Friday, March 22, 2013

Celebrity Silhouette - How Upscale to Luxury is a Celebrity Cruise Experience? - Part II

Continuing with my pre-cruise discussion of our upcoming March 24, 2013 family cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette in two Concierge-Class staterooms, this is my third cruise on Solstice-class ships. 

I was invited on a Pre-Inaugural Cruise on the Celebrity Solstice (where I sailed in, and have ever since been sold on, Aqua Class). I wrote about my experience, of course and our family sailed on the Celebrity Equinox on a Holy Land cruise.  You can read all of the articles on the Goldring Travel Cruise Review page.

One thing you will notice is that Celebrity has tweaked and improved each iteration of the Solstice-class ships, so the Solstice (while a great ship) was improved upon when the Equinox was launched and the Silhouette has some features that are not found on either of those two ships.  For example, the Lawn Club (an acre of real grass...and very cool and relaxing) now has The Alcoves, where you can rent cabana-style areas where you can hang out for the day with fruit plates to picnic baskets to wine and cheese.

Celebrity also eliminated the Glass Blowing facility and added The Lawn Club Grill where you can grill your own meal with a Celebrity chef.

There are also some new spaces like the Hideaway

OK, now where is this cruise going and what is it that the Goldring Family has planned for this cruise?  Well, as a Caribbean cruise the ports really aren't that important to us and the plan is really just to have a nice, relaxing, time with a few cool things on the agenda.

Departing out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we will fly in the night before, have a relaxing morning and then head to the ship for an afternoon of exploration and relaxation.

Our first full day is a sea day.  My family loves sea days and it gives us a great opportunity to settle into our favorite areas of the ship, meet people and chill out (more). 

We then spend the day in Cozumel, Mexico where we have a family SCUBA diving day planned.  We are going to take a quick lesson, do a one tank dive from the beach, have a nice lunch and then head out to sea for a dive off of a boat down to 40 feet.  It will be the first diving experience for the kids and they are really looking forward to it.

The next day we arrive in Grand Cayman where, as you may know, there is a good chance we won't be able to disembark because it is a tender port and the seas sometimes prevent it.  Assuming we get ashore, my daughter has decided that she is hitting Seven Mile Beach for some sun.  As Stingray City, which we previously experienced, is not quite the same as what Bora Bora gave us a couple of years ago, and we will just have been diving, whatever we do it will be low key.

This is followed by our next sea day:  Falmouth, Jamaica.  I have never had a good experience in Jamaica and, honestly, after all of the aggressive taxi drivers and hawkers and the crime issues, none of us can think of a good reason to abandon all that the Celebrity Silhouette offers to endure that.  No complaints from any of us!

Our second "Big Day" is Labadee, Haiti where a day of Zip-Lining, Wave Riders and fun on the beach is planned. This is Royal Caribbean's highly acclaimed private island.  My wife was just there after being an Ensemble Travel Group host for a cruise on the Explorer of the Seas, so she is in charge.  My job:  Rum Punch taster!

Having been totally exhausted the day before, our final day is a day at sea for some rest and relaxation before returning to Fort Lauderdale.

You may have notices something not very typical for me:  I am "cruising" more than "traveling".  This cruise is more about the ship and a couple of activities.  There will not be any great cultural immersion.  No awesome culinary experience. No wine tastings at Chateau Margaux, Lynch Bages or Carmasac. 

As Jimmy Buffett sings, taking this cruise is a "License to Chill".

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Celebrity Silhouette - How Upscale to Luxury is a Celebrity Cruise Experience? - Part I

Our 13 year old daughter "decided" for the our family that she needed a Caribbean cruise for Spring Break and her 17 year old brother actually agreed with her.  Thus, despite my lack of love for most Caribbean ports, we are sailing on the Celebrity Silhouette on March 24, 2013.
Our choice of a Celebrity cruise was easy.  We have sailed on the Celebrity Millennium, Constellation, Solstice, Equinox, Mercury and Century; the first two on multiple occasions.  Why?  Because we believe (after sailing on many lines, from NCL to Royal Caribbean, to Holland America, etc.) that Celebrity provides not only "the best bang for your buck in the business", but the opportunity to have a more refined and upscale experience while also offering the children more than enough opportunities meeting their youthful interests.  As a result we have Celebrity Captain's Club Elite Status (but more on that later).
Full Disclosure:  While Celebrity is giving me some onboard credit, I am paying full price for this cruise without so much as a complimentary upgrade...not that, with our accommodations I would want one.  So what I am doing and what I am paying for is, almost without exception, exactly what you can do.
We booked this cruise early-on, so I have two Concierge-Class staterooms on the stern overlooking the ship's wash.  For a family with two teenagers this is, to me, a far better situation than booking a large suite because we have two separate bedrooms, two full bathrooms and sufficient privacy.  One nice feature on the Solstice-class ships is that the balcony dividers can be opened so that we will have one large balcony to enjoy as a family.  Opting for Celebrity Select (open seating) dining our gratuities are required to be prepaid. 
The price per each Concierge Class (Category C1) stateroom was $2,940.92 including gratuities, fees and taxes.  But by paying with my American Express Platinum Card I receive a $200 per stateroom onboard credit, two complimentary dinners in one of the specialty restaurants per stateroom ($50+ value) and a bottle of champagne per stateroom ($35+ value), bringing my cost per stateroom down to a very reasonable $2,655.92 (or $1,327.96 per person).
Because we enjoy a more inclusive cruise experience we always opt for Beverage Packages.  My wife and I take the Premium Beverage Package which includes most premium brands and a nice selection of good wines along with a 30% discount on any bottles of wine we may purchase.  The package, which must be purchased for the entire cruise is $54.00 + 15% gratuity per day, or $434.70 per person ($869.40 total) plus the kids Premium Non-Alcoholic Package at $18.00 + 15% gratuity per day or $144.90 per person ($289.80 total).  Thus our total cost for beverages for the cruise is $1,158.20.
But Celebrity allows us to be yet more inclusive!  Celebrity offers a number of Specialty Dining Packages where you can pre-pay for a number of specified specialty restaurants.  For example, a 5 Night Package at $139 provides you with one dinner at Murano, Qsine and Lawn Club and two at Tuscan Grill.  But there is another, very limited, option:  The Ultimate Dining Package costing $203 per person.  It gives you unlimited access to each venue for dinner, one lunch at Murano and Lawn Club, unlimited breakfasts and lunches at Bistro on Five and The Porch plus a Champagne High Tea at Murano.  We are opting for the Ultimate (which is capacity controlled) for the adults ($406 total cost) and the children with dine with us a couple of times...using the American Express Platinum benefits and otherwise dine at the Ocean Cafe buffet and use the complimentary room service.
Our Celebrity's Captain's Club Elite Benefits include, among other things:  Complimentary pressing of two garments (my wife's dresses are now taken care of); complimentary drying cleaning of one garment; a complimentary bag of laundry; 90 minutes of internet; access to a complimentary breakfast and pre-dinner cocktail lounge, Elegant Tea one afternoon and priority tender service.
I know.  I know.  I haven't even told you about what is included in the Concierge-Class Staterooms.  Other than an awesome location, each stateroom receives a bottle of Blanc de Blanc sparking wine (we now total four complimentary bottles of bubbly for this 7 night cruise!), upgraded bath amenities, fresh fruit, evening canapes, a private departure lounge (if I don't use the Elite one!), a pillow menu and more.
This brings the total cost for our cruise (aside from shore excursions and souvenirs) for a family of four sailing in two Celebrity Silhouette Concierge Class staterooms including all gratuities, beverages (plus 4 bottles of bubbly) and specialty dining to an extraordinarily reasonable $6,877.04.
At this point, knowing me, I just have to make the comparison to a Regent Seven Seas "free", "free", "free" cruise of a similar nature.  On March 22, 2013 the rather old, quirky and vibration-troubled, Regent Navigator sets sail out of Miami on a 10 day Caribbean cruise.  If I eliminate the balcony and great location/view by going with the least expensive Category H Oceanview Suite, go without a number of great alternative dining venues and severely limit my kids' options, and, of course a state-of-the-art cruise ship, I would be looking at a price of $18,396 and all I would be receiving extra would be about 100 square feet of space per cabin and a bathtub.  The net result is that the price per day for a family of four on Celebrity is $982 vs. Regent at $1,840.
Next Up?  A bit about the Celebrity Silhouette, the cruise and what we will have planned.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Aspirations in Luxury Cruising - Is Losing Staff a Good Thing?

During Cruise Shipping Miami's Upscale Cruising Panel was of great interest to me. 

While there were a number of interesting topics covered, it was the first time I could take in Silversea's new President of the Americas, Ellen Bettridge, and Seabourn's President, Rick Meadows and see their approaches side-by side.  Honestly, both were impressive with their mastery of their topics and their passion for their respective cruise lines.  Yet both have such different personalities.

And then the "aspirations" of the luxury cruise traveler were discussed.  Both had a sincere recognition that the luxury cruise guest is "aspirational" and that the experience of luxury travel is now more valued than the purchase of luxury goods.  (Luxury cars...well, that is another category!)

And then there was the head of VShips, a company that manages the crews, staff, hotel services, etc. and/or maintenance of all sorts of ships; including some cruise ships.  Its representative made some very interesting, and for me troubling, comments about staffing on cruise ships.  He extolled the virtues of Filipino staff because they are loyal and believe there is real value in their jobs.  And he claimed that Chinese see a cruise ship job as a life's career.  Meanwhile he asserted that it made no sense to hire staff that want to work for a couple of years and then open a restaurant or go to work in a hotel or something else.

Hearing that I said to myself, "Huh?" And then I asked a question of the panel, "With the luxury cruise guest being aspirational, do you believe having staff that is aspirational is a benefit or a detriment?"

Ellen Bettridge jumped right on it and said that having staff grow through the company is extremely important.  While, honestly, I have no idea the success rate in Silversea, I know that Seabourn has truly excelled in this area with people like Chris Prelog rising from restaurant staff to Vice President of Hotel Operations and Hotel Purchasing and Bjoern Wassmuth rising from a chef aboard the Seabourn Spirit to the Manager of Culinary and Beverage Operations.  (And, you may recall, there was a wonderful stewardess on my 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride that was taking her test to grow into a job as Purser.)

Bjoern Wassmuth (left)

But that is not the "aspirational" staff of which I was thinking.  I am thinking of staff that is looking forward to growing with Seabourn, learning everything they can and then move on to those jobs opening restaurants, working in hotel management, etc.  After the conference Rick Meadows and I had a bit of a private chat.  He said to me that Seabourn loves staff that look forward to growing and then moving on; asserting that it is great for Seabourn and its guests to have highly motivated young men and women who interact with Seabourn guests.  Essentially Rick believes having motivated staff that stays with Seabourn for two or three years and then grow into other jobs is great for the Seabourn guest experience.

Does Seabourn's approach cost more money as VShips seems to imply?  Honestly I am not sure.  If I hire intelligent, motivated, staff that aspire to something more than working on a cruises ship, they probably learn faster, take ownership of issues, discover ways to do things better and faster, and find it easier to "personally" interact" with their aspirational guests.  To me that is a great investment both for the company and the guests.

And, when they move on it should be a source of pride; not failure or an attack on the cruise line's bottom line at any particular moment and only as to one line item.  I, personally, believe luxury cruise ship staff and crew should be a source of pride because of their aspirations.

If my bar waiter says, "Good afternoon, Mr. Goldring!  How was your day?  Oh, I loved X.  Did you like it?  May I get you a glass of the Chablis you like?"  I like it a whole lot better than, "Good afternoon, sir. May I get you a drink?"   Do you agree?

As I close I remember one of the highlights of my cruise was when the stewardess was so excited to tell us that she did well on her test, but she still needed to work on a few things so it gives her something to work on.  Will she stay with Seabourn?  My guess is for a while, but her aspirations will have her wanting more.  I was blessed to meet her and she made my cruise experience more personal and more memorable.

I say crew turnover is a good thing...if for the right reasons.  Luxury cruise lines should be investing in their staff, nurturing their talents so that they grow...It adds a lot to the luxury cruise experience.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lindblad Expeditions Purchase Orion Expeditions

Orion Expeditions, an Australian luxury expedition cruise line, has been purchased by Lindblad Expeditions, owners of ten other expedition ships; five of then operating under the National Geographic moniker.

Orion, while having a unique and excellent product, has been struggling the past couple of years after it efforts to expand with a second ship went terribly wrong.  The second ship,Orion II, it seems, was not she was supposed to be and that resulted in cancelled cruises, increased maintenance costs and other issues.  Orion cancelled her association with Orion II after only one season; relegating her to a one ship cruise line...a most difficult position to be in.

What Orion brings to Lindblad is a high quality, luxury, expedition ship which specializes in the Australian North Coast and Southeast Asia.  The 102 guest Orion will become part of Lindblad's existing fleet in March 2014, when it transitions to the National Geographic Orion, and will offer new itineraries designed to blend the interests of the U.S. and Australian markets.

Lindblad, itself, has a great lineup of itineraries and ships which explore all regions of the globe in varying degrees of comfort and expedition styles.

If Expedition Cruising is of interest to you, drop me an email or give me a call.  It is a unique way to see the more remote areas of the world.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Seabourn Quest World Cruise: Enjoying the Spa...And Husbands (Sort of)

One of my clients on the Seabourn Quest 2013 World Cruise just sent me an email about her time in the Seabourn Quest's Spa.  I post it here for your enjoyment, inspiration and...


What's a cruise without spa appointments?  You can't just spend your time on tours or at lectures or eating or going to watercolor classes, can you?  It's time to hit the spa, located on Deck 9.  The Quest's facility is amazing, with lots of treatment rooms plus a huge meditation area with heated lounges surrounding a circular fountain, private spa villas that can be reserved for the day, hydro pools, gym, hair salon, water therapy and reflexology rooms, yoga classroom. --  you get the picture.  Oh, I forgot the New Age music and cucumber water ( the only part that's free).  

I've spent time there for manicures, pedicures and haircuts, but these appointments never took me into any  of those mysterious back rooms.  I decided it was time.

First assignment:  find some intriguing treatments.  Do I want facial therapies, massage therapies, or body therapies?  Hmmm.... Maybe one of each.  ( at this point Jeff is giving me the eye roll).  OK, here are some choices:  Thai Herbal Poultice Massage, Aroma Stone Therapy, Bamboo Massage, Seaweed Wrap, Ionitherapie Revitalizing Leg Therapy, Exotic Lime and Ginger Salt Glow and Massage, Frangipani Conditioning Hair and Scalp Ritual.  The list goes on.

I decide on the Lime and Ginger Salt Glow and Massage and the Frangipani Ritual.  I'm to show up at least 30 minutes early to "detox the mind".  This is going to be great!  The day arrives and I'm given a locker key, robe and slippers.  Off I go to "detox my mind" on the heated lounge chair.

The next thing I hear is "Ms. [Smith], time for your treatment.  How was your nap?"  OMG, I had fallen asleep.

In the treatment room I'm shown a tray filled with assorted disposable underwear.  I don the most attractive and dive under the heated towels.  In comes Claudia, a beautiful young woman who looks to be a size 2 teenager.  We start with warm oil dripped on my skin, followed by lovely smelling sandpaper  -- the ginger salt glow -- massaged everywhere.  This is great!

From somewhere in my past life I hear someone whispering, "Ms. [Smith], you can turn over now".  It's Claudia.  I had fallen asleep again.

Next is a scotch shower.  Then back under the towels for a full body massage.  Ah, I could live in this treatment room.

The Frangipani Conditioning Hair and Scalp Ritual follows, but there is a 15-minute lag time so it's back to the detox chair, this time sipping my cucumber water.

The hair ritual is marvelous!  I smell like a flower garden as the work continues.

Several hours later I emerge completely refreshed and looking less like the cover of Field and Stream. I meet my husband for a late lunch.  Looking up quickly from his laptop he asks, "When's your appointment?"

Monday, March 4, 2013

Oceania Cruises Ends Its "Never On Sale" Policy!

I  usually don't write about cruises going on sale because the cruise lines have sales of one sort or another pretty much every week or so.  But this one is newsworthy.

Oceania Cruises has, at least in the U.S., had a "Never on Sale" policy.  Combine that with some of the strictest penalty and cancellation policies in the business....with all cruises over 20 days having to be paid in full 180 days prior to sailing...and an absolute inability for travel agents to discount the cruise fare...only allowing added amenities  (Read: Oceania Cruises - A Little Less Consumer Friendly. Why? And What's The Good News?) and it clearly has built up a good bit of market-resistance.

Up until now what Oceania would do is offer passengers already booked deals if they also purchased the cruise immediately prior to or after the one they are booked on.  Or they would offer to move passengers over to slower selling cruises in a higher category or a longer itinerary at the same price.  Technically, I guess, it is not violation of the "Never on Sale" policy, but it most certainly is an endorsement of a heavy discounting policy so long as it is done by itself and not travel agents.

Today Oceania Cruises has announced that it is having a "Sale"...and it is calling it a "Sale".  From now until May 31st, if you book any of the nine cruises below you will receive a $500 Onboard Credit, Unlimited Internet, Pre-Paid Gratuities and "Free" Airfare:

  • August 16, 2013 - Riviera - Istanbul to Rome (12 days)
  • September 29, 2013 - Riviera - Lisbon to Monte Carlo (12 days)
  • October 25, 2013 - Riviera - Venice to Istanbul (12 days)
  • November 6, 2013 - Riviera - Istanbul to Barcelona (12 days)

  • October 29, 2013 - Marina - Venice to Barcelona (12 days)
  • November 10, 2013 - Marina - Barcelona to Barcelona (10 days)
  • December 8, 2013 - Marina (Rio de Janeiro to Valparaiso (20 days)
  • December 28, 2013 - Marina (Valparaiso to Papeete (18 days)

  • August 22, 2013 - Regatta - San Francisco to New York (21 days)

  • November 4, 2013 - Nautica - Barcelona to Barcelona (10 days)
I have done a quick check and these are legitimately "sale" pricing.  In fact, the base price for some of these cruises start at less per day than the cruises surrounding them.

If you are interested in of these sailings - especially in the lower categories of any stateroom type (Concierge, Penthouse, etc.) I would urge you to book these NOW as I am confident the best staterooms and suites will go quickly on these previously slow selling sailings. (Oh, the deposit has been cut in half too).

So give Goldring Travel a call or drop me an email.