Cruise Vacations: Not Your Mother’s Slow Boat To China

cruise vacationsOften believed to be the travel choice of the newly wed or nearly dead, the nature of cruise vacations has evolved in recent years. At one time, a cruise vacation meant shuffleboard, never-ending buffets and a few thousand older, overweight passengers on a spin around the Bahamas. Now, the old iconic activities, dining options and even older passengers are being replaced with an active lifestyle and options for adventure travelers.

As new ships come out, cruise lines are careful to build in an ability to be flexible and cater to the traveler of today. Relevant dining options ranging from lifetime event dining, like a steakhouse dinner to celebrate a graduation at a fraction of the cost on land, to comfort food dining, like Macaroni and Cheese in the ship’s main dining room, reflect an evolving passenger’s taste.

Pinpointing that taste and satisfying it, cruise lines are more rabidly focused on capturing the attention of would-be passengers with far more than low prices and bonus offers. Branded experiences ranging from an infusion of DreamWorks characters into the Royal Caribbean fleet, a Nickelodeon influence on Norwegian ships and even Apple products in iLounges on Celebrity Cruises are proving popular. Off the ship, adventurous shore experiences often put cruise travelers on a path similar to that suggested by popular travel bloggers going it on their own.

Flickr photo via Trey Ratcliff

Along with this “give-them-what-they-want” focus comes a branding effort designed to jumpstart the infusion of trendy, relevant elements to the onboard experience on older ship as well. Royal Caribbean has a Royal Advantage program being rolled out to older ships, replacing tube sets with flat-screen TV‘s, adding new trendy dining venues found on the newest of ships and upgrading other elements of the onboard experience as well.

On Carnival Cruise Lines some travelers may lament the near extinction of the party-going frat sailings (AKA “booze cruise”) but don’t have to look far for new, different venues that are becoming the place to be at sea.

Inspired by what is popular while traveling, Carnival unleashed its FunShip 2.0 initiative in New York last October. The $500 million enhancement program includes partnerships with popular celebrities and leading brands.

Funnyman George Lopez and celebrity chef Guy Fieri along with Miami Heat‘s DJ Erie are doing more than simply lending/selling their well-known names and star statuses to the Carnival brand in an attempt to draw a new breed of cruise passenger. Each has worked with Carnival to create experiences that fit the brand and infuse their own unique style.

cruise vacationsThe Food Networks Guy Fieri is working with Carnival to offer a dining venue called Guy’s Burger Joint, featuring the Food Network star’s (really amazing) hand-crafted burgers and fresh-cut fries with special recipes created exclusively for Carnival.

Different, from previous product upgrades that have happened throughout the years, cruise lines are listening and communicating with passengers and targeted travelers, speaking their language. Also, reflecting a degree of transparency, cruise lines are letting us in behind the scenes to see what goes into bringing something new on board as never before.

At a press conference in New York, Fieri manned the outdoor grill most of the afternoon, making soon-to-be signature burgers and answering questions. When asked why he got involved with the project, straight-talking Fieri told us, “…because these people at Carnival really care about their customers. It really means a lot to them that the people who sail on their ships have a good time. I wanted to be a part of that.”

It’s funny how you can hear something like that from a cruise line a million times and think nothing of it, but let those words come out of a popular icon in the world of food and all of the sudden they have meaning.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too and gets really detailed in its execution on board. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board. We sampled (OK make that “inhaled”) both in New York and agreed with most others that it was one of the best burgers ever.

Carnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s “creative director for comedy” as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

cruise vacationsTo become the cruise line’s curator of comedy, acting as a consultant on the vetting and hiring of comedic talent for the line’s existing fleetwide comedy clubs, Lopez will play an active role in the securing of top up-and-coming comedic talent, utilizing his vast resources within the North American comedy scene.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” Lopez told us. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

“Carnival’s guests absolutely love comedy which is why we are already the cruise industry leader in fleetwide comedic programming and, in fact, we host more guests in our shipboard comedy clubs than any land-based comedy chain in the U.S.,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “By partnering with George Lopez, an exceptionally talented, respected and popular comedian, Carnival’s comedy offerings will be taken to an entirely new level.”

Lopez is seriously into the comedy concept too, much like Fieri and his cooking. In an interview with CruiseRadio‘s Doug Parker and Matt Basford, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding, “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about.”

cruise vacationDJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity promises to bring an exciting and relevant new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations told us. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement – much like Carnival had done for 40 years.

But through his new comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

An important point to note: none of this costs extra. This is Carnival reinventing the at-sea experience, adding more options than ever, all included in the price.

The onboard experience is changing in other ways as well. Big name entertainment is lending their name to new cruise ships as Godmothers, or just to be were the entertainment action is.

Martina McBride performed on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas; Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before.

Off the ship too, cruise lines are taking a good hard look at what they have for travelers once ships reach their destinations. Taking a page from travel bloggers, cruise line “excursions” are far more than a busload of tourists complaining if the air conditioning is not cool enough.

Today we’re seeing cruise passengers getting off the bus and on to kayaks, scuba diving, surfing, hiking and climbing trails, viewing history, arts and culture up close in any given port. At the end of the day some ships may stay in port late or overnight before moving on to their next stop.

Always a solid reason for cruising, travelers get to see and sample destinations they may or may not want to return to later, for a longer land-based vacation.

No, today’s cruise vacations are not your parents’ idea of a good time, they’re yours, whatever that may mean.


Photos via Carnival Cruise Lines

Cruise Lines Court New Yorkers With More Ships, Better Value

New YorkersNew Yorkers and most of the upper east coast of the United States have had few cruise ships to choose from. Traditionally, cruise lines sailed most of their ships from warmer, southern ports, which added the cost of a flight to a cruise vacation package too. Now, cruise lines are positioning more ships from upper east coast ports with a special focus on the New York market. The end result is, and will continue to be, more choices, better pricing and the best value ever to New Yorkers.

Norwegian Cruise Lines‘ new 4,000-passenger ship, Norwegian Breakaway, will sail from her homeport of New York City to the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean for her inaugural winter season in 2013. That adds one more drive-to-the-port option for cruise passengers in the often under-served New York market.

“Norwegian Breakaway is one of the most highly anticipated new ships and has seen great demand for her summer sailings to Bermuda,” Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan told TravelDailyNews. “We are also excited to announce that the ship will stop at our newly enhanced private island, Great Stirrup Cay, offering an exclusive beach experience.”

Embarking on seven- to twelve day cruises to the Bahamas and Florida from October 2013 to April 2014, the line is taking in ports including Nassau, Great Stirrup Cay, Orlando and Port Canaveral. Two 12-day Southern Caribbean voyages and two “Weekend Escape” cruises in January 2014 are also scheduled with the 12-day itinerary incorporating visits to San Juan, St Thomas, Philipsburg, Castries, Bridgetown and Basseterre.

As the largest ship to homeport year-round in New York City, Norwegian Breakaway is expected to bring 140,000 additional embarking passengers into New York City over two years creating an estimated $35 million in direct spending.

In another move, Carnival Miracle, once a seasonal ship, started sailing year-round from New York this month, marking the line’s first year-round sailings from that port.

“New York is one of the highest-rated homeports for Fun Ship cruising. Carnival Miracle’s new year-round, eight-day departures offer consumers the best of both worlds – a choice of three attractive year-round Caribbean and Bahamas itinerary options with the opportunity to depart from one of the world’s great cities,” Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill told BreakingTravelNews.

Carnival Miracle will offer three different eight-day itineraries that visit popular islands throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas. The itineraries include Eastern Caribbean departures to San Juan, St. Thomas and Grand Turk, offered on a rotating basis April through October with a series of Bahamas sailings featuring stops at the private Bahamian island of Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk and Nassau. November through April, Carnival Miracle sails to the Bahamas along with a stop in Florida with port calls to Port Canaveral (Orlando), Nassau and Freeport.

On board, travelers will also find some new programming with an upscale New York flair.

The Taste Bar is Carnival’s newest casual dining option introduced this month on Carnival Miracle with fleetwide implementation expected to be completed by summer 2013.

The Taste Bar features complimentary bite-size offerings inspired by line’s Fun Ship 2.0 initiative dining venues, along with a signature cocktail tied to that eatery’s particular theme available for purchase for $5.

Sample offerings may include roasted pork tacos; meatballs and hand-whipped ricotta bruchetta; fried malanga (sweet potatoes) filled with ginger-scented pork and lime aioli; grilled ham and provolone cheese melt; and short rib croquettes with chipotle aioli.

Also on Carnival Miracle, the debut of the Punchliner Comedy Club Presented by George Lopez, part of a recently announced partnership with the comedian who serves as the line’s “curator of comedy,” acting as a consultant on the vetting and hiring of both established and up-and-coming comedic talent.

The Punchliner Comedy Club will offer five 35-minute shows on multiple nights during each voyage with at least two comedians performing each night. Two early-evening shows are geared toward a family audience, while the later performances feature R-rated, adults-only comedy.

Carnival Miracle’s year-round schedule of eight-day Caribbean voyages from New York with three different eight-day itineraries are offered:

  • Eastern Caribbean departures to San Juan, St. Thomas and Grand Turk;
  • Bahamas sailings featuring stops at the private Bahamian island of Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk and Nassau
  • Bahamas/Florida cruises with port calls to Port Canaveral (Orlando), Nassau and Freeport.

“The cruise industry continues to be an economic boon for the City, and today’s announcement that the Carnival Miracle will start offering year-round cruises from New York City will do even more to stimulate our economy, bringing additional visitors and generating nearly $13 million in direct spending,” said New York City Economic Development Corporation President Seth W. Pinsky in a release.

Also sailing seasonally from New York, beginning May 25, 2012, Disney Magic will sail 20 cruises from New York with three unique and varied itineraries. No stranger to Disney Ships, here is new Disney Fantasy arriving in New York earlier this year for inaugural festivities before heading south to her new home in Florida.

Disney Fantasy Cruise Ship Docks in NYC

[Flickr photo via Dr.DeNo]

A day in Naples, Italy

Naples, ItalyNaples, Italy is the place to be if you want to see the ruins of Pompeii, one of the best examples of a Roman town. It’s the fourth stop on our tour of the Mediterranean where we see 8 different places in 9 days, each for just one day. Of all the places we would visit, delivered by Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Magic, this was one I actually knew something about and visiting would complete a dream that started in eight grade.

Pompeii is possibly the most famous excavation in the world, drawing 15,000 people every day, almost as many as lived there before the horrifying eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was a topic covered long and hard in my 8th grade Social Studies class teacher, Mr. Hoobing, years ago to the point that it had a permanent place on any bucket list I might have floating around someplace.

The drill in 8th grade was to hand-draw exact replicas of famous archaeological sites as a method of reinforcing information about them…or so I figured out years later. The point was well-taken though; these sites had huge historical significance and told of a time long ago that while vastly different as far as technology goes, was fueled by some of the very same human emotions that rule today.


The 45-minute bus ride from Carnival Miracle through Naples and on to Pompeii came with a running commentary by a tour guide who got most of the facts right. Never mind that he erred 100 years either side of when the big event occurred from time to time; his conclusions were accurate: the site offers a rare glimpse into what Roman life was like back then.

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If you are an armchair fan of archeology, this place takes you back to a time when prostitution was legal, rich citizens ruled and perhaps gave insight to the fall of the Roman empire and all it stood for. If you are not a fan, this is not the place to visit but if you’re in the area anyway, you probably should. There is a lot to be learned here about life long ago that can have some answers to the world of today. Maybe. If you want it to. If you go to Pompeii and find yourself thinking “Oh great, more old stuff”, you are in the wrong place.

Naples offers a bunch of great cafes, shops, and other sites to see as well as some of the best Italian food in the world. It would be a shame to be in the area and miss this one. Off a cruise ship there are a bunch of excursions one can take. Count on them all to be crowded/clogged with people. After hundreds of years, these attractions are still a huge draw to travelers from all over the world.

I think Mr Hoobing would be happy I went. I’m happy I paid attention in 8th grade.

Photos: Lisa Owen

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Dubrovnik in a day

Dubrovnik in a dayWe had just a few hours in Dubrovnik, Croatia and wanted to make the best of it. Arriving via cruise ship, time was limited. This was the first port of call on a 9-night Mediterranean cruise which looked to be a good sampling of the area. The plan is to hit each destination hard, see some highlights and capture enough information to decide if a return trip might be in the cards for future travel. It made sense, sampling these places we had never been to before, but right off the bat we had a problem: we fell in love with Dubrovnik.

What we call our “sampling of the Med” tour started in Venice, Italy and will end nine days later in Barcelona. In between we will also visit Sicily, Naples, Rome and Livorno, Italy as well as a stop in Monaco. That makes eight destinations in nine days. To prepare for Dubrovnik we started with a Google search for Dubrovnik and gathered background information. VisitCroatia.com was helpful as well as a host of other websites for the basic information we would need for entry requirements, infrastructure in place, etc. As far as what to do and see, we relied on a number of sources including Gadling and AOLTravel for specific recommendations.

Dubrovnik in a dayThe cruise ship we came on was the Carnival Magic (#CarnivalMagic), a new one on her inaugural voyage and staff there had some recommendations as well. The day before we were delivered to Dubrovnik, Carnival Magic’s cruise director gave a complete briefing on what to expect, see and do ashore. The ship offered shore excursions, packaged tours for a set price, but we wanted to try what we have done in other parts of the world here, go it on our own. Our normal plan when visiting a new destination is to first come prepared with a good working knowledge of what to expect, set some goals for what we want to see then make final choices on the ground in sync with what is happening there right now. In other words, our plans are rarely set in stone and offer a great amount of flexibility.

Approaching travel that does not have a specific date-sensitive event included with a good dose of flexibility has made for some fabulous travel adventures in the past. Still, our visit to Dubrovnik had an expiration date so efficient time management was important.

Money management here was easy. Currency in Dubrovnik is the Kuna which is about a five to one value to the US dollar. Euros are also accepted and some merchants take dollars as well. Unlike other ports we will call on for this journey, Croatia’s entry requirements for cruise travelers call for a valid passport to be presented before entry is granted. On other ports, cruise travelers can leave passports securely behind on the ship and be granted entry with only their ship identification card.

It was a cloudy day with rain off and on all morning. By mid-morning the rain slowed but naggy clouds looked like they would be staying around for a while. Armed with rain gear we chose to take a short (2.5km) hike to what is called the “Old City” (aka Stari Grad), a walled fortress that looks somewhat similar to El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico from a distance. Good public transportation runs all day and we could have taken a bus for a few bucks but would have missed out on some fabulous scenery. Dubrovnik was heavily bombed during the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995 and has some battle scars to prove it. Still, the people are warm and friendly in a real “I hope you come back again” way rather than a “we’re putting up with you” kind of way.

Stopping at a bar along the way as well as pausing about every 10 meters to take photos, that short hike took a bit less than an hour, leaving plenty of time for lunch and exploring the walled city. It did not take long to fall in love with this city and it’s people, a helpful and friendly bunch that did not mind answering questions or giving directions and suggestions on what to see.

Our waiter, Eliah, at the Sesame Restaurant just outside the gated city, told us English was a Dubrovnik in a daysecond language to many in Dubrovnik who chose it with dreams of visiting some day. He wants to be a Crime Scene Investigator and studied to be one in college. One problem with his plan is that there is very little crime in Croatia, especially in Dubrovnik, so not all that many of those jobs exist. But when he talked about visiting the United States for a possible job sometime in the future, Elijah’s face took on a dream-like look that I will probably always remember.

To Elijah we were not the Ugly Americans off the cruise ship, we were friends being served in his home. That warm and open demeanor of his would be experienced several times that day from others we would come in contact with too.

I mention this particular part of our hike for just one reason; because it accomplished one of the major goals we have for every place we visit: to make a friend. We have done packaged tours and shore excursions before and will later on this journey. Those are safe, guided ways to see a lot of things in a short amount of time. But we like to take our time and get to know the land we are visiting. A day in old town accomplished this very nicely.

Photos: Lisa Owen

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Chris is being sponsored by Carnival Cruise Lines on a Nine-night Mediterranean cruise and is free to report anything he experiences on the journey without bias

Carnival Magic debuts with familiar new features

Carnival Magic debutsCarnival Cruise Lines latest ship, Carnival Magic, debuted Sunday in Venice, Italy. The sold-out inaugural event will visit six Mediterranean ports on its nine-night first sailing. But this story is more than just the latest launch of the latest big floating hotel from the latest cruise line currently in the spotlight. Carnival Magic was built on an evolving foundation of success that will carry her well into the future.

On board to christen the ship was unlikely Godmother Lindsey Wilkerson, cancer-survivor-turned-spokesperson for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Diagnosed, treated, then into remission at an early age, Wilkerson’s inspirational story had been circulated by the cruise line extensively prior to the event. But the story took on profound new meaning when veteran cruise director John Heald had Wilkerson’s family join her on stage at the ship’s christening event.

In a moment that defined Carnival’s clear commitment to family, values and the future of the cruise industry, Wilkerson’s adorable daughter (who might not have been) took the stage, bringing tears to the eyes of many in the audience.

3,690-passenger Carnival Magic also happens to be the 100th ship built by parent Carnival Corporation so opening festivities included a good measure of tradition that is reflected in on board offerings.

New features include Cucina Del Capitano, an Italian eatery celebrating the line’s Italian lineage, the Red Frog Pub, a Caribbean-inspired bar with it’s own micro-brew, and SportSquare, an outdoor recreation area that continues an industry-wide focus on fitness and health.

For fans of cruise vacations, there is nothing quite like sailing on the inaugural voyage of a shiny new ship. Cruise lines introduce the latest features and inaugural events bring global attention. Records are broken, memories are made and the mood is festive. This one looks to be all that. More importantly, onboard programming builds upon Carnival’s clear understanding of its trademark “Fun” element.

Placing even more emphasis on signature features like an expanded adults-only Serenity area and Waterworks aqua park, Carnival proves once again how well they know their customers.

What Carnival does not talk about is their ability to seamlessly integrate all the ingredients they offer in their recipe for a great travel experience. That recipe, when fully embraced, allows guests to leave behind their cares, relax and refresh then move forward, renewed with a clarity difficult to emulate with other travel options.

That’s probably for the best.

A good magician never tells how the trick is done.

Chris is being sponsored by Carnival Cruise Lines on this sailing but free to report on any and all aspects of the experience. Chris is available to answer any questions you may have during the voyage that concludes in Barcelona May 10.