustrated by Some Cruise Lines, etc. Protectionist (for the Local Travel Agents) Rules? Consider This!

I preface this article by stating that I do like the Oceania Cruises product and that much of the onboard experience is quite good.  But there have been growing cries of unfairness by Oceania Cruises as to how it treats some of its passengers.  It is, alas, not the onboard experience that creates the frustrations emanating from Down Under, but what it actually nothing more than marketing and protectionist gamesmanship. (The complaints are not only in relation to Oceania Cruises, but it seems to be the most difficult of the ones that enforce such tactics as a recent thread on Cruise Critic readily shows.)

I have clients in Australia and New Zealand (not that, as most people in the Northern hemisphere do, they are one and the same...they are distinctly different markets).  And, to be sure I have Australian and New Zealand clients that I have booked on Oceania Cruises, but there are huge restrictions put in place that make it virtually impossible to properly service Australians and Kiwis.  Why?

Let us first clear up one thing:  There are NO laws that prohibit non-Australian or New Zealand travel agents from selling cruises to Australians or Kiwis.  I have heard this from sources both inside and outside of Oceania's management and, to be sure, no one has ever directed me to such a law and I have been unable to find any. 

In fact, Goldring Travel is a non-resident member of The Australian Federation of Travel Agents and has a telephone number in Brisbane, Australia:  +61 7 3102 4685. Further, I am able to market to and sell, for example, Seabourn cruises to many Australians at prices available in the United States and upon United States terms and conditions.  Oh, and by the way, I lived in Brisbane, Australia and successfully owned, managed and operated a significant company for years.

What there is, however, is a concerted effort to protect the resident travel agents and selective pricing so that (a) the travel agent business in Australia especially grows; and, (b) so that pricing is fixed to be essentially non-competitive...again to protect not only the travel agents (higher priced cruises equal higher commissions), but the cruise line (higher priced cruises equals higher profits).  Who pays the price for this:  YOU, the Australian and New Zealand cruising public.

Goldring Travel sought membership in the International Cruise Council Australasia...noting it is not the ICC Australia, but Australasia...and I have been denied membership simply because I am not registered (yet) as a travel agency by a regulatory body in Australia.  It should be pointed out that the first time I attempted to register I was told it wasn't a rule, but it was being enforced that way.  Now there is a rule.  Coincidence?  I think not.

So from that I pause The International Cruise Council Australasia (ICCA) website states, in relevant part...and my comments in red:

The International Cruise Council Australasia is an association of leading cruise lines dedicated to the expansion and awareness of cruising worldwide Individual Travel Agency Members of the International Cruise Council Australasia are those most qualified to provide professional cruise information and reservations.  Wait a second! I don't think there is a cruise line out there - including Oceania Cruises - that would claim that Goldring Travel, or myself individually, is not one of the "most qualified to provide professional premium or luxury cruise information and reservations" in the world.  In fact, I would dare say that there may be but a handful of travel agencies in Australia that could honestly claim knowledge and experience that is even arguably equal to Goldring Travel.

A comprehensive Travel Agent training program is offered by the International Cruise Council Australasia, that was originally based on CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association - USA) Cruise Counsellor Certification Program. Enhanced to better reflect local market conditions the ICCA training has two levels of achievement...The Cruise Consultant Certification Program allows customers to recognize those dedicated agents who have developed extensive cruise industry knowledge and superior selling skillsGoldring Travel, and myself specifically, is a CLIA designated Elite Cruise Counselor with a Luxury Cruise Specialist Designation.  That is far more of an achievement than a member, a "certified cruise counsel" or an "accredited cruise counselor".  Look it up here and here I guess you can recognize it, but the ICCA shuts its eyes.  Why? 

International Cruise Council Australasia training is fully endorsed by the Australian Federation of Travel Agents.  Wait a Second...Again!  I am a non-resident member of the AFTA!  So the ICCA tauts that it's training is endorsed by the entity that I am a member of, but I can't be a member of it...substantively because why?

So Goldring Travel has a $1,000,000 Errors and Omissions Insurance Policy, is a member of the Better Business Bureau, is highly trained, extremely well experienced, has numerous international clients (including Aussies and Kiwis), has direct business experience in Australia and is a member of an important Australia trade association, but cruise lines like Oceania Cruises won't allow you to book your cruises with me and the ICCA won't allow me membership. 

Can you think of a single reason as to how that protects you, the consumer?

Can you think of a single reason as to how that allows you to book with the most knowledgeable travel agent?

Can you think of a single reason as to how that allows you to book with the travel agent that will give you the best service?

Can you think of a single reason as to how that allows you to book with the travel agent that has direct access to the cruise lines (rather than waiting days or weeks while an intermediary does it)?

Didn't think so.

My suggestions may be bold, but they are something to consider:  Complain to your legislators and book with cruise lines that allow you to be adults and choose the best travel agent rather than the ones that are not nearly as qualified, but who are protected...and then suffering through the incompetence, delays and misinformation forced upon you.

To be sure I am sure there are a few excellent Australian travel agents, but do you really want to have happen Down Under what has happened in the United Kingdom where a handful of travel agencies sell almost all of the cruises?  Not very consumer friendly, is it?

Goldring Travel's motto is, "Be Treated By Your Travel Agent As You Will Be Onboard!"  Ask your travel agent, "Have you ever even been onboard?"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Introducing Seabourn Quest's Master: Captain Geir-Arne Thue-Nilsen

I am so happy to be able to announce that Captain Geir-Arne Thue-Nilsen has officially been named the Master of the Seabourn Quest. 


He will be boarding the Seabourn Quest on June 3, 2011 (the same day I board her) and will take the keys to his ship ('er, I mean, take command) on June 14, 2011 just prior to the Seabourn Quest's Inauguration and Maiden Voyage.

For those of you who do not know Captain Geir-Arne, my dear friend has been part of the Seabourn family for many years and has a great following through his photographic documentary of everything Seabourn.   You can see his website here:  Captain Geir-Arne's Photo Gallery

But don't let the Captain's happy-go-lucky exterior fool you.  He is a no nonsense type of guy, but he also has the full respect of the staff and crew...because he cares; and everyone one knows he cares about them as individuals.  (You will note how many photos he takes of his crew...so their families know that they are well and cared for.)

I look forward to hearing, and saying, "Welcome to yuuuurrrr Seabourn Quest."  (Those of you who have had the privilege sailing with Captain Geir-Arne know what I mean!

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part I

I analyze and opine not only on various cruise lines, but on specific aspects of those cruise lines based upon a literal "boat-load" of knowledge and in many instances it is, at least to me, beyond obvious that certain things will work or will not, are luxury touches or are not, are service failures or successes, etc.

In other words, I do not need to step in front of a car and experience its effect to know that it is smart to avoid contacting 3,000 pounds of metal barreling in on me. (Or, as I wrote the other day, to pay for $25,000 for a seven day cruise on the NCL Gem in order to know that the experience you will receive is not a luxury one; not even close.)

However, I have always asserted that there is nothing more important than first hand knowledge; experience, if you will.  It doesn't matter how much you read or if you book cruises on a particular cruise line, unless and until you have cruised on that line, a travel agent really doesn't have a complete "feel" for the product.

So as part of my education and working within the concept of "so many ships, so little time", I am hellbent on figuring out why Crystal Cruises, which is a fantastic product on paper and from the reviews and comments of my very loyal clients, just doesn't sell as well as I think it should.  And, to be sure, I am not looking for the problems, but rather what it is I can do to better understand and explain the product to potential guests.

As clients of mine are cruising on the Crystal Serenity in a suite, I will be cruising on the Crystal Symphony in two Veranda Cabins with my family cruising from Vancouver to Victoria, BC, then down to Seattle, Astoria, Oregon, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and disembarking in Los Angeles.  It is a great opportunity to later discuss the consistencies and differences between the two ships and accommodations.  But that is for another day.

At the outset I do want to comment on Crystal Cruises' pre-cruise experience from a guest's point of view.  It has been, for me, the best of any cruise line I have encountered...even Seabourn.  Why?  Because Crystal Cruises gives you a tremendous amount of information and does so in a fashion that you can either use it or ignore it, as you like.  Whether you want easy access to who the guest lecturers/topics are, or who the staff will be, which nights are formal nights, etc., it is right there for you

In addition, I find Crystal's interface for scheduling "open seating by reservation" times, specialty restaurant reservations, spa appointments and tours to be fantastic.  You can easily see what is available and at what time, overlay it with the ship's itinerary (including dining style for the evening) and then you are given a day-by-day graphically pleasing printout or .pdf file with all the information.  Decide you want to change something?  Not a problem at all.  Excellent.

Another small touch that was a bit disappointing for me, personally, but I believe to be totally appropriate and shows Crystal's focus on obtaining the highest guest satisfaction:  Because I am traveling on a discounted travel agent rate, I was not allowed to make any reservations or book a tour until two weeks prior to sailing.  That provides literally ever single regular paying guest the priority to book what they want. In the end I was able to make a reservation at Prego (the Italian specialty restaurant) and at Silk Road (the Asian restaurant overseen by Nobu) at acceptable times, but not really on the dates I wanted...but that is OK.  I was able to book my wife's massage at a good time on a good day, but not on the Sea Day and I was able to book my two tours.
  Speaking of tours, and I am not a big fan of ship's tours, Crystal Cruises offers a Volunteer tour (Voluntourism as they call it).  So my family, including my 15 and 11 year olds, will be helping to clean up Fort Stephens State Park during our afternoon time in Astoria, Oregon.  Excellent!!  We are also going to the Boeing Factory in Seattle.  I have been there on a VIP Tour during a previous trip to Seattle for the American Superyacht Forum a couple of years ago and think the kids will really enjoy it.  And, as we will be spending some time, pre-cruise in Seattle it seems like the thing to do.

One things I am looking forward to is the Vintage Room Dinner. It is a $210.00 per person private dining experience with promised to be exquisite wines.  This is something you can either buyout as a private event or you can book by the seat...and hope for 8 other people to also sign up for.  I am waiting, in hope, that this experience comes to pass.  (Note: I perceive this as markedly different from the Silversea experience as this is an orchestrated affair in a truly private setting on a - for now - pay-as-you-go cruise line rather than a dinner in a specialty restaurant.)

I will be doing some things individually and will report on them as well.  But I now go into this, my first Crystal cruise, well organized, well informed and looking forward to demystifying this small, and for some reason overlooked, luxury cruise experience.

Join the conversation in The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum.

If there is something you want me to look for, ask questions about, or just observe, please feel free to email me at eric@goldringtravel.com, call me at (877) 2G0-LUXURY in the U.S.; +44 20 8133 3450 in the U.K.; +61 7 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Budget Cruises Pitching Luxury: You Don't Get What You Pay For, You Only Think You Do...Because You Have a Bad Travel Agent!

Yesterday I performed a ship inspection of the Norwegian Cruise Lines's Norwegian Gem in New York City.  It was, to be sure, both interesting and educational, but more importantly, frustrating and even depressing.  I am not talking about the ship or the staff of the Norwegian Gem. Everyone was pleasant...at least the ones that acknowledged your existence.

I am talking about what I was looking for:  The elusive Luxury Cruise within a Mass Market Cruise.

While I had scheduled this inspection quite a while ago, just this past Wednesday, March 30, 2011,I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal:  "The Return of the Class System - Cruises Offer Private Areas and Perks to Lure New Passengers; Everyone Else Still Crowds by the Pool".  I thought it was rather ironic that by happenstance the WSJ published that article so soon after my March 25, 2011 article A Luxury Cruise: What is the "Industry Accepted Definition of 'Luxury'"? Does One Exist? .

Let me set the stage...and it has nothing to do with the ship:  Our hostess, Cherry, was actually a true "gem".  She cared, she was pleasant and she was concerned that we have a great experience and see everything.  But, as there can be, a truly arrogant travel agent was so abusive (for no reasons whatsoever) that she literally brought Cherry to tears.  I felt terrible, but as the day went on I could see there was an "arrogance of ignorance" in about 50% of these travel agents.  It was so uncomfortable for me that as I was departing I pulled Cherry aside and said, "I really appreciate you.  I am going to tell you something you probably won't believe.  I am one of world's top selling travel agents for Seabourn and I think you are fantastic."  Her sheepish smile was a breath of fresh air.

But that aside I looked at the famous Garden Villas - approximately 5,000 square feet of alleged private luxury.  Yes, you are in a segregated area of the ship...once you get there...and it has its own private spa and lounges, steam room, etc.  And, assuming you can have your eyes adjust to the intense purple, lime green and/or combinations thereof, you are faced with furniture that is supposedly Euro-design, but reminds me of IKEA (not "sort of like", but as in "actually sold by").  Trying to picture true luxury clients sitting in a semi-circular leather sofa with deep seats and low backs which is focused on smallish flat screen tv, just wasn't happening.  Or the Deluxe Owner's Suite, also with private areas and spa, but accessible only via a steep staircase and day-glo purple everywhere...except the dirty lounge chair covers that were red.  Or, to be sure, the Courtyard Villas - Penthouses with access of a shared semi-private glass-covered courtyard with lounges and a spa.

What I saw was large, very tacky, space with OK finishes that are more akin to Las Vegas (possibly even Reno) then what most luxury cruise clients would be looking for.  To be sure, however, these are expensive digs and the Garden Villas sell out on virtually every cruise.  I could, pompously say, "Money cannot buy you taste", but that would neither be fair or correct.  It is more that there is a market for everything and there most definitely is a market for people that want large, gaudy spaces with an air of exclusivity.  But that does not make that space a "luxury" one.  It merely makes it a large, gaudy space with an air of exclusivity.

And, remember, when you leave the confines of the exclusive areas you are hit smack in the face with the rest of the ship:  A treasure trove (for the cruise line) of onboard revenue making operations.  I do not think I will ever forget the look on a woman's face yesterday:  She just walked onto the ship, was handed an umbrella drink, took a sip and the bar waiter said, "May I have your room key?"  She said, "Why?"  followed by the shocking (for her) response, "We will just charge that drink to your room."  The woman was dazed and confused.  Other than a long wait in the cruise terminal that was her first NCL experience!

And then there is the food. You hear about Freestyle Dining and how great it is.  Television monitors are throughout the ship to let you know how long a wait you have if you want to dine in one of the many small venues..at extra cost.  And most of these venues are not enclosed, quaint, rooms, but rather more akin to shopping mall dining in open areas.

And while you think about the charges for the drinks and food, I want you to understand that in most of the accommodations the furnishings are so space that a mini-suite would be a standard veranda cabin on most lines and a standard oceanview or veranda cabin is so small that you are not even provided with a desk, but rather a wood-like tray affixed under the television.

Now it is time to sample NCL's food.  We were directed to some large tables in one of the main dining rooms, which was actually a fairly attractive space (relatively speaking?). I found most of the food to be inedible or close to it. So whether it was Asian ribs (flavorless and fatty) or a goat cheese salad (greens were fine, but that wasn't goat cheese or any natural product) or rib steak (not ribeye) that was very thin, previous cooked and fatty (it's only flavor), that is what the "luxury" guests in the Garden Villa is going to be eating!

So what does this have to do with bad travel agents? Let me continue!

The travel agents I sat with or otherwise met were essentially two types (other than that nasty woman): 

.....1.  Those that are alleged travel agents, being more concerned about which is the next highly discounted cruise they were going to take than the products they were going to sell; and,

.....2.  Those that had absolutely no idea about anything other than the lowest end of the market.  (I did speak with one who actually sold Holland America and one that was so adamant that Regent was the most luxurious cruise line, but had no idea why...other than she has one client that loves it.)

So me being me, I thought let me get a conversation about how travel agents discuss travel with their clients.  My favorite comment was from the most arrogant at the table who demanded that in order to see anything outside of the Caribbean you must take as many ship's tours as possible so that you can see everything.  When I asked her if she ever thought about, say, walking around the town and seeing how people live there, she responded that her clients aren't interested in the people, they want to see things.  Huh?  (Of all the travel agents I spoke to I don't think 30% had been outside the US or Caribbean.)

So I tried another tact and asked, "Why do your clients pick a particular cruise?"  They almost all told me that their clients were "Destination Driven" and really didn't care about the ship.  So I asked, "If that is the case, why don't they just fly there?"  Silence.  Not a single one had a clue.  I let them off the hook and said, "Don't you think if that was really the case they would all buy inside cabins and never spend a dime on the ship?" 

I pause and wondered to myself, "If the travel agents say their clients are destination orientated and they know little to nothing about the destination and, further, no little about anything other than the lower categories of cabins on mass market ships...that they insist their clients don't really care about...it is no wonder that the cruise lines can pitch this garbage about there being luxury cruises within mass market ships."  All any travel agent needs to do is find one "whale" (a gambling term") and the cruise line has an easy buy-in from that knowledgeless travel agent.

I was then asked a question about how I get people to purchase the more expensive cruises.  Aside from the fact that I don't "get" people to purchase more expensive cruises, I gave them a metaphor:  If the ship doesn't matter than, just like a plane, book them in Row 40 by the bathroom.  But do you think you clients might be willing to pay extra for a little more leg room, or possibly to sit closer to the front (so they can get their meals and drinks sooner)? Forget the First Class cabin...or should you?  Not a single one had ever thought of that.

Don't worry I wasn't thinking about the additional commissions those travel agents could have earned.  I thought about all those poor clients  - who blindly listened to their inept travel agent's advise - virtually sitting in Row 40 by the bathroom who would have purchased better seating, and even possibly first class accommodations, if they had been presented with the options and they were properly explained to them.

So where does that leave the novice cruise client who wants a luxury experience:  With most travel agents, worse than lost in the woods!  They have a guide that can't see the forest from the trees!

Make no mistake, if you are looking to spend over $22,000 for two people on an NCL seven day cruise in a Garden Villa ...before you have paid for drinks, specialty dining, gratuities, etc.  you will, without question, be spending $25,000.00 for your seven days of either exclusion or inundation of masses of mass market cruisers, or both, you just might want to speak with a travel agent that actually knows travel, understand the various products and can explain wherein the value lies.

And, after you make your decision, remember:  Plunking down $25,000 does not give you the right to redefine what luxury is.  It gives you the right to spend seven days on an NCL ship in a particular accommodation.  From my perspective, all I can say is, "You don't know what you are missing and, alas, if you stick with most travel agents, you will not have a chance to know."

As the Wall Street Journal said, you were "lured" into it...like a big ol' fish.  Doesn't sound so good, does it?  Blame your travel agent; not yourself.

And where does Goldring Travel fit into all this?  Do you find it shocking that one of the world's top sellers of Seabourn Cruises, the guy that sells the top suites on Crystal Cruises and other luxury experiences, would waste his time inspecting the Norwegian Gem?  I don't....because I am that travel agent that can specifically explain the differences and, to be sure, let you know what you are actually buying.

If you have any questions about luxury cruising please email me at eric@goldringtravel.com, call me at (888) SEABOURN or (877) 2G0-LUXURY in the U.S.; +44 20 8133 3450 in the U.K.; +61 7 3102 4685 in Australia; and +1 732-383-7398 elsewhere.