Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You Say What? The 2013 Cruise Critic Cruisers Choice Awards: Money Can Buy You Love, Can't It?

This morning I awoke to a CNN headline about Regent Seven Seas Cruises having won a Cruise Critic award for best shore excursions.  I thought it must be part of that weird dream you have right before you wake up.  But no:  It was the Cruise Critic Cruisers Choice Awards.

Not so ironically, this morning I also received an alert about an eight-time Regent cruise who posted a review on Cruise Critic of his/her recent cruise on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner which, beside blasting the supervisors for being rude and berating the staff, stated, "The Excursion Department on the Mariner was an abomination. The worse staff of incompetent people I have ever met. Rude, nasty, uninformed, unprofessional, and just downright lousy people. They treated us like we were doing them a favor. None of them should ever have anything to do with the public. Never, never, on any cruise ship have we been treated like this. And after years of enjoying Regent ships were never encountered truly nasty employees treating guests like dirt...The staff at the Excursions Desk tried but did not ruin what was a overall nice experience. Even the lack of decent excursions didn't ruin the cruise. "

Then I read the next Mariner review and there was a complaint about waiting long periods of time for their tours, and then I read another detailed review documenting all of the failings of the Regent Seven Seas shore excursions.

So being frustrated enough with the Cruise Critic Award for shore excursions I carried on to the list of Best Small Ships and found, surprisingly, that the Azamara Club twins were rated No. 1 and No. 2, both 1,000+ passenger Crystal ships were in the top 10 as were two of Regent's 700+ passenger ships.  Aside from the fact that there is no objective way the Azamara Club ships are the two best (or even worthy of being in the top 10 of small ships), I continued my morning nightmare by looking at the rating of Best Cabins and despite their microscopic size, the Azamara Club cabins were in the Top 10 again, along with the portholed and balcony-less Wind Surf, and the spatially challenged Crystal Serenity.  While one Seabourn ship was on the list, its twin sisters were not; nor were any of the Silversea ships.

In short, redefining "small ship" and then encouraging (or at least not even trying to prevent) stuffing the ballot box, resulted in a ridiculous set of Awards that are worthy of nothing...other than being reported as "news".

BTW, if you really want to get disgusted by all of this:  Below every ship is a bright yellow "Check Prices" box where you can select up to nine advertisers to greet you with pop-up boxes for its offerings on that particular ship.

I wonder who voted?

I wonder who decided who won?

I wonder who put 700+ to 1,000+ passengers ships in the small ship category?

Don't tell me money can't buy love!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise - South America: Caviar, Beef, History & Natural Beauty!

The 2013 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise sets sail on November 13, 2013 aboard the Seabourn Quest for a seven day cruise from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Buenos Aires, Argentina. While this is the shortest (in length) Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise it will be one of the most interesting with a great diversity of experiences...and food & wine!


November 13, 2013 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
November 14, 2013 Ilhabela (Sao Sebastiao),Brazil
November 15, 2013 Paranagua, Brazil
November 16, 2013 Porto Belo, Brazil (Changed from Imbituba, Brazil) 
November 17, 2013 Sea Day
November 18, 2013 Montevideo, Uruguay (overnight)
November 19, 2013 Montevideo, Uruguay
November 20, 2013 Buenos Aires, Argentina 

(Remember the seasons are reversed from the Northern Hemisphere, so this cruise is near the beginning of the summer!  It will be warm.)

Before I discuss the itinerary I want you to know that I am really excited about one of the Goldring Travel Exclusive Experiences (complimentary, of course!) on our second day in Montevideo, Uruguay.  Seabourn procures all of its Caspian Sea caviar from an environmentally appropriate source:  Uruguay's Black River Caviar. 


While it is too far to travel to its aquaculture farms, I have arranged for Black River Caviar to bring its caviar (and some live sturgeon too) from its farm to a fantastic restaurant right in the famous Mercado in Montevideo. With a bit of coordination with the Seabourn chef, I can assure you a Champagne & Caviar Event that not only enrich your mind, but your body and soul. 

Setting up this event exclusive to Goldring Travel's clients, on our first day in Montevideo, I will be hosting the also complimentary Ensemble Experience.  After a tour of the city of Montevideo we head to La Puebla in Canelones where you will visit one of the country’s leading vineyards, H. Stagnari for a exploration of the winery, how the Stagnari family blends old and new technologies and then descend into the old cellar to sample various different high quality wines, including its most award-winning wine, “Old Tannat”.

When adding these two exclusive special events to the always amazing Exclusive Private Food & Wine Tasting created by combining my searching out of some really interesting local wines with the extraordinary talents of the Seabourn Chef and Sommelier, this will be a truly special cruise.



Oh, yes, and then there is the cruise which will allow us to visit not only some of the most famous South American cities, but some places that most people never get to visit no less explore.

As always, flying into the port city a day or so in advance makes great sense.  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has many great opportunities to explore including its famous beaches and the Christ the Redeemer statue.  But for me, one of the highlights is going to be enjoying the churrascaria, the famous Brazilian steakhouses!  Here is a video highlighting some things you can look forward to before boarding the Seabourn Quest.

After boarding the Seabourn Quest our first port of call is the island of Ilhabela (Sao Sebastiao), Brazil with its almost 20 miles of beaches, a coastal Atlantic rain forest, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, mountain peaks to climb and over 300 waterfalls cascading into the ocean...and a marine sanctuary. I am looking into a possible tour to visit a Cai├žaras village where these descendants of the local Indians mixed with Portuguese and African slaves live sustainable lives.



Our next port is Paranagua, Brazil which is a popular beach resort...and it is only a short boat ride to Ilha do Mel (Honey Island) a tranquil island where automobiles are prohibited.  Besides the beach, shopping for handicrafts and black pottery, the seaside is famous for its "por quilo" (all you can eat restaurants).

Not yet confirmed, our next port is believe to be Porto Belo, Brazil(The originally scheduled port has decided it cannot properly handle the Seabourn Quest...Oh well.)   Porto Belo is another naturally beautiful port, but with a twist. Close by is Blumenau, an essentially German village built by the large number of Germans who immigrated there in the 1850's.  Personally, I am in "negotiations" with Seabourn to arrange a Caviar in the Surf day here!

A sea day follows and that means the aforementioned 2013 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tasting and a day to relax and enjoy everything the Seabourn Quest has to offer.

It is then two glorious, and very busy, days in Montevideo, Uruguay. Because we overnight here there is time to really enjoy this vibrant city with some world class architecture, cuisine and wines. You can also simply "go local" and take an evening stroll along La Rambla.  Check out this video.

Our cruise comes to an end in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but one should not simply hop on a plane to fly home if not required.  From tango, to shopping to opera to fine dining, Buenos Aires offers so much.  Here is a video to whet your appetite.  It is also a great place to head out to Iguazu Falls or the mountains where Bariloche is located.


Prices for this cruise, with Goldring Travel's special pricing - and including all of the special events - starts at $3,500 per person (including all fees and taxes) for an oceanview suite.  Of course, Goldring Travel has some special offers for hotels in both Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

If you are interested, call Goldring Travel at (877) 2GO-LUXURY in the U.S. In the UK: 020 8133 3450, Australia: (07) 3102 4685, International: +1 732 578 8585 or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.

Carnival Triumph Analysis: What the Horrific Crash at the Daytona Speedway Teaches Us.

It seems that just about every travel conversation of late at least mentions the Carnival Triumph ordeal.  Frankly, I am pretty tired of it.  A terrible accident yesterday at the Daytona Speedway proved my point.

Just before the finish line there was a terrible accident involving 10 cars (one of which was literally sent airborne).  It was so bad that 28 fans sitting in the stands were injured, three quite seriously.  But...and this is the point...every single driver walked way from the accident, including the driver of the car that went airborne, without injury.

Daytona Speedway Crash - Courtesy of Reuters
So what does this have to do with the Carnival Triumph and cruise ship design?  Absolutely everything. 

This past week, while at the International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates (IFTTA) North American Conference we discussed the Carnival Triumph and the points raised in my recent article in Travel Market Report, VIEWPOINT: Let’s Get Real About Cruise Safety

As an example I argued that there is a definite economic component to the safety of any vehicle...including automobiles.  I argued that we have the technology to make our cars far safer than they are and race cars prove the point.  It sort of started with 5 mile per hour bumpers being a safety issue, but too expensive.  Later airbags became the safety issue, but with a cost.  And now it is sacrificial engines (finally) where the engine is collapsed downward rather than forced into the passenger compartment. 

But why, even with these improvements, aren't our automobiles safer?  I mean do you think you could take your present car, have it rammed, lofted airborne and then walk away from the accident?  Didn't think so. But the technology to do it exists!

The answer is simple and two-fold: 

  • You are not willing to pay for it.  It would price of the car you drive would be out of price range.

  • Some of the fancy things you have in your car - if safer - will not fit because of all of the safety equipment.
Turning to the Carnival Triumph, with all of the "experts" claiming that keeping the passengers and crew safe with a fire onboard and essentially no power for days was simply not enough I have to ask:
  • How much more are you willing to pay for your cruise to avoid the issues that happened once in how many thousands of cruises?

  • What amenities (public spaces and in your stateroom) you are willing to eliminate so that all of these safety systems can be installed?
Now, let's talk about the fencing that was supposed to protect those 28 injured fans...28 more than were injured on the Carnival Triumph...No, I don't want to get into how many millions of NASCAR  fans are not injured watching races.  Just sayin'!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Selling a Regent Seven Seas Cruise: Do Travel Agents Have Any Liability to Their Clients?

Over the past two days I attended the International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates' (IFTTA) North American Conference.  As a member, I presented a talk on "Whether Regent Seven Seas Cruises' "Free","Free", "Free" Marketing Violates Consumer Fraud or Other Consumer Travel Laws?" If you didn't understand my disdain for Regent's business practices before you will now!

During my presentation I asked of the audience questions such as:
  • How there could be "free" air or hotels when you get a credit if you don't use them?;
  • How can there be "free" pre-paid gratuities since you can't pre-pay for something that is free?
  • How can you have "free" unlimited shore excursions when the shore excursions have limit capacity and are not of the quality Regent offered when they weren't allegedly free (30 guest on one bus vs. today's 50 passengers x 4 buses going to the a location)?
  • How can you have the highest cruise fares in the industry (obviously used to pay for all of this "free" stuff) when the rate on arguably similar lines offering arguably similar experiences except for the "free" air, hotel and tours?
In other words, there is a significant difference between offering a "More Fully Inclusive" Experience rather than a "Luxury" one with "Free" stuff. 

And, of course, there is the issue of whether having 200 passengers arriving at a tourist location is a "luxury" or "six star" experience.  There is a difference between what is called "puffery" and dishonesty.  So using the term "trip of a lifetime" or "beautiful" may well be fine, but "luxurious" may cross the line from puffery to misleading.

Now, before going further, I want to mention that earlier in the day another attorney discussed the potential liability travel agents may have to clients for not providing them with the necessary information to make an informed choice. 

One travel lawyer, the Honorable Thomas Dickenson, in his treatise, Travel Law, asserts that there is wide-ranging liability for all travel agents. Other travel lawyers, including Alexander Anolik, Esquire - a conference attendee - disagrees and believes there should be different levels of potential liability based upon what type of travel agent you deal with. (By the way, both are, like me, members of IFTTA, and they are true "heavyweights" in travel law.)

This led to a rather lively discussion about whether there should be two different types of travel agents:  Travel Consultants and Fulfillment Agents and the standards they should be held to.  What's the difference? 
  • "Fulfilment Agents" are internet companies like Cruise.com, Vacations-to-Go, Expedia, Travelocity, etc., as well as a number of travel agents that we refer to as "Order Takers". These entities have personnel that really don't have much knowledge about  cruises, hotels, etc., and pretty much only provide you with the marketing information provided by the cruise line...and you, the traveling public, make your own decisions without any real input from the Fulfillment Agent

  • "Travel Consultants", like Goldring Travel, offer information based upon personal knowledge, experience and research...and you, the traveling public, rely upon this additional information when making your vacation decisions.
Now, with Goldring Travel clearly being a Travel Consultant, it raises the issue of, "What are my duties to you as a cruise client?"  It is my opinion that I have an obligation NOT to provide you with what I believe is misleading or false advertising...and I obviously believe Regent Seven Seas Cruises advertisements are false and misleading. 

Take a moment to read this recent review of a Regent Seven Seas Cruise review posted on Cruise Critic by someone who booked through an internet cruise agency: It Sounded Much Better Than It Was.

Now, take a look at the case of Vallery v. Bermuda Star Line, Inc., 141 Misc.2d 395 (1988), 532 N.Y.S. 2nd 965 (1988).

The similarities (and, in fact, the worse scenario on the Regent cruise) are fairly shocking.  In case you don't want to read that whole decision, in the Bermuda Star Line case the court stated, in relevant part:

General Business Law § 349 (a) provides that: "Deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in this state are hereby declared unlawful."  Section 350 provides that: "False advertising in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in this state are hereby declared unlawful."...Deceptive acts and practices and false advertising may be established by one's capacity to deceive or mislead (Matter of State of New York v Colorado State Christian Coll. of Church of Inner Power, 76 Misc.2d 50).
The test as to whether the representation is deceptive or misleading is measured not against the standard of a reasonable person but against the public, including the unwary or unthinking consumers who buy on impulse motivated by appearances and general impressions as affected by advertising and sales representations. The test is not whether the average man would be deceived but the individual consumer's sensitivity and vulnerability are to be considered in determining the validity of the advertising or sales representations. (People v Volkswagen of Am., 47 A.D.2d 868; Beslity v Manhattan Honda, 120 Misc.2d 848; Geismar v Abraham & Strauss, 109 Misc.2d 495.)
In the instant case, claimants were induced into purchasing tickets for the Bermuda cruise from the printed material and pictures in the brochure, and the representations made by defendant's agent.  The brochure provides that the S. S. Bermuda Star is "a very special kind of luxury" with "impeccable taste, in the design and furnishings of the beautifully appointed lounges, dining room and cabins." The vessel is described as a "first class ship."
The printed description of the staterooms in defendant's brochure and the representations made by its agent misled claimants to believe that the category 1 cabins were beautiful and luxurious staterooms and that was the type of cabin claimants contracted for...Claimants offered into evidence a picture of their cabin which did not resemble the pictures of staterooms in the brochure. The category 1 is listed as an "extra spacious deluxe" cabin and is the most expensive cabin on the S. S. Bermuda Star.

So here is Eric Goldring, of Goldring Travel, sitting with a stack of Regent Seven Seas Cruise brochures and other marketing materials that are more than troublesome.  What do I do knowing that a prospective client is going to be relying on my advice (or may claim to be if things go terribly wrong) or even that I may be knowing distributing false and misleading advertising? 

The IFTTA audience, after chuckling at some of the Regent statements and my comments, was uniform in not coming to Regent's defense and with suggestions that it is up to the various States Attorney Generals to go after Regent Seven Seas for its misleading advertising.  But there was one attorney there who represented one of large internet cruise agencies who essentially said, "I would tell me client to offer the materials and just let the customer make their own decision."  Yes, that right, the idea is for you, the customer, to do all the work and the internet cruise agency to collect a nice commission for doing nothing...and then saying, "You have nobody to blame but yourself!"

What Goldring Travel does is simple.  Until the appropriate government agencies start cracking down on Regent Seven Seas Cruises false and misleading advertising, I will write articles like this to inform my clients and go through the exercise I have many times explaining to my clients that Regent not only isn't giving you anything for "free" it is actually charging you more than what you would pay if you bought the same (actually better) airfare, hotels and tours on your own and sailed on another cruise line (premium or luxury).

I have written a number of times about the falsity of not only Regent Seven Seas Cruises "free" marketing, but also of it being a great value when compared to Celebrity and Holland America.  You can read my articles on this as well.  Here are two:

Why You Need A Knowledgeable Travel Agent - Regent Seven Seas, Using "Fuzzy Math", Goes After the Premium, Not Luxury, Market


Regent Seven Seas vs. Holland America - Really? Let's Talk Ethics

So for those of you that complain that I criticize Regent Seven Seas Cruises because I am a Seabourn loyalist, know that you are wrong.  I criticize Regent because I have an obligation to be make sure that I am not a party to selling my clients something other than what they actually desire or, possibly more importantly, think they are getting. 

But in the end, if they desire an overpriced cruise with uneven service because it is the most fully inclusive experience I will gladly sell it to them.  Note:  There is not a single client that has come to me, been educated and then - after the misleading marketing was stripped away - booked a Regent cruise.  Not one.

So if you are interested in having a true Travel Consultant provide you with real information, real insight and honest opinion, call or email Goldring Travel. 

Remember, if you don't, you just may have nobody to blame but yourself!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seabourn's New Ship - Some Postulating...and the New Spa Penthouses

The big news this week has been Seabourn's announcement that over the next two years it is going to say goodbye to the three circa 1989-1990 triplets, the Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend.

Honestly, I find it most interesting that the big news isn't Seabourn's announcement that it is building a fourth Odyssey-class ship.  Possibly more accurately, that it is somehow bad news because of a totally false rumor started that Seabourn is not going to build that ship, but one that holds 600+ passengers (let's leave out the word "guests").



First, let's address the rumor:  Seabourn is not - that is NOT - building a 600+ passenger ship.  So how did this rumor start?  Seabourn's president, Rick Meadows, in a rather innocuous release said the following two sentences:
  • "Seabourn is already in discussion with shipbuilders and an order is likely to be announced within the current fiscal year. The new ship will allow Seabourn to maintain much of its current guest capacity."

  • "We do not have final details at this time but the capacity of the newbuild will be near the capacity of Pride, Spirit and Legend (combined). It will be more or less. Stay tuned for more news later on this year."
Now, consider this:  Seabourn has 1,974 berths and will retain that number until April 2014. When the Seabourn Pride leaves the fleet in April 2014, Seabourn will have 1,766 berths until the Spring of 2015 when the other two ships leave, resulting in a reduction from its currently existing berths of 624.

OK, so those creating the rumor say, "See, 624 berths.  That's what the new ship is going to have!  Seabourn as a luxury cruise line is over. OMG!"  Hold on there, Halfpipe!  Take a breath and read further.

Before we get to the new ship, there is some pretty cool news that, for publicity reasons I don't understand, has flown under the radar:  Seabourn is converting some of the truly underutilized Spa (which is by far the largest of any luxury line) into four Spa Penthouses.  These will be installed on the Seabourn Quest in its scheduled drydocking in June.  The four dramatic new suites will be located directly above the Spa and will be accessed by means of a spiral staircase in the lobby of the spa.  These suites will boast views over the ship's wash (my favorite!), larger verandas, special Spa Showers, unlimited access to the spa’s Serene Area, as well as spa amenities in the suite itself and the services of a spa concierge during the voyage. These new Spa Penthouse suites will also be added to Seabourn Odyssey and Seabourn Sojourn during those ships’ next scheduled drydocks...and, obviously, will be installed on the new-build as well. So let's see, that is 4 suites x  2 "guests" per suite x 4 ships = 32 newly created berths.

OK, now we just cut the 624 just sold berths down to 592.  And if Seabourn were to do nothing other than build an identical Odyssey-class ship there would be the addition of 450 new berths.  That brings the berth reduction down to 142...or slightly more than one half of one of the triplets...if nothing changes.

It is now time to actually read Rick's words in both of the sentences above:  "much of its current capacity" and "near the capacity of" the triplets.  In other words, as plain as the nose on your face, there will be a slight reduction in capacity.

Before you go (again) OMG, let's look at a bit of recent history.  The Seabourn sisters (now known as the Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Quest) were announced in 2006 with a roaring stock market, a housing boom and a world flush with disposable cash.  When the Seabourn Odyssey was delivered in 2009 - despite being a true game-changer in the luxury market - the financial outlook also changed dramatically and the pricing and demand for luxury cruises (and cruises generally) softened.

But there is another part to the story of soft markets and financial challenges:  The Seabourn triplets were long ago destined to be eliminated from the Seabourn fleet.  They are old and their design and engineering limitations were becoming significant issues...which is why, in part, the Odyssey-class ships were created rather than the triplets simply mimicked.  The triplets have no true balconies, alternative dining options are limited, the suite layout has some design challenges and the marble bathrooms (though functional) are relatively small for a luxury ship.  What was sleek and state-of-the-art in 1987 (when they were designed) was two decades (yes, 20 years) later a bit long-in-the-tooth.  Oh, and they are relatively slow, burn a lot more fuel and more than a quarter-century old, need a good bit of maintenance, repair and replacements. 

The question was never "if" the Seabourn triplets would go, but "when"...And let's face it with the new ships announced in 2006 (and known about in 2005) these wonderful yachts have stayed in the Seabourn fleet for another decade.  Think about that.  That is pretty darn remarkable. So for any of those that want to say, "I told you so." I say, "If you wait long enough...like a decade...eventually you just might be right."  (How about the predictions in 2006 that the stock market would reach 14,000.  True Genius??? Not with the terrible ride into 2013...but you were correct!)

Now let's add another factor:  Shipyards are hurting.  Remember 5-10 years ago it seemed that the cruise lines were adding a new ship or ships every month.  And they were bigger and more expensive.  How many new ships have been built in the last three years?  Not many.  And with the sluggish economy (especially in Europe) there is not a huge prospect for a new boom in cruise ship building near term.  (And commercial shipbuilding is in even worse shape!)  So shipyards are - without exaggeration - desperate for new business.  And that means lower prices and better terms for the cruise lines.

It is now 2013, the American economy is starting to pick up, the European economy is in shambles, cruise shipyards are desperate and willing to make deals, the Seabourn triplets are in need of some serious upgrading to stay competitive in the luxury market (and will still lack true balconies, etc.) and Seabourn's new management has a couple of years under their belt and far better understand the product and have the ordeal of putting its new systems in place pretty much behind them.

Now is the time to make a move!  But they need to offload the triplets in a way that it doesn't create real competition for them.  Fortuitously for both, Windstar's new owner is flush with cash and wants/needs to expand (you can read my recent article on this) and Windstar's market is upscale, but not luxury...making the triplets an awesome addition in that market, but because the products are so different not a lot of competition for Seabourn.  It is a win win.

OK, now back to the new Seabourn ship.  If you have ever been on the Seabourn Odyssey-class ships you know that other than for about an hour or so on port days in the Colonnade or a few sailaways at the Sky Bar there are really no crowded areas on the ship.  In fact, there is a huge...and I mean huge...amount of space that is rarely used (such as Deck 11 where the putting green is located or overlooking the bow where the lounges are) just like on Deck 10 where the new Spa Penthouses will be located.  And where people do congregate it is almost always more than comfortably spacious.

So, what if Seabourn was to increase the capacity of the new ship by say a mere 10-15%?  That would add between 45 and 68 guests that would essentially not be felt anywhere on the ship even if all of the space on Deck 11 were eliminated. 

Now let's get back to the math.  We are looking to get "near the capacity" of the triplets and have quickly reduced the lost berths to 142.  By adding a mere 10%, or 45 berths, we are now down only 97 berths...out of 1,974.  That would be 95% of the current capacity.  And to me that is most certainly "near the capacity" without being the same.

But there is one other factor you have not considered.  (I bet almost nobody reading this article has thought of this!) Seabourn has historically been able to earn more money (not just charge higher fares) on the Odyssey-class ships because they are new, state of the art, efficient ships.  So even with a 5% reduction in berths, Seabourn will be in a position to earn more money with slightly less inventory...and with the triplets regularly sailing at less than 100% capacity, the math becomes even more exciting...and at no real cost to the loyal Seabourn guest.

Can I, with authority, state that is what Seabourn has in mind?  No. But it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me.

Champagne and Caviar anyone?



Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cruise Critic Fosters, and is the Home of, Irresponsible Gossip, "Windstar Purchases Half of Seabourn's Cruise Ship Fleet"

Today Cruise Critic, one of the most irresponsible sources for alleged cruise information on the internet, posted an attention grabbing headline that is just plan false and intended unfairly stir and inflame innocent people.

Now, let me show you why Eric Goldring is one of the top travel agents out there:  I find the truth and let you know about it.  And then you rely upon me to assure you that the rumor you heard is not true and the ridiculous claims you read on Cruise Critic are fabrications.  (Trust me, I do this pretty much every day!)

So Cruise Critic post the headline "Windstar Purchases Half of Seabourn's Cruise Ship Fleet".  It is just not true. Windstar purchased three smaller older ships while Seabourn announced it was building a fourth Odyssey-class ship thereby reducing its capacity by a mere 8% or less...not now, but in over a year. 

Let's first do the math:  Seabourn has 1,974 berths and will retain that number until April 2014.  Seabourn then retains 1,766 berths until the Spring of 2015.  But Seabourn is also building a new ship which will have around 450 or so berths, so when that happens Seabourn will have (or will be about to) have 1,800 berths or slightly more.

So, while Seabourn sold three ships, it is never reducing its berths below 1,800 if everything goes according to plan and will have four essentially brand new ships.

Now, let's ask the question: Why would Cruise Critic make it sound like Seabourn was cutting its capacity in half?

Let me see.  Can it be that hard?  Could it be to sell advertising while prostituting the very basis for its alleged existence?  Why yes.  Yes it is.

I recall quite vividly Cruise Critic's comments regarding the Carnival Triumph ordeal and how it was so quick to blast the cruise line...inaccurately I might add, "’I can’t think of a worse way they could have handled it, whether as a maritime issue or as a PR issue,’ said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com" as quoted by The Huffington Post.

It is time to call Cruise Critic what it is:  A rag that prostitutes itself for the almighty marketing dollar by exploiting the fears and emotions of people just trying to enjoy going on a cruise. 

Oh, but if you want to get together with other people that read Cruise Critic, it will also give you the opportunity to do that...and to buy Cruise Critic gear so you can recognize each other. 

Just as its sister entity TripAdvisor has been ordered by regulators to eliminate any reference to be being a "trusted" source,  any notion that Cruise Critic is trusted needs to be...buried at sea.

Windstar's CEO, Hans Berkholz, Sets the Course for Its New "Power Yachts" (The Seabourn Pride, Spirit and Legend)

This afternoon I received a telephone call from Hans Birkholz, the CEO of Windstar Cruises to discuss its acquisition of the Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend. It was a great, and very informative, conversation.



Here are some details that I am sure you are dying to know, but didn't know were to find the answer.  (Of course, Goldring Travel is the place!)
  • The triplets have been purchased by Windstar, but are being leased back to Seabourn through 2014 (Seabourn Pride) and 2015 (Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend).  Because of this arrangement any question of the ships being properly maintained should be answered.  There is no way that Seabourn is going to put out an inferior product or Windstar is going to not put the money into its ships so they can deliver their decidedly different product (see below).

  • The ships' itineraries will, in large part, be consistent with Windstar's favoring seven day cruises, but will extend a good number of the power yachts' sailing to 10-11 days. There will also be back-to-back opportunities.  Hans gave me the sense is that there will be more seven day cruises in, for example, the Greek Isles and longer cruises in Northern Europe and South America.

  • The ships will be remained, but what those names are (or may be) aren't being released just yet.

  • The ships will not be kept as true luxury ships, but will be operated in the Windstar's "casually elegant" manner, so you can leave your tie...no less your tuxedo (or gowns/cocktail dresses)...at home.  Put another way, as I said in my first article, expect consistency of product among all of the Windstar ships.

  • Windstar's product is not defined as "luxury-inclusive", though you can "lux-up" your cruise to some degree.  It offers the following

    • All meals in all venues
    • All non-alcoholic beverages
    • Welcome Cocktail at reception
    • Fresh fruit and flowers in stateroom
    • All onboard entertainment
    • Use of fitness facility
    • Use of watersports equipment
    • Port lectures and briefings
    • Transportation to most shore excursions 
    • You may purchase an optional "Luxury as You Like It" beverage package for $98 per day if you would like that in-suite bar stocked and an open bar policy.
    • Gratuities are charged to your shipboard account at $12 per person per day.
    • All purchased beverages and wine have a 15% gratuity added to the price.

  • The staff will, as with the present Windstar sailing yachts, be Filipino and Indonesian, which is another change both culturally and stylistically.
In summary, Hans speaks of Windstar in terms of "sailing yachts" and "power yachts" providing an elegantly casual experience that is, in my opinion, a premium product.  Windstar has no desire to be another Seabourn and is not going to be marketing its "power yachts" as a product similar to Seabourn's.  It is, of course, Windstar...and Windstar is very proud of its product and its loyal guests!

So what does this mean to you, the cruising public?  It means that if you love the idea of a casual cruise on a small ship that used to be a bit above your budget in a year or two you will be able to enjoy an intimate cruise in a lovely suite. 

What I don't know is pricing.  It could be that by offering some great itineraries Windstar will be able to fill its power yachts with guests that might have otherwise opted for a suite on Princess or Royal Caribbean or upper category staterooms on Oceania or Celebrity.

Yes, I know, there are more questions unanswered.  But isn't this fun?  Doesn't it make you want to get on a cruise right now? 

If you have any questions or want to book your Seabourn or Windstar cruise, drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or UK: 020 8133 3450 AUS: (07) 3102 4685 International: +1 732 578 8585

Seabourn Cruise Line Adds Another Odyssey-Class Ship and Sells The Triplets. Windstar Adds Yachts to its Sails, but Not Sails to Its New Yachts.

Seabourn Cruise Line has announced the sale of its triplets (Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend) to Windstar Cruises commencing in April 2014.


With Seabourn's contemporaneous announcement that it will be building a fourth Odyssey-class ship with construction probably starting within the next six months, it has decided to retain approximately the same number of berths and gradually sell-off the triplets.

The Seabourn Pride, the oldest ship, will depart the fleet after the end of its currently announced itineraries in April 2014.

With Seabourn new ship planned to be completed in 2015, the Seabourn Spirit will depart the fleet in April 2015 and the Seabourn Legend will depart the fleet in May 2015.

What does it mean for Seabourn's present six ship fleet?  Honestly, a bit of emotional disappointment for those that truly love the smallest, most intimate, luxury ships and a bit of a gamble that the Seabourn product will be a sufficiently superior and stylistically different product (service, cuisine and itineraries) to that which Windstar resulting in a streamline of both guest expectations and operating costs.

What does it mean for Windstar?  With its new ownership apparently flush with cash, there is no question that Windstar is working on becoming the "new" upscale cruise product.  Is this exciting?  Absolutely.  Are there concerns?  Absolutely.

Trying to be honest, and not pessimistic, the older Seabourn triplets have their problems and limitations.  The ships are old. As I write this I am staring at a commemorative t-shirt from the Seabourn Pride's 1988 Inaugural cruise and a poster from the Seabourn Legend's 1996 naming ceremony.  Over the past years Seabourn has done a nice job of keeping these ships running, but they require millions of dollars of upgrades and then they still lack the very much in demand balconies.  (I have had discussions with Seattle about how to renovate the triplets in a cost-effective manner...and it was not an easy exercise!)

There are also operational issues as the older ships are not able to readily comply with the newer environmental regulations nor can they travel on longer itineraries without taking more time and far more fuel per guest.

The Seabourn Spirit cannot visit Alaska any more
due to its inability to comply with modern environmental regulations.

That said, having one of the triplets in French Polynesia is a fantastic opportunity for Windstar.  (Wonder where I came up with that?)

And having hardware that can comfortably transport Windstar's guests for more than seven days at a time is a huge boon to its business model.  (Even my mother noted the limitation of Windstar's current cabins - no balconies and small.)

At this point there are years to sort out the guest side of things, with speculation as to where the ships will go, etc.

So let's take a breath and have our first reality check:

  • The Seabourn crew is sticking with Seabourn.  With a new ship on its way and the Seabourn product being heavily reliant on European/South African staff, there is a home for all of them.  Remember the new ships hold 450 guests vs. 208 on the triplets. (The word is already out that Seabourn has sent a letter to every crew member on the triplets guaranteeing them a job.)

  • Seabourn is modernizing its fleet while it has been "struggling" to maintain the older ships that are economically difficult to profit from more to appease the older Seabourn guests...as the Seabourn demographic gets younger and the demand for larger spas, fitness rooms, balconies, alternative dining, etc. has grown.  Financial success is a good thing.  Having ships that best meet the demands of Seabourn's growing client base is the first best step in that regard.

  • Seabourn will be able to expand its itineraries.  If there is one thing I hear all to often is that Seabourn needs new itineraries.  With the slower and environmentally/operationally challenged triplets, meeting that demand was been a struggle.  With newer, faster, more economical...and more luxurious...ships, I am very confident you will see expanded and unique itineraries.  (I will miss some of the smaller ports that now will not be options, though.)

  • Windstar has an already aging fleet of essentially single purpose ships that have limited capabilities.  While I love the concept, Windstar has struggled through multiple owners (including Carnival Corp.) trying to make it work, the new ownership "gets it" and understands that it needs different hardware...and it needs it sooner than later.  Am I a bit concerned about "the best laid plans"?  Absolutely, but that may be in large part because I really don't know - yet- the new ownership of Windstar.  That said, I like what I see!

  • Windstar is presently a "couples" type of cruise with a younger demographic and an upscale casual feel.  It is going to be interesting to see what changes are made to both the hardware and the message.  (Some of the inside marketing planning I have seen makes it clear that Windstar is not going to be focusing on an older demographic, but will stress the Windstar product in a slightly more upscale manner.
Now, should anyone perceive this as a death knell for Seabourn?  Or even something to worry about?  Let's take a very quick look.  Seabourn is building a fourth Odyssey-class ship. (Should I mention that Regent has been talking about building a new ship for about a decade...and nothing has happened while its fleet ages, its prices skyrocket and its bottom line well...bottoms out?)  As for sales, I don't know what other travel agencies are doing, but for Goldring Travel:  We have already sold as many Seabourn cruises for 2013 as we sold for all of 2012. 

As the number one selling agent of Seabourn cruises in the world, Eric Goldring, is confident that while it is emotionally hard to see part of the Seabourn family depart, it is pretty exciting to know there will be a new member of the Seabourn family and that the older hardware will wind up in good hands and with a life other than being scrapped.

In short: Seabourn wins.  Windstar wins.  And you, the cruising public, wins.

If you have any questions or want to book your Seabourn or Windstar cruise, drop me an email at eric@goldringtravel.com or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or UK: 020 8133 3450 AUS: (07) 3102 4685 International: +1 732 578 8585

Monday, February 18, 2013

Eric Goldring, of Goldring Travel, Article in Travel Market Report on Cruise Safety and Perspective


VIEWPOINT: Lets Get Real About Cruise Safety
VIEWPOINT: Lets Get Real About Cruise Safety


 
VIEWPOINT: Let’s Get Real About Cruise Safety

Luxury cruise seller Eric Goldring puts last week’s events on the Carnival Triumph in perspective for his fellow travel agents.

Bad things happen. For agents, making sure the rarity of the Carnival Triumph situation is understood by clients is only the first part of our job.

Acknowledging the Carnival Triumph situation is “bad” – and then looking at it realistically as an opportunity to show how the cruise industry is evolving positively and how cruise ship design bodes well for the cruise guest (though without looking through rose-colored glasses) – is key.
Eric Goldring
eric goldring

Consider the positives
Maybe because I suffered through Superstorm Sandy and went two weeks without electricity (save a small generator), heat or water, it is a bit easier for me to focus on positives such as:
• the compliments given to the Carnival staff and crew
• the ship’s officers keeping guests well-informed (even if not minute-by-minute as some craved)
• Carnival Corp. focusing on passenger retention rather than the first-quarter bottom line, by offering a refund, hotel and transportation, free cruise, plus $500. (That is far better than my power company sending me an estimated bill for a full month’s electricity for the period I went without power, while communication during the Sandy ordeal itself was nil.)

The fact is the safety systems worked. In these very rare instances, the laws and safety regulations do not require the cruise to continue unabated, but rather that everyone be kept safe.

We don’t know why there was a fire or why the engines failed, but we do know that nobody died or was even seriously injured. Though not pristinely, everyone was kept safe, hydrated and fed until they were returned to port.

Just the facts, please
Some perspective: How rare is this sort of event? CNN reports that there were four fires aboard cruise ships in 2011; there were two fatalities, both crew members, in one of those instances. In 2010 and 2009 there was one fire-related incident, with no serious injuries.

In fact, in the decade ending in 2011, there were 223 million cruise passengers, with only 28 deaths (crew and passenger). That is safer than driving or flying to the cruise port!

What’s not being said
Now, the unspoken truth: Making a cruise ship that could continue to operate in this sort of (very rare) situation would be so expensive that the contemporary cruise market would collapse.

The changes required would cost a huge amount of money, both in design and equipment costs. Moreover, the design changes required would reduce passenger space on the ship significantly. With four-day Carnival cruises starting at less than $300, the math is not difficult – something would have to give.

And we must remember, with the Carnival Triumph ordeal, we are not talking about saving lives, but improving passenger comfort – nothing more.

The price of passenger comfort
To this last point, ensuring passenger comfort, this is a discussion that is had whenever a new ship (or plane or car) is built.

How do I know this? In addition to being a luxury travel agent, I am also a superyacht attorney. In 2008, I was on a Global Superyacht Forum panel with the largest maritime regulatory authorities (http://www.superyachtevents.com/asf/asf2008/). During that discussion I asked how much money should be spent on safety regulations that don’t actually save more lives, given that those regulations make the cost of building a ship (or your car) prohibitively expensive, thus destroying the market?

Are design changes needed?
Carnival has shown that, from a customer relations point of view, it has learned from past failings. It is my hope that, from this latest bad event, design changes will evolve that improve passenger comfort during rare events such as the Triumph’s engine failure.

But we also must remember that on the Triumph, while some passengers in the lowest cabins did have to sleep on deck, the photos show that most decks were clear, because literally thousands of the Carnival Triumph passengers slept safely in their balcony cabins.

I heard one Triumph passenger, commenting on whether he would cruise on Carnival again, say, “Sure. Why wouldn’t I take that free cruise?!” He said it because cruising is fun. Cruising is a great value. And cruising is safe.

Eric Goldring, owner of Goldring Travel in Colts Neck, N.J., is a luxury travel agent specializing in cruise with a worldwide client base. He has an extensive background in the maritime industry. Eric writes and speaks frequently on issues affecting the cruise and superyacht industries. Read his blog here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Iceland: The Layover...Goldring Travel Style- Part III

With my third day in Iceland was taken up by work my fourth day was something I was really looking forward to:  Glacier Hiking and Ice Wall Climbing.  Let me say this about my icy day:  “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.” But in the end it really was a great time.

Our small group of seven waited for the last two people to arrive…and quite an entrance they made.  One was just late, the other was a “travel agent from hell”.  This woman was loud, obnoxious, rude…and had a terrible cough…while complaining about the smell our boxed lunches and bragging about the food she took from the hotel breakfast buffet.  And when we arrived at the glacier she said, “Oh, I can’t do this.  I don’t want to hurt myself.”  Yes, she was every reason I encourage you to use a qualified and responsive travel agent…and take private tours.  She was, without a doubt, the worst of times.

But I shall now focus on the best of times.  The rest of our group was eclectic to say the least.  Aside from myself there was young man on a mission to expand his burgeoning energized tour/hiking company, a young woman from Surrey,  Canadian adventure tour agent, a man from Stockholm and, believe it or not a Lithuanian pork slaughter house butcher (yes, it’s true) along with our two guides.

The day was raining and all the snow I had seen on my first day in Iceland was gone.  The formerly snow covered lava fields near Reykjavik were now showing their warm yellow-green moss coverings.  It was as if I was in a totally different place with a cool mist replaced the ice cold winter of just a few days earlier.  We headed south and then eventually along Iceland’s coast driving coast past beautiful cliffs and waterfalls, black lava sand beaches, Icelandic horse farms, barley and hay fields.

Eventually we arrived at a tongue of the Solheimajokull glacier, given ice axes (which actually were more to make us feel the part), crampons and helmets a brief bit of instruction and were off to climb a glacier.  (Of course “that” woman immediately put the brakes on things, but our guides expertly neutralized much of her antics.)

As there had been a good bit of rain, the snow that often covers the glacier was gone.  This, fortunately for us, gave an amazing experience of seeing down into the ice rather than just walking over it. The colors and different types of ice were mesmerizing. We could see the path of the running water by the ash laden streams running here and there.  Our guide showed us how that shallow pool of water was actually very, very, deep so to avoid the puddles.  The beauty was staggering…and it was all pretty cool.


It was then time to climb an ice wall.  OK, it was not a 100 foot wall, but it was more than enough to get the idea…and understanding that trying to climb a 100 foot wall would be a bad idea!  With safety ropes installed and climbing axes in hand we each had our turn climbing and repelling down….with varying degrees of success.  I was most certainly not the best, but I was not the worst.  Regardless, it was fun and a great experience!



After that we began a bit more of walk around the glacier the guide advised (with “that” woman) we would not have enough time to take the scheduled path and get back on time (a bit of slightly poor planning had our tour’s normal length shortened one hour at the outset) without eliminating the scheduled stop at one waterfall. As an alternative he offered to have us stop at two waterfalls if we cut our time on the glacier down.  The answer was obvious…but as you will see, it most certainly did not spoil the best of times.

As we walked down the glacier I took some time to just look. I seem to be doing a lot of that here in Iceland.



We were then off to the waterfalls (after the guides allowed us a beer stop).  The first one was pretty cool,


 but the second one, Seljalandsfoss,  was awesome…and you have the ability to walk behind it.  Words don’t do it justice.





 It was then back to the hotel for a quick shower and the off to a conference dinner.  I left early as Gunner, from Friend in Iceland, called and invited me to go out for dinner with two of his Icelandic friends. (Iceland is a very friendly place!) 

We had dinner at Restaurant 101, a very sleek modern restaurant where I had black ink pasta with seafood.  I have noticed that Icelandic chefs always slightly undercook their fish by American and European standards, so the flavors are really fantastic.  From there we headed to the Marina Hotel and its Shipbarren Bar for dessert.

The nightlife in Iceland doesn’t get going until midnight and I had not yet truly indulged in it, so it being Saturday night I was er’ umm, obliged.  After an hour or so and with a larger group (some from the conference joined us) and we were off to Dublin Pub for some really excellent music and a beer and then it was to another club and then another club and then to Esja-bar, which is “the” club with the Icelandic celebrities and, thus, the beautiful people.  The folks in Iceland, young and old, truly enjoy there nightlife.  At 3:00 a.m. the party was actually just starting, but I needed to get some sleep before heading home so I left my friends, and walked back to the hotel in a refreshing mist.

With a late morning start, I did what I just didn’t want to do:  Go to the Blue Lagoon.  It sounded so much like a tourist trap to me with its hot mineral water and silica mud that you are supposed to put on your face.  I figured sometimes you have to do things just so you know what it is you think you don’t like.  


Well, I don’t like it.  It is a very large manmade hot mineral pool with various facilities, some complimentary and some not (like massages).  Charges are made by RFID wristbands that you charge things to…and you can’t get out until you pay for them and deposit your wristband in the turnstile.  Was it better than hanging out at the 3 star Radisson Blu Saga Hotel with all the construction noise?  Yes.  Was it one of the least satisfying experiences of my stay?  Yes.  Was it terrible?  Not quite.

From there it was a short bus ride to airport for a quick check-in, some lunch in the Icelandair Saga Lounge and an uneventful flight home.

Next up my thoughts on why Iceland really is a great close-in destination for nature lovers, those wanting a spa holiday or just a place to unwind.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Iceland: The Layover...Goldring Travel Style - Part II

My first twelve hours in Iceland behind me, but still very fresh in my head, I checked my emails and saw that Rut Magnusdottir, of  Friend In Iceland, had left a message that I should bring my bathing suit because she and her partner, Gunner Sigurdsson decided they were going to take me to a luxury spa before going to dinner.  Now, that is a friend in Iceland!

Not knowing what to expect, we arrive at World Class and Gunner shows me around and I see a pretty amazing fitness center...after I have my retinas scanned as this is the way they control what parts of this massive, and very cool, facility you may enter.


Fortunately for me this was only Gunner showing off the facility because a workout is not what I was signed up for!

We then head downstairs, have our eyes scanned and we enter what is the nicest luxury sauna, steam room, hot tub, cold dipping bath, etc. facility I have every been in.  No photos, obviously, but rich stone, beautiful woods, aroma therapy everything, hot (and I mean hot - no American laws limiting temperature) steam rooms and wet and dry saunas.  It was fantastic.  And then to cool down, we went outside and into the geothermal pools.

Then it was off to dinner at the Marina Hotel for drinks and dinner at the very trendy Slippbarrenn Bar where we enjoyed a wonderful Fish Soup, Salted Cod with Salad on Flatbread and Chicken Salad while getting to know each other and becoming, well, better friends.


I pause here to mention that Friend in Iceland is not just an ordinary tour operator, but rather a company founded on crafting the best experience for each individual.  Rut, with a background in art and taking care of special needs children among other things, is immensely involved in details (you wonder how they picked taking me to a luxury spa, huh?) while Gunner knows everyone and simply makes things happen (as a person with a directorial background does) like getting me into the spa.  There are many companies that tell you, "Of course we can do that." or say the know what you want, but you find out too late that they really didn't.  In my world, folks like Rut and Gunner are few and far between.  And, more importantly, they are now truly my friends!

After dinner I was given a quick night time tour of Reykjavik ending at a dark end to a road where I am told that bright light is actually a lighthouse with a great view of the neighboring islands and glaciers that I should see in the daylight (and at low tide you can actually walk out to the lighthouse).  After that we said good night and promised to see each other at the next evening's event.

Well, the next morning I took my rental car and drove back to that lighthouse and it was as beautiful as promised (and, by the way, not a single other tour company I met with ever mentioned it to me).  Just sayin'!



I did, however, have to make another stop:  The Icelandic Phallological Museum, where male genitalia allegedly from every animal that has one is displayed.


Who knew such a place existed?  Well, I have this Friend in Iceland...

After that I returned the rental car, and took a 10-15 minute walk from the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel to downtown, where did some shopping for Icelandic chocolate - which is truly excellent - and a wander around.

During my last visit to Iceland I had a fantastic 14 course meal at the now-closed Seafood Cellar.  So I figured I would look to see what, if anything, took its place in the basement of the building that houses the Visitor's Center.  Well, it is a gem:  Rub 23.

It was about 2:00 PM and they were about to close, but said I could order lunch.  I ordered just a starter of Icelandic Blue Mussels and French Fries.  They were huge and the best mussels I have ever eaten anywhere.  The Rub 23 ale was pretty darn good too!


I then strolled back to the hotel for a rest before heading out to the opening cocktail party at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica where I ran into Gunner and Rut.  After the event, the Reykjavik Restaurant (which never looked to appealing from the outside) was holding an event downtown...so Rut and I headed there to check it out.  As we approached downtown there was a very interesting light sculpture in a small park.  After  checking it out Rut took me into a bar where they have Thursday night Samba classes.  (Seriously, would you have ever thought there would be Samba classes in Iceland?)

With no dancing for me (to everyone's relief I am sure) we headed over to the restaurant for some really excellent food (including some very tasty smoked puffin and roast Icelandic lamb among many others) and music.  It was then time to call it a night; thus ending my first 36 hours in Iceland.

So now I pause and remind you that I have gone from frozen waterfalls to beautiful lakes to steaming geysirs,  to a luxury spa, to gourmet meals, to a stylish bar, to a beautiful lighthouse hidden in plain sight to a weird (really weird) museum to open air art exhibits to great nightlife in a day and a half and without rushing around.  That is pretty impressive.

While my time here in Iceland is far from done, I want you to ask yourself something:  Wouldn't Iceland be a great stopover for a couple of days before you start your Northern European cruise? Or how about for a long weekend?  Something to think about!

So while my "layover" is done I will be writing more about my short, but very enjoyable and impressive time here.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iceland: The Layover...Goldring Travel Style - Part I

Having just spend a day and a half in Iceland I have come to the conclusion that those traveling to Europe for a Northern European cruise owe it to yourselves to stop in Iceland on the way.  It not only is closely related and on the way, it is fascinating, warm-hearted and fun.  So let it begin!

My return to Iceland started out with the fasted ride to Kennedy Airport I ever.  No traffic.  I mean "No" traffic.  Then I arrived at Icelandair's Economy Comfort check-in counter and was checked in in less than two minutes.  But then there was a long line at security...until I saw I special line for United Premier passengers...and I just happened to have my card with me.  I was through security in less than five minutes.  Up to the British Airlines lounge (which Icelandair Economy Comfort and Saga Class passengers have access to) and I was sipping a nice glass of Bordeaux not five minutes later.  Something has to be wrong. I mean it never goes this smoothly.

I board my Icelandair flight with my exit row, front of Economy Comfort, seat and nobody sitting next to me.  The flight attendant comes over to say hello.  She is friendly, funny and pretty.  She even offered me Icelandic candy and plies me with wine.  We take off on time (out of JFK...really!) and will arrive 40 minutes ahead of schedule.  Can it get any better?

Then a painful realization.  The seats are the hardest I have ever encountered and my kids shamed me into not bringing my air cushion and I figured it is only a 5 hour flight.  But by the end of the first hour I was sitting on two of those little airline pillows in agony.  I tried to sleep, but honestly it was so uncomfortable it wasn't going to happen.  (Note to self:  Don't go with style.  Go with comfort...no matter how much your kids ridicule you.)

We arrive 40 minutes early at 6:05 a.m., as promised, and are whisked through passport control and our luggage arrives almost instantly.  OK, we are back on the "Can it be this good?" track...but not for long.  We are instructed to wait for our bus to the hotel (It is about an hour ride/$100 taxi fare, so I am waiting.)  After 15 minutes we are directed to a bus, board and...nothing happens.  We sit for another 30 minutes...and nothing happens.  It seems the plan of getting everyone to the hotel at the same time was foiled by a flight delay on Icelandair's Boston flight.  Finally, they decide to leave without them.

I arrive at the Radisson Blu Saga hotel about 8:15 a.m.  It is not as centrally located as the Radisson Blu 1919 (which is in downtown Reykjavik), but it is more convenient for this conference and is still only a 10-15 minute walk in the very compact town.  I am in my room (which is fairly basic, but fine) in two minutes, check my emails, and then lie down for a rest.  We are back...but not for long.

It seems they are reconstructing the top floor restaurant...right above my room.  The banging is loud and constant, so with my bottom happy, but my head is feeling the pain my other end felt on the flight, I guess it is now evenly distributed.

The International Account Manager for Avis/Budget had sent me an email offering a great deal for a car rental and a "My Way" GPS Audio tour.  I figured the last time I was here I passed on  the Golden Circle tour (the alleged "must do") because I could not see myself on a tour bus for 5+ hours.  But as I am here as a guest of a trade show I figure I need to do it, but do it "my way". So at about 1:00 p.m. I was up and out.  The hotels' front desk called Budget and a van picked me up and brought me to the office.  And I was off with my GPS and not a clue where I was going or really what it was all about.

The first thing I realized is Iceland is, for the most part, very easy to drive in.  People are courtesy drivers, everything is well marked and the roads are well maintained.  So with Richard (my British guide hiding in my GPS) I drive a short distance out of town and begin the Golden Circle.  What I immediately discovered is that visiting the three highlights is not the highlight at all.  The highlight is the scenery.  It is spectacular and huge.  It is impossible to truly appreciate it looking out of one side window of a tour bus.


 Now I will tell you the first part of my journey was on fairly snow and ice covered roads, but with I believe a total of less than ten car sharing the road with me on my entire 5+ hour drive, you can go as fast or slow as you feel comfortable doing.  But the roads as part of the scenery were also beautiful.


After huge snow-covered lava outcrops and mountains a picturesque building seemingly in the middle of nowhere you come upon Lake Thingvellier.  The My Way GPS directs you down a little road that I know the buses cannot take and all of a sudden you see this:




Now I know it looks frigid, but the temperature was about 30 degrees so I literally had my coat open when I took these photos.  As I returned to the main road I kept seeing "postcards" on my left and on my right:



Which brings me to the only flaw in the My Plan system:  You get so enthralled in the scenery Richard, who give you just enough information and is quiet the vast majority of the time, doesn't remind you when to turn, so twice I had to turnaround!

Eventually I catch up to a tour bus carrying travel agents on the standard Golden Circle tour at the Thingvellier Visitors Center.  Bathroom lines, someone can't walk in the snow, people too loud, others looking for souvenirs...I took some photos quickly (it is worth a stop!) and get back to my solitude and amazement.



Back on the road another "postcard":


About 2.5 hours into my drive I pass Geysir & Strokkur (yes, that's where the name comes from) as this Visitors Center had another tour bus and a few minivans parked outside.  I will return to after I reach the Waterfalls where there are only 6 other people and, hopefully, they will be gone.

I admit it, I was cold with the wind whipping, but oh was it worth it.  It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen:

My hands thawing out from the numbness I pull into a parking area near Geysir and walk in.  There are about 10 people standing around Strokkur waiting for it to spew hot water into the air. And, of course, just as I am walking over it blows...so I have to wait about 5 minutes to capture the moment on my camera.


And then, hands frozen a second time, I need to get a closeup shot; something with color and texture...so I wait and:

Time for a coffee and a little bit of a warm up before I take some more photos.  So I head into the Visitors Center and the tour bus and minivans are still there with people eating and shopping.  (Notice there is virtually nobody observing the geysirs or in awe of the scenery!)  After a coffee I am back out for more photos:



And as I get into my car the tour bus is finally pulling out...and now I need to make time to put some distance between me and the busload of people.  OK, actually I really didn't because they didn't go to some of the smaller, out of the way places I then went to!

As I drove I said to myself, "What the heck?  How did they move Australia's Ayer's Rock to Iceland?"


And then with Richard having me go down a road definitely less traveled I decided to stop and visit with some Icelandic horses.  They were each bumping me to get my attention and to take their photos.  It was pretty funny and a nice break:


After a very quick drive by a reconstructed church (does there have to be one on every tour?) It was time to head back.  On the way there was one last stop, Kerio, which is called a pseudo-crater. Apparently they have concerts here because the acoustics are so good, but I have no idea how.  Pretty cool though:


 I then drove through Hverageroi I saw these geothermal greenhouses lit up:


Heading back home the rain started, then the snow, then the blizzard then the clear skies and then the dark. As I arrived back at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel to get ready to meet Gunnar Sigurdsson and Rut Magunsdottir, of Friends in Iceland (a company that specializing in crafting experiences for each individual which I will write about in my next article), I just kept saying to myself, "Wow! Wow! Wow! I need to come back to Iceland and do this all over again in the Spring!  It will look so different and, I am sure, will be just as awe inspiring."

OK, that takes care of my first twelve hours in Iceland.  Yes, only 12 hours.  Trust me the next 24 ain't so bad either!