Friday, September 26, 2014

Windstar Cruises - Star Pride Black Sea Cruise - Part III

Our third day on the Star Pride was at sea and was simply one of relaxing and enjoying the friendly Windstar service.   (I did skip the knot tying event on the bridge, however.  By the way Windstar has an “open bridge” policy so when not in port you can visit the bridge.)  Overall the small ship experience was truly enjoyable…and, jumping forward to the end of the cruise docking in Istanbul next to the Queen Elizabeth really brought home the difference between 212 guests and 3,000 passengers! 

A noticeable glitch was the obvious lack of staff in the Veranda during the day.  Staffing it as a self-service venue when it clearly is not just doesn’t work.  When we dined in Amphora in the evening, the less than optimal staffing also caused some lapses in service.  Assistant maître de’s should not be clearing tables or waiters running orders to the galley.  It is a bit frustrating when the food is good, the views are spectacular and trying to order a glass of wine or a burger becomes a frustration…though when the food is tasty and presented well and the wine is poured…and by very friendly smiles…the effects of the frustration slips away. 

To be sure, it is not the staff’s fault, but rather the lack of staff.  The low key, “180 Degrees from Ordinary”, service only works if there is enough staff.  (By way of comparison, on Seabourn there would be close to triple the staff and they are moving quickly, as a team, to make sure everything is close to perfect.  That is not what Windstar is about, and clearly it cannot be provided at Windstar’s price point, but there needs to be a better balance.)

I did spend a good bit of time soaking in my hot tub on the bow, chatting with the few other guests that found their way to this little quiet area, enjoying the ever changing mountain views…and skipping past Sevastopol, Ukraine on the Crimean peninsula – home to one of Russia’s largest naval fleets.  (It was a little challenging being on a yacht sailing past an area with a very real conflict.)

That evening I decided on mixing up the Surf & Turf by substituting the bison filet for the filet mignon.  The lobster was very good and the bison was excellent.  I did sample the filet mignon, though, and it was prepared nicely with a flavorful and not too heavy sauce.  As I said, the Windstar cuisine is quite good; and most certainly better than most cruise line offerings…just with a more laid back presentation.

Day 4 marked our arrival in Odessa, Ukraine.  Windstar was quite good at making sure all was fine and honestly you could not tell that there were any issues in the country aside from a comment or two of uncertainty from our guide.  Speaking of our guide, we took the city highlights tour hoping to see the Holocaust Memorial.  Missing it was not my only disappointment.  There were three buses (Windstar does not fill its buses, but limits them to about 36 guests) and each one had a markedly different experience based upon the guide.  Unfortunately our guide (not Windstar’s fault, obviously) was the worst of the three…and only begrudgingly mentioned any aspect of the enormous Jewish influence on the city.  (Her line basically was, “In 1920 something the State took over this building”; not mentioning the purge of Jews that built and paid for almost everything of historical value in the city…and there is a lot.)  

Chilling with a shisha and a beer in Odessa, Ukraine
was a bit surreal considering the war with Russia only miles away
We did tour the very impressive Opera House (originally it had been cancelled, but Windstar made it happen!), but, as I said, we did not go past the Holocaust Memorial though our bus went in circles for the entire tour.  Anyway, after the tour we ventured into town and found a nice place to sit back, people watch, have a drink and smoke a shisha. We were the last people back on the yacht…with two minutes to spare!

Back on the Star Pride it was time for a nap and then a wonderful Indian dinner (offered by request the night before) consisting of very delicious prawns, chicken, lamb and lentils along with nan and yogurt sauce.  (I understand 36 suites took advantage of this wonderful opportunity.)  It was great seeing the staff so excited for the evening and the chef coming out really enjoying himself and all the smiles.  If there is one thing you get a great sense of on Windstar is that the staff love their jobs.

Topping off my evening was my sitting down on the sofa by the Star Bar and the bartender brining me my Glenfiddich on the rocks without my asking.  It is a very nice touch that just isn’t an option on larger ships.

The next day was Constanta, Romania which was, and remains, a tough port.  The oppressive regime that ended just over a decade ago has left the country still in a solemn and desperate way.  The Old City is a monument to neglect despite the clear efforts to revitalize the town.  We decided to walk from the port rather than take the complimentary shuttle (it is about a mile) and started strolling down the new seaside promenade.  It was rather pleasant until interrupted by a badly decaying casino that looked like it once was “the” place.  That sort of patterned continued as we walked here and there.  Eventually we decided to have a beer, but the choice of spot came down to which lounge had the view of the least depressing building that had, or was about, to fall down. 

Afterwards we took the complimentary Windstar shuttle to the beach “resort” town of Mamaia, Romania.  That too was “interesting”.  As we walked to the beach (which, honestly, was out of season) the piles of cigarette butts, trash and even a pile of rusted screws signaled a beach worse than the Jersey Shore had ever seen in its darkest days.  The water was a dismal brown/black from an obvious sewer line that runs from the town into the ocean.  The buildings were rundown at best and some had a “bombed out” look worse than anything Asbury Park, New Jersey has endured.  

Not dissuaded from finding a gem, we picked the best looking restaurant and ordered a bottle of Romanian wine – Mysterium (which wasn’t bad) - and two supposedly authentic Romanian dishes (Bulz Romanesc and Dobrudjan Tochitura) that were pretty much inedible.  
When the menu board says they serve "crap"
I should take the warning seriously!

At least we tried!

I should note that the shuttles were small buses, run quite frequently, so there was no waiting for the typical cruise ship bus to fill…waiting for “that” person.  It was certainly was a more upscale experience.

Tonight was the Deck Barbecue. I must admit I was not thrilled with the experience on the Wind Surf last January as it seemed a bit disjointed, but Windstar’s Star Pride hit the barbecue out of the park as it is has a far better setup for it.  The buffet offerings included lobster tails, a roast pig, lamb chops, flank steak, prawns, paella and much more with the Star Pride staff providing great service with huge…and I mean huge…smiles and incredible enthusiasm.  (Did I mention you get the sense that the staff love their jobs?)

An interesting difference:  On the Star Pride the tables by the dance floor area are taken first, while on the Seabourn Pride it was the tables upstairs by the now Star Bar (which I prefer).  Why?  Dancing.  Just about everyone was up dancing including the crew.  It was a blast.  Captain Alan MacAry and Hotel Manager, Nick Burger, dined with us and it was very enjoyable.  But when the band and singers started, everyone was focused on the positive high energy level.  (Sorry, no photos!)

The next day- our last day - was Nessebar, Bulgaria; a charming town and UNESCO Heritage Site.  The last time I was in this port I headed out to the Bulgarian countryside so this time the plan was to stay and explore.  We docked right in town (last time, on the Radisson Diamond, she was too wide to dock so we tendered) which is one of the big benefits of cruising on the Star Pride.  I am glad we got a relatively early start as we had the town pretty much to ourselves walking on the beach (some pretty nice beach glass compared to Romania’s broken bottles!), strolling down quiet lanes looking at art and souvenirs (and two shops with disturbing Nazi artifacts) and enjoying the architecture. 

As the morning passed, tour busses started to arrive and the quiet, quaint, village became filled with tourists.  It was time to stroll over to the sea side of the village and find a quiet place for lunch.  A large wine barrel drew us into Restaurant Andromeda Nesebar which has a wonderful view, friendly staff and decent Bulgarian wine and a nice Bulgarian cheese platter (but I’m not so sure all the cheeses were actually Bulgarian).  

Bulgarian Cheese Plate in Nessebar
As we sat and enjoyed it all…being watched by a seagull just waiting for her chance…we thought there was a cat on our feet, but a little scream later it was determined to be a tortoise!  We did not expect that!

The last thing I expected to say in Nessebar, Bulgaria was
"Hey, there's a tortoise on my foot!"
It was then time to head back to the Star Pride, where the dreaded luggage mats were on our bed 

and quickly tossed on the floor for a final nap…as the rain set in…and then, unfortunately, back on the bed to pack.  The rain interfered with my last visit to the hot tub, but cleared in time for our final al fresco dinner in Candles and a nightcap at the Star Bar.

We arrived early in the morning in Istanbul, but without enough time to do anything before our flight we took it leisurely, disembarked around 9:00 a.m. and headed to the beautiful new Turkish Airlines Lounge at the airport for our flights back home. 

Next up:  A summary of this new Windstar product and the changes and improvements already in the pipeline.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Windstar Cruises - Star Pride Black Sea Cruise - Part II

We awoke on Day 2 in the small town of Bartin, Turkey (identified, for some reason unknown to me as Amasra, Turkey).  Being that it was an early start, I popped up to The Yacht Club (formerly the Observation Lounge) for a freshly brewed double espresso and a café Americano along with a fresh yogurt, granola and fruit cup with a fresh muffin.  The Yacht Club is a truly beautiful space; actually a big improvement.  It has wonderful semi-private seating areas with a very comfortable (again blue and beige) décor.  The photographs don’t do it justice.

Windstar Cruise's Star Pride Yacht Club

(I have heard someone compare it to the Seabourn Square, but the only comparison is that it has fresh brewed coffees and some snacks.  It is not comparable to Seabourn Square, but it is a wonderful space consistent with, but better than, the other Windstar ships.)

After our quick breakfast we were off.  As the town of Bartin itself was a bit distant from the ship and did not have anything particularly interesting, I opted for a ship’s tour to Safranbolu, named for its historical ties to the production of saffron.  The town was charming, but it was our guide that made the day.  He was one of the best I have ever had.  Fluent in English, extremely well educated, charming, informative, controversial and funny all rolled into one. 

Safranbolu, Turkey

Saffron Tea in Safronbolu, Turkey

Tile Roof
It was a long day, but I still had time for a soak in the forward hot tub as we set sail before having dinner in Candles, which is the evening version of the Veranda and a wonderful al fresco dining experience.  Windstar allows you to dine there one evening per cruise, but if there is an opening a second or third evening is possible.  As such the menu does not change and it is quite consistent with the menu on the other Windstar ships offering fish and meats as well as a vegetarian option along with ala carte vegetables served family style.  I had, again, a great veal chop.

Star Pride's Candles by Night and Veranda by Day
Provides a Wonderful Al Fresco Dining Experience
In the Veranda there is a new hot buffet area on the starboard side with offerings at both breakfast and lunch, while dinner is a pure sit down affair.  The Windstar staff does provide waiter service for items on the printed menu (such as hamburgers) as well as drinks (which are only provided by the bar steward), but overall service is limited.  

To be sure there are differences and simple things like having placemats on the outdoor tables at breakfast and lunch would be an improvement as would having more than one bar steward.

After dinner it was up to the Star Bar for a nightcap.  It is, by the way,  the only location where one can smoke a cigar. 

Sailing under a full moon on the Windstar Star Pride
The next morning it was up early as we had another excursion; this one a complimentary one from Windstar for the entire ship with five buses heading to Amasya; a small town about 2 hours from the ship’s port of Samsun.  The highlight was Windstar’s orchestrating all of us who had our fantastic guide the first day getting him for the second day.  Without him honestly this would have been a disaster. 

While I appreciate this was a substitute port, four hours on a bus for a quick spin around a small museum, a visit to another mosque, a stroll along a small riverfront and a lunch was a miss.  I would have preferred enjoying the Star Pride for the day...but I am not so unappreciative as to not recognize that I have been to a place that few have been to and had the opportunity to be educated for a second day by a truly wonderful guide; courtesy of Windstar.

Amasya, Turkey
Tonight we dined in Candles again, but this time with Nick Burger, the hotel manager.  It was good catching up with Nick, who I knew from the ship’s Seabourn days, and discussing the differences in philosophy from the Pride being a Seabourn ship and now a Windstar one.  There is no question that Seabourn has a much higher staff to guest ratio and, as a result, there is a definite difference in service and, of course, what can be delivered.  The question is whether Windstar should, or frankly needs to, deliver service at those higher levels.  As you will read below:  not so much.

We also talked about the Pride being a work in progress…and it is.  Make no mistake, there is work to be done on the ship.  The interior spaces are beautiful, refreshed and work well.  It is the exterior that needs assistance and is being worked on.  I have noticed that there is a good bit of daily maintenance that seems to be missed with rust spots being a common site.  The teak decks are in need of some TLC.  The hot tubs are finicky and the pool’s filter system is not working properly.  All of the canvas needs replacement (they work but are stained and I understand some replacements are onboard to be installed).  A good number of the deck lounges are worn and some have broken mesh.  Probably the most noticeable of the problems are the windows for the Owner’s Suites that are not in a good state at all.  (To me it looks like dry dock work being slowly attended to at sea!) I know the Pride needed some work, but I am unsure if the lesser number of deck staff is causing a back-slide on maintenance or if they are simply attending to things below decks.

But no matter who I spoke to they had very consistent comments pretty much in this order: 

     (A) They love the sails and miss them on this ship;
     (B) They love the suites;
     (C) They love the Windstar experience both as to service and cuisine; and,
     (D) There are a few things that need to be fixed, but nothing that ruins their cruise.

I also find the demographic to be interesting (and different from Seabourn).  More than a few guests are well traveled, though for some it is just reaching a destination rather than seeking out an immersive experience…though some were “all in”.  Others are more focused on “value” rather than product; which is not dissimilar to what I experienced on my G Adventures Amazon River cruise this past July.  OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) was mentioned more than once (though one couple in their sixties referred to their experience as “Old people Are Traveling”) as were NCL and Princess.

Because of this the cuisine is good quality and well prepared, but is not terribly sophisticated (tasty mash potatoes and broccoli rather than an elegant vegetable dish or lobster tail in a butter sauce rather than presented in an artful culinary display with the waiter taking it out of the shell for you).  As always I ran my hamburger and hot dog test and found the presentation of both to be very good; with coleslaw and French fries along with ketchup on an appropriate rolls.  (I had to scrounge for mustard for my hot dog, but sauerkraut was provided on request.) 

More on cuisine and service later, as I have digressed.    

After a lovely dinner, Nick headed back to work and we headed to the Compass Rose (formerly The Club).  It has been significantly updated and is a modern, comfortable, venue.  Gone is the “fishbowl” but there are lounges set up to still segregate the bar area from the dance floor.  Rather than the duet being “center stage” they are now set off to the port side. The bar itself remains pretty much as it was, but with a bit of leather and new bar stools similar to those in the Star Bar.

Star  Pride's Compass Rose Lounge

Also, during the day there are televisions mounted on the walls port and starboard aft with seating areas around them; clearly in an effort to have this venue better utilized.  (In the evenings I notice they are turned off…thankfully.)

Tomorrow is a Day at Sea.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Windstar Cruises - Star Pride Black Sea Cruise - Part I

My flights to Istanbul to join Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride (formerly the Seabourn Pride) were fine, but did remind me how much I dislike Frankfurt airport.  My flight from Newark to Frankfurt was delayed because of weather resulting in my having only one hour to connect to my flight to Istanbul.  Of course it was decided to disembark the 747 via buses about as far from the terminal as possible and then (and I kid you not) change the gate for my flight…which was about as far as humanly possible from where the bus dropped me…from Gate B26 to B20 to B46 to B32, so that we could take a bus to the aircraft which was literally next to where I was originally dropped off (A18).   But, alas, I did make the flight.

We stayed at Hotel Nena, which is a moderately priced hotel right in the heart of the Sultanahmet area.  It is very comfortable with friendly staff and, if you have a Deluxe room, sweeping views of The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Bosporus with a lovely balcony.  

If you are staying in Istanbul for only a night or two and want to be smack in the middle of the tourist areas (you are also walking distance to Topaki Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Yeribatan Saryari and the Hippodrome) it is a great price sensitive choice.

Our included private transfer from Ataturk Airport (usually 30 Euros if you stay less than three nights) brought us to the hotel where we were brought to a light, airy, lounge for a glass of wine and an introduction to the area,  providing us with maps and just enough brochures; a nice touch. 

After a short nap it was time to explore the area as the sun was setting on a Saturday night.  To be sure this is a more touristic area, so right after The Grand Bazaar closes, the rest of the shops close and the busy streets quiet.  It provides for a lovely stroll.  We stopped for a Turkish coffee for a bit of energy and then wandered gazing at The Blue Mosque lit up at night and a bit of people watching.  We stopped at the famous Pudding Shop for some kofte, borek, cicek and raki (flattened spiced lamb meatballs, goat cheese filled fried flaky pastries, yogurt with cucumber and dill along with a ouzo-like drink which you mix with water and ice).  This was, of course, instead of what made The Pudding Shop famous in the 60’s:  opium, poetry and travelers hooking up as they head off to, or were returning from, Asia.

After a couple of raki back at the Hotel Nena it was time for bed as the hotel arranged a private guide for us the next morning.

Our day started with a beautiful buffet breakfast (included at Hotel Nena) with a mixture of typical Turkish breakfast items and Western. 

Our guided tour of Istanbul started at 9:00 a.m. and didn’t finish until 5:30 p.m. visiting (again) all of the main sites of Istanbul along with a lunch of various Turkish meze and Iskender kebobs and lamb shish.  Then it was a stroll through the Egyptian (Spice) Market and then a ferry from near the Galata Bridge over to Uskudar on the Asian side – giving us a nice view of Dolmabache Palace – and then the brand new subway (Metro) which took us back to the Sultanahmet district.  Our guide was OK, but confirmed to me that other than waiting in lines, visiting these sites with a good guide book can be just as, if not, more enjoyable.

The Dome of The Blue Mosque
After a very short rest, it was time for a special dinner at the Ciragan Palace’s Tugra Restaurant where you can, if fortunate enough, dine on the same marble terrace as the last of the Turkish sultans.  This is pretty much the only thing that I am doing on a luxury versus a premium basis.  The Ottoman cuisine was exceptional and the ambiance was wonderful.  After a stroll around the beautiful grounds it was back to our hotel for a nightcap and a chat on our balcony overlooking the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia.

The next morning, before boarding the Windstar Star Pride, it was off to The Grand Bazaar.   I love wandering the Old Bazaar as it still has a bit of the charm that the now more touristic newer areas have.  Then it was off to the port.

Our boarding of the Windstar Star Pride was swift and easy.  Check-in was similar to when it was a Seabourn ship:  Ushered to the Lounge where check-in was quick and friendly.  Mimosas (really orange juice with a splash were offered as we walked in.  The Lounge is now refreshed with a blue color theme and comfortable chairs.  The Reception area remains as it was…which was recently renovated and updated by Seabourn.

It was then off to our suite, 310 a French Veranda suite.  But before I could get up the staircase, the hotel Manager, Nick Burger, greeted me. I was surprised; not knowing that this former Seabourn Hotel Manager was back with Windstar. (He was involved in the transformation of the ship…but more on that later.)

One thing I noticed on the way to our suite is the “artwork”.  It is a matter of taste, but photos of tropical beaches just don’t seem to fit with the itineraries of the Star Pride or the overall elegance of this ship.

The color palette in the suite is, again, blue with beige highlights and is quite pretty.  Gone are the ottomans that fit under the coffee table, but the blue sofa is quite comfortable as are the two beige chairs with nice pillows.  

Star Pride's Standard Suite Vanity

 There are a few small changes, but most of them are not significant.

-          As we purchased the beverage package (required for both passengers in a suite), the refrigerator was stocked with one each of a variety of beers and soda, a mini-split of a modest white wine and cava.  Next to the refrigerator is a rack with a variety of miniature liquors and a mini-split of red wine.  (These are restocked as needed.)  These would be extra cost if the beverage package was not chosen as in most other premium cruise lines.

-          L’Occitane quality bath amenities are provided, but gone is the fluffy rug and the thick towels; now being relegated to two thin bath towels and two thin hand towels.

-          As I mentioned on the Wind Surf, there is no filler piece when the beds are configured as a queen.  This, frankly, drives me nuts.

-          While the Stateroom Directory has a menu for room service, the hanger to put outside your door only allows for a continental breakfast.  The room service menu is quite limited, but there is enough offered to satisfy most.  (I rarely have room service and on this small ship I can’t see it being a big issue…other than for those that want a full breakfast served at a specified time without having to call in the morning.)

All in all it is a refreshed stateroom that works well and is extremely comfortable.

We then headed down to Amphora (formerly The Restaurant) for lunch.  Not much has changed other than lunch was a buffet.  The buffet was a mix of various salads, cheeses, breads, cured meats, three hot dishes and a carving station.  It was nicely presented and enjoyable.  Bar stewards were quite attentive and, again, having the beverage package made things quite seamless.

Now settled, it was time for a soak in “my” hot tub on the bow.  The hot tub was fine and the deck furniture the same as when it was the Pride.  What was not good was the lack of any towels.  I did not expect any bar service, but once the Star Bar server knew we were there, bringing a refill was not an issue.

After a shower – with a new showerhead – it was time for dinner in Amphora.  The service is friendly and definitely premium, not luxury, as one can see how Seabourn would have three or even four people tending to your water, wine, silverware, ordering and presentation where now two are tasked with the same.  One benefit:  As Windstar places all of the silverware you might possibly need on the table before you sit and Seabourn would provide/take away silverware dependent on your course, the noise of the silverware drawers is all but absent.  (I do miss the flare, but it is not a big issue.) The wait staff, however, is very friendly with a “can do” attitude.

I figured I would order a challenging dish:  prime rib and asked for it medium rare.  It was perfect.  (Meanwhile at the table behind me Windstar delivered it as ordered and the guests sent it back nonetheless.  No problem.  No issue.  It was addressed politely, quickly and with a smile.)  My water glass was filled regularly, but the wine glass was a bit of a challenge.  Desserts were OK, but overall too mass market for me.  We shall see how it goes…not that dessert selections are going to make my cruise choice!

After dinner it was up to the Star Bar (formerly the Sky Bar).  It is still a great space; now with its teak chairs covered with beige cushions and new upscale bar stools.  

One change:  drinks are served in actual glasses unless you are taking them to the whirlpools, in which case Windstar also uses plastic.   Service is friendly and while they asked me for my suite number, once they knew I had the beverage package it has been a very seamless experience.

It was a very nice first day and the Pride remains one comfortable and elegant ship.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Seabourn Cruise Line: Some Changes You Should Know About - Dress Code and Penalty Periods/Fees

Seabourn has quietly put in place two noteworthy changes you should be aware of.  One concerns the always popular topic of Dress Code and the other Penalty Periods and Fees.

Dress Code

Starting with the October 17, 2014 sailing, the Dress Code is changing. It is going to be simplified and brought more in line with what its guests now desire.  Gone are three types of dress and formal optional (never did understand that!).  

A short summary:  

Men, if you don't want to bring a tie or jacket you don't need to.  You can dine anywhere on the ship other than The Restaurant on Formal nights.  Want to dine there on Formal nights, bring a jacket...but you don't need a tie.

Ladies, dress as elegantly casual or formal as you wish

Jeans are  allowed, but not in The Restaurant during the evening or about the ship on Formal nights.

Here are the specifics:

Elegant Casual:  This is the dress standard for all dining venues except in The Restaurant (and only The Restaurant) on formal nights.  

Men: slacks with a collared dress shirt or sweater; Jacket Optional
Ladies: slacks / skirt, blouse, pant suit or dress.

Note:  Jeans are welcome in all dining venues during the day, but are not appropriate in The Restaurant after 6:00 p.m.

Formal: In the Restaurant:
Men: Tuxedo, suit or slacks and jacket required (tie not required)           
Ladies: evening gown or other formal apparel

Dress in other dining venues is Elegant Casual.

Note:   Jeans are not appropriate in any public venues after 6:00 p.m.

I like the changes and believe them to address  everyone's desires for their cruise experience.  If you never want to wear a tie you do not have to, but you can still share in the formal night experience by wearing a jacket or skip it and enjoy 95% of the ship.  If you enjoy formal nights, you can do so and look across the The Restaurant seeing tuxedos, jackets and no jeans.

It is hard to find significant reason to complain...though I am sure some will some.  For some the history and ambiance of elegant cruising is very important.  And I do enjoy it to a degree.  But just as I used to wear a jacket and tie to work every day (even when nobody was coming into the office to see me), I am writing this wearing a Seabourn Pride t-shirt, a pair of jeans and boat shoes.

Penalty Periods Are Expanding

Seabourn is addressing a problem that has been growing over the past few years and now, with there being less ships the time to address it is here.

In response to a number of people holding onto cruises they are not going to take until the last possible minute and, thus, leaving Seabourn with new inventory only 90 days prior to sailing, it is instituting a longer and more penalizing penalty period.

Now before you get all upset, I need to point out that the new penalty periods, while more in line with the other luxury cruise lines, are still more liberal than most and do not have any nickel-and-diming $100 or $200 "administrative fees" associated with them.

For all 2015 cruises and beyond booked starting August 1, 2014, on cruises up to 31 days in length, the penalty periods and penalties are as follows:

120 Days 15% Penalty
90 Days  50%
45 Days  75%
30 Days 100%

For cruises of longer than 31 days:

150 Days 15% Penalty
120 Days 50%
90 Days  75%
75 Days  100%

The irony of this change is that folks will blame Seabourn for becoming too strict, but the fact is that this will only affect a very small portion of the thousands of Seabourn guests every year because they either are going on their cruise or cancel when they know they cannot go rather than waiting until the last minute before their final payment is due.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Norwegian Cruise Lines Purchases Prestige Cruise Holdings (Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises)

This morning Norwegian Cruise Lines announced it was purchasing Prestige Cruise Holdings, owner of Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises for US$3.025 billion dollars including both cash and debt with another $50 million payable to Prestige's shareholders if certain performance targets are met in 2015.

What does it mean from a luxury cruise perspective?

Before getting to the analysis, you need to understand that NCL is partially owned (20%) by the Apollo Management, who were the owners of Prestige Cruise Holdings, so there is a bit of "shuffling of the deck chairs" so to speak.

You also need to know that NCL, under the guidance of Kevin Sheehan, has risen from the brink, but still has its struggles. (The Norwegian Epic is a disaster of a ship, the Caribbean cruise market can't sustain the pricing the cruise lines need, and NCL has a number of ships on order, among other things.)

I also want to point out that with all of the bluster coming out of Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, the fact is that Apollo Management is doing exactly what it planned from the beginning:  Build up and then sell off assets at a profit (and jettisoning the burden of financing and building a new ship).

Using its leverage to have its assets acquired by acquired another of its assets (NCL which has a market value of about $6.8 billion dollars) is a pretty smart move for Apollo -as it only owns 20% of NCL, but I am not so sure it makes great financial sense for NCL.

As you know I predicted and then watched Oceania pretty much consume Regent (albeit, admittedly, Oceania has not totally combined with Regent).  See for example my June 2008 article:  The Oceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruises Line and my March 2012 article: Oceania Cruises New, Creative, All-Inclusive Approach (TheOceania-fication of Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line - Another Chapter). Meanwhile I have watched Oceania improve its food quality (I can call it "cuisine") while Regent Seven Seas has struggled in that area, the crew from each line crossover and Regent struggles to profit while garnering the highest prices in the cruise industry as it provides a premium (not luxury) product through slick marketing and unfulfilled promises to its passengers (and recently failed a CDC ship inspection).  See, for example, its poor customer service and paying off travel agents with higher commissions just to get you to book a Regent Seven Seas cruise.

I have to wonder how NCL, and Kevin Sheehan (who is a pretty straight shooter!) will deal with Regent's false marketing that it is actually less expensive than say Celebrity or Holland America.  I have written about this a few times.  For example:  Regent Seven Seas vs. Holland America - Really? Let's TalkEthics and Regent Seven Seas Pricing - It Is Out of Control...Seriously, Why Pay That Much?

Oceania Cruises, on the other hand, while a bit weak on customer service before you board, is a strong product with great itineraries though to me it is a bit over-the-top with its extra charges.  I honestly consider it to be a superior product to Regent on many levels...and that may be the attraction!

Now, let's get down to finances.  I wrote just two weeks ago Regent Seven Seas Cruises - Reported Earnings for SecondQuarter 2014: A Lesson In Making the Bad Seem Good...which makes that $50,000,000 performance bonus seem like I hit the nail on the head.  In other words, Regent is not doing well.

When this is combined with NCL doing better, though not necessarily well, I then look at the points NCL and Prestige Cruise Holdings highlighted in their joint announcement (their words, not mine):

  -- The diversification of cruise market segments by adding upper premium and luxury brands;  We can agree that having a contemporary, premium and luxury product can have its benefits as the cruise customer generally moves up over time from an NCL or Carnival to more sophisticated brands.

  -- The further enhancement of industry-leading financial metrics;  I am not sure what "financial metrics" either leads the cruise industry in other than very high prices with low, if any, profits.  

  -- Opportunities for synergies and the sharing of best practices among brands;  Opportunities?  Really?

  -- An increase in economies of scale providing greater operational leverage;  Clearly larger cruise lines have the ability to leverage themselves, so by combining some of the opportunities NCL, Oceania and Regent could not achieve individiually that Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp. have had for years become available.  

  -- The expansion of growth trajectory and global footprint; It will expand the NCL brand worldwide, but not the overall global footprint, and I am not sure how combining is going to increase its "growth trajectory" as the number of ships in the pipeline through 2019 is pretty much fixed. (See below) unless the growth spoken of is profitability.

  -- The opportunity to complement Norwegian's new build program with the existing Regent order that provides measured, orderly capacity growth through 2019. Huh?  I guess that across the brands if one measures growth it is slower overall rather than having more peaks and valleys such as what would have happened when Regent finally obtains its first new ship in a very long time.  Combining that with NCL's pretty consistent growth will that over.  The effect?  Not much overall.

So what do the above six points mean?  Honestly, not much.  Those six points can be condensed down into this:  A larger combined company can use its diversity and breadth to get better pricing, lower its overall costs and retain more of its passengers (rather than NCL's losing them to unrelated cruise lines and Oceania/Regent having to find them)

Will this make Regent and Oceania stronger?  I am not so sure it will.  Will it change their products? Again, I am not sure it will. 

It is my hope that Kevin Sheehan puts his mark on Regent Seven Seas and brings Regent back to what it was when it was Radisson Seven Seas Cruises; a true luxury product with fair pricing and superior cuisine and service.

What do you think?  Visit The Gold Standard Luxury Travel Forum and express your opinion and see those of other people.

Interested in a cruise?  Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY (or one of my international numbers) or email me at

Monday, September 1, 2014

"The Cliff": Did the Sale of The Seabourn Pride, Spirit and Legend to Windstar Cruises Send Them Over the Edge...Or Give Them a New Life?

Windstar Cruise's Star Pride
(in her former life)
On Monday, September 8, 2014, I am boarding the Star Pride for a seven day Black Sea cruise. Windstar Cruises has invited me to see what they've done to the Pride and how things have changed. It's going to be different...but is that bad?

Before I get to the specifics, I want to talk about "The Cliff".  You've all heard the expression, "It's all downhill from here", well The Cliff is when something is so good, so spectacular, so incredible that when it goes way it is like suddenly falling off a cliff; like there is nothing that could replace it.

When word of the Seabourn triplets being sold came out to many it was like The Cliff.  The intimate, personal, 208 guest "yachting" experience that was Seabourn would be gone forever.  The number of times I heard, "I guess I will have to find another cruise line when the triplets go" is are the number of times people want me to forget they said that.

It is, personally, rather ironic that I am about to experience and review the new life of the Pride as she transforms from the Seabourn Pride to Windstar Cruise's Star Pride.  Why?  Because I, personally, have been facing my own "The Cliff".

Gazing Over The Edge of "The Cliff"
Over the past months I have been going through four (4) of what most would consider fairly traumatic life experiences:  I am going through a divorce after 20+ years of marriage; my son has just headed off to Colorado for his first year in college; I am adjusting to being a single parent to my 15 year old daughter (though I pretty much have been a single parent to both of my children for years); and, I am transitioning out of the practice of law to focus solely on Goldring Travel.  The Cliff?   Nope.

I had another significant change:  Through all of that stuff there have been wonderful new transformations of my life...and a wonderful person to go through the bumps and successes with.  My approach is different. My perspective is different. My ability to enjoy is different.  And, I think, all for the better.  But it is a process.

For me "The Cliff" is what I face if I let go of any of that...or it lets go of me.

However, since gazing over "The Edge" is not my favorite thing (though taking a peek is unavoidable!), I prefer to know the potential for The Cliff is there, but not to focus on it.

So what does this have to do with the Star Pride and her sisters?  Heck, this is not a therapy session, is it?  It is simple:  Seabourn needed to change its world and Windstar needed to change its world. Caught in the middle (one might say "fortunately") are the three ships that had defined Seabourn for years.

While other ships were getting bigger and fancier the Seabourn mantra became, "It's not the hardware (the ship), its the software (the people)" and those three ships sailed full on virtually every sailing.  But then the luxury market really needed to provide more in the way of alternative dining venues, more and larger public spaces, faster ships so that more exotic ports could be visited, more modern galleys for more complex menus and the list goes on...while the triplets were potentially and seriously looking at The Cliff.

I mean who would have the vision and the money to transform these circa 1988-1996 small ships with no real balconies?  Would they wind up like the incredibly popular but far too unique Radisson Diamond (I loved that ship!) ferrying Asian gamblers out to sea in smoke-filled casinos and little elegance...or worse? Oh The Cliff was very real.

And then Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the nation's largest operator of park-based hotels, restaurants and stores, purchased Windstar Cruises and orchestrated the purchase of the Seabourn Pride, Spirit and Legend. (You can read more about it here:  Windstar's Wind Surf - What Does It Tell Us About theTransformation of the Seabourn Pride into the Star Pride? Leave Your Tuxedo and Bring Your Flip-Flops!

And their transformation began...and so did a change in the perspective for these ships.  The Star Pride and her sisters are no longer focused on the luxury, but premium, market and their "attitude" is not on providing luxury but Windstar's friendly and warm, service.  This takes a lot of pressure off of the ships AND it allows the Pride to more than competitively complete with the other players in the Premium market.  How so?

The Star Pride is an all-suite ship with marble bathrooms (with double-sink vanities and full bathtubs), large sofas and true in-suite dining capabilities with true refrigerators and a modern entertainment system.  What other premium line offers these amenities?

The Star Pride has an elegant dining room, two possible al fresco dining options and tons of deck space...along with the ability to visit ports that many of the premium cruise lines simply cannot visit plus tenders with true tenders rather than lifeboats (a nice touch).

Windstar has made some changes to the Pride including transforming the Observation Lounge into its Yacht Club thus giving it more purpose than it had in the past, as well as redesign of what was formerly The Club into the Compass Rose Lounge.  I will talk more about these and other changes when I am onboard next week!

Artist's Rendition of The Yacht Club.
And so, faced with The Cliff, it seems that the Star Pride has turned away from it, and its new support is giving it a bit assist.  Do I expect there to be a few bumps and adjustments to come?  Of course.  It is part of the process.  But I am truly looking forward to boarding her since my last cruise on her for the 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise.

The cruise I will be taking is perfect for the Star Pride:  A Black Sea cruise with some smaller, unique, ports...ironically very similar to a 2004 cruise I took on the Radisson Diamond; visiting Istanbul, Amasra and Samsun, Turkey; a day at sea; Odessa, Ukraine (we shall see), Constanta, Romania; and Nessebar, Bulgaria. I will be spending two nights in Istanbul pre-cruise at the Hotel Nena in the heart of the Old City.  I have always stayed outside of the Old City and visited it when I wanted.  Taking a different perspective and a premium (rather than luxury) approach right from the start, should put me right on course to view and live the Star Pride in the proper, and refocused, light.

I have also made sure that I did not have too many conversations with Windstar Cruises prior to my departure because I don't want any pre-conceived expectations.  I have enough of those as it is.  

And, to be sure, what I need to be careful of is saying, "The last time I was onboard..." or "On Seabourn..." 

It is time for fresh starts, fresh perspectives and appreciation of what is right in front of me and the Pride...and we both know it is not The Cliff.