Crystal Cruises Hobbit Experience Brings New Adventure To Sea

Crystal Cruises are always looking for unique experiences to stand out from the crowd and an upcoming New Zealand sailing is no exception. Bringing adventure from the big screen to cruise passengers, Crystal Cruises has a new dinner experience this December, on the “Hobbiton” set used for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and new prequel film.

Just days after “The Hobbit

opens worldwide, Crystal Symphony calls in Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island of New Zealand, home of the “Hobbiton” set used for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and new prequel film. On the December 20 sailing, Crystal Symphony guests can have a private, guided tour from Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ Hobbit holes to the Brandywine Bridge, featuring local wine and beer and a traditional Kiwi barbeque served by wait staff in Lord of the Rings costume.

“We are always looking for unique, boutique ways for our guests to immerse themselves in a world different from their own,” said Crystal’s Vice-President, Land & Port Operations, John Stoll in a Popular Cruising report.A second “Lord of the Rings“-themed adventure is also offered on both cruises, visiting Edoras’ home, Mt. Potts Station and Lodge, and New Zealand’s Southern Alps from Christchurch.

The 16-day Christmas/New Year’s sailing voyage overnights in Auckland before sailing through Tauranga, Napier, Christchurch, Dunedin, Sydney (double overnight), Melbourne (overnight), and Dusky, Doubtful, and Milford Sounds.

“With ‘The Hobbit’ opening mid-December, this is an extraordinarily timely opportunity for Crystal guests to be transported to a place that many fantasy-fiction genre fans, movie buffs, as well as wine and foodies, and off-the-beaten-path travelers, from around the globe can only dream of visiting,” said Stoll. The Hobbiton dinner and village exploration fee is $265 per person.

[Photo credit: Crystal Cruises]

Cruise Line Destination Focus Brings Off-Ship Adventures

Cruise lines continue to bust into new territory, shaking off their booze cruise, buffet bonanza reputation with a keen focus on the destinations they visit. Off the ship, cruise travelers want more than a packaged shore excursion. They want more time in port with active experiences rather than passive viewing. Cruise lines are beginning to deliver too. Spending some of the clout they earn by bringing millions in tourism revenue to ports around the world, cruise lines are tapping local sources and setting up unique off-ship adventures.

Crystal Cruises has Overland Adventures that take Crystal guests to unique, immersive events ashore. Typical of the intensity level of their Overland Adventures is a three-night Laos Overland Discovery during a March 7, 2013, Southeast Asia cruise, offering an intimate look into the rich history, culture and scenery of the former French colony and UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang, considered the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia.Those participating will get off their cruise ship, Crystal Symphony, in the port of Laem Chabang, Thailand where they will spend the first night. From there, they fly to Laos for two nights, to see a Laotian Buddhist alms-giving ceremony, visit sacred temples and other attractions then sail across the Mekong River to the Buddha-filled Pak Ou Caves. Travelers then rejoin Crystal Symphony in Ho Chi Minh City.

While in the area, Crystal offers other off-ship adventures with titles like “The Wonders of Angkor Wat,” “Phong Nha Caves & Vietnam Heritage” and “A Portrait of Vietnam: Hue, Hoi An & Hanoi.”

The whole destination immersion focus has become so popular that Azamara Club Cruises is adding a complimentary immersive destination event ashore featured on every voyage.

Azamara guests sailing a Baltic cruise voyage, for example, might enjoy a private ballet performance in St. Petersburg, Russia, while walking the red carpet and sipping champagne. Travelers on a Mediterranean cruise may find themselves sampling Jerez, Spain’s famous sherry wine at Gonzalez Byass and later enjoying a private equestrian ballet at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art.

These are not your typical cruise line “load everybody up in a tour bus and drive around” excursions.

Mainstream cruise lines, still mostly limited to day trips, are testing the waters for immersive off-ship adventures. In Alaska, Princess Cruises continues to explore the land of the midnight sun with experiences like a Back Country Zodiac Expedition, a Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour or a Heli-Hike & Rail Adventure.

For now, we’re finding these experiential off-ship adventures on high-end luxury lines. But look for mainstream cruise lines to offer intense lifetime event experiences in the near future.

[Flickr photos by *christopher*]

Cruise Vacation Shore Excursions: A Better Value With New Service

Cruise vacations may have an all-inclusive nature but, as anyone who has sailed knows, the cruise fare paid far from covers everything. Incidental, but nearly mandatory, expenses like gratuities, soft drinks or alcoholic beverages and transfer services to and from the ship can add up fast. One part of it all that can make or break a cruise vacation experience is shore excursions — what we do off the ship. A new service now offers remarkable savings on the same or better tours than those offered by the cruise line.

Going live this week, Viator Shore Excursions offers more than 500 shore excursions in over 80 of the most popular ports around the globe, including new destinations Juneau, Monaco and Mykonos.

“The new Viator Shore Excursion platform builds on the increasing popularity of independent shore excursion bookings on,” Barrie Seidenberg, CEO and president of Viator told Gadling. “We’ve taken our great inventory and added innovative technology to create the new user experience and give cruise passengers direct access to the best excursions in their ports of call to help them make the most of their time and money in every port.”Commonly thought of as the safe way to go, tours offered from the cruise line are often priced much higher than when bought from independent operators. Those tour companies are often the same people that provide the service to cruise lines. Now, our friends at Viator, a leading resource for researching and booking tours and activities around the world, unveiled a new website specifically designed to help cruise passengers find and book shore excursions with savings up to 60 percent off typical rates offered by cruise lines.

“For far too long cruise passengers have been beholden to the cruise lines for shore excursions that are often overpriced, over crowded and represent only a fraction of what’s available locally,” added Seidenberg.

The site has been designed for the complex nature of shore excursion bookings and will offer only relevant tours and activities based on the specific itinerary of the most major cruise lines.

Passengers select the cruise line, ship name and departure date, and Viator instantly loads the cruise ship’s itinerary and then shows only those excursions that can specifically work for each port of call based on arrival and departure times and availability.

Comparing Viator tours to similar tours offered by cruise lines, Viator comes out on top often with savings of up to 60 percent on tours we compared to cruise line prices.

Still, one of the big concerns passengers have with using third-party sources is missing the ship if the tour runs late. Viator has that covered too with their service “Viator’s Worry-Free Bookings.” If a passenger misses the ship because of a Viator excursion, Viator will transport them to the next port of call at no cost to the traveler.

On top of that, budget-conscious travelers will enjoy their Low Price Guarantee that really nails down their pricing as the best.

“Viator’s Low Price Guarantee also protects you two ways. First, if you find a lower price for the same tour or activity offered by the same operator (priced in the same currency) within 72 hours of booking, send us the details and we’ll refund the price difference. No gimmicks, no exceptions,” says Viator on its website. “Second, we also protect you against arriving at a destination and finding the same tour or activity offered at a lower price from our operator. If you do happen to find a lower price direct from our operator, simply send us the details and we’ll refund the price difference. It’s that easy.”

Low price, good availability and the worry-free policy make the new Viator Shore Excursions a great tool to consider when planning a cruise vacation. We suggest a simple comparison test. Open two screens on your computer — one with the ship’s offerings and one with Viator’s shore excursions for that same itinerary.

Going port by port it looks like Viator’s savings could be considerable.

[Images via Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL]

Taxi driver boycott of cruise ships a sign of the times

In Victoria, B.C. Alaska cruise season has just begun but Victoria taxi companies did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for recently all-inclusive Crystal Symphony earlier this week. Seeking a reduction in the annual charge they pay to service the cruise lines, taxi drivers boycotted the ship, refusing to pick up passengers.

The Greater Victoria Taxi Association is at odds with the port authority over the $200 per cab annual fee and wants it reduced. The port authority says the fee is reasonable, every transportation company pays it and that collected fees go towards safety improvements. The taxi association says business is down and fewer ships coming this year means less income for them.

In a recovering, adjusting worldwide economy, things are changing from cruise lines re-deploying ships as demand changes right down on street-level and the taxi cab companies that service cruise ships.

While the $200 annual fee may seem reasonable, cab companies may be going after a reduction to make up for lost income elsewhere.

“In most markets, the average spending per passenger is probably down five to 10 per cent … from pre-recession levels. The recession has had the impact of reducing aggregate spending by cruise passengers” Andrew Moody, president of Pennsylvania-based Business Research and Economic Advisors (BREA) told the Vancouver Sun.

Earlier this month, taxi drivers in Thailand blocked two busloads of passengers from Silversea’s Silver Spirit. Headed out for tours from the Phuket deep sea port, four hours passed before taxi drivers agreed on a 50/50 split between taxi and bus transportation.

This ongoing dispute here finds it’s root with government officials who have failed to find a solution. In an effort to avoid confrontation, high fares and almost no regulation have taken control.

Regardless of the reason, having a cab available to pick up passengers has always been something taken for granted. Passengers get off the ship. Cabs are waiting. Off they go.

Cruise lines have a lot of different elements that go into creating a good travel experience for passengers. Some they have control over, others not so much. It will be interesting to see how other economic factors affect the cruise experience as we watch the cruise industry mature.

Flickr photo by Guwashi999

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10 ways to pass the time in port on your cruise

Cruise lines offer a lot of things to do on the ship. They have way more than ever before and before it was virtually impossible to do everything they offered. There are more entertainment, dining, activity, and learning options than ever. You can see a Broadway show on one ship, dine at a five-star restaurant on another, ice skate or surf on yet another or enjoy a world-class spa treatment on just about any of them.

Going ashore though is another thing altogether.

They have shore excursions. That’s it. Nothing else. Should that keep you from going on a cruise? Oh my no. Here, check these ten things you can do other than shore excursions.

  1. Sing a song– Have you done that lately? Just really let go and sang along other than in the shower or someplace alone? If you never, ever would do such a thing, this is the perfect time to start. I guarantee you will remember that day forever. The best part is that, with few exceptions, you will probably never see anyone sailing with you ever again for the rest of your life. You might text or tweet them or maybe even email them. If you’re really friendly you might talk about cruising with them again. But once you get back to real life, odds are their memory will fade over time. Be the one they will remember forever.
  2. Shop– This is one of those things everybody says they do but few do well. Most people go ashore to buy, not to shop. There are no rules that say you must come home with a coffee cup or refrigerator magnet from every place you go. Think about this before you even get on the ship. Walk around where you live and take inventory of your stuff. Would a cool bag from a call in the Caribbean be a good replacement for your worn gym bag? You bet it would. Would a handful of necklaces, hand-made in Haiti be great gifts for friends? Of course. How about some drugs from Jamaica? Probably not. Unless you’re on Royal Caribbean and know one of the crew members/drug smugglers.
  3. Go off on your own– I know, it’s not safe. Well you can play it safe going along with the crowd on a tour bus filled with other playing-it-safe people and see all the same things they and thousands before them have and thousands after them will. Or you could choose to spend an afternoon sitting in a local coffee shop drinking in a culture that is probably a whole lot different than yours back home. Maybe you go crazy and do something different, something you would never have dreamed of doing back home. It’s called “traveling” and you can do it.
  4. Stay on the ship– If you don’t like the look of the port or you have been there before and see no reason to get off the ship, don’t. You will find that most everyone else left, leaving pretty much the whole ship to you. This is a great strategy for crowded ships where there are lines for stuff. I should mention that there is a huge difference between “staying on the ship” and “hiding on the ship”. Unless you are a criminal, running from the law, you should not be hiding on the ship. That is sick and you need help.
  5. Get off the ship– One of the huge advantages of a cruise ship is that it transports you to different locations. “Being in port” can be an exciting experience where you can see and do things not possible on the ship or back home. Some people like the idea of itineraries with many ports so they can have a wide variety of experiences in a short amount of time, noting their favorites then returning later, maybe by sea or maybe by air, to stay longer making what was once a short port call into a destination for a future vacation.
  6. Meet someone– The attractions you may see ashore, be they touristy sites or out of the way places you found by doing going off on your own, have been there for a long time and will probably be there for a long time to come. People, however, have a much shorter lifespan and will not. Find a shop that does not look too busy, a street vendor that has some time on their hands and ask some questions, get some answers, exchange some ideas. I think that’s called “having a conversation” and it’s something you won’t find listed as a shore excursion.
  7. Get in the picture– Unless you are a professional photographer, odds are these days that you can probably find all the photos you are apt to take online. You could probably pretend to go someplace and “borrow” plenty of photos and other documentation to show you went there. Take just a split second longer to ask someone to take your picture standing by the landmark you traveled halfway across the world to see.
  8. Set the camera down– I had the best of intentions when taking photos of our family vacations. I wanted to preserve every moment forever. I was the family photographer. Me and me alone had that responsibility. After about a half-dozen vacations, I realized that I had seen every one through the viewfinder. At that point I set the camera down and rarely pick it up. Off topic: same goes for recording baby moments. I have what represents thousands of dollars of memories in boxes that we have never looked at and probably never will unless one of the kids murders someone really important and they do one of those “where did this nut case come from” exposes.
  9. Ignore the icky people– If you have never been on a cruise before I have news for you. The ships are not full of all beautiful people who always have a smile on their faces. Like on land vacation or just on land in general, there are icky people that you will not like on a cruise too. The Love Boat was a TV show. While we would like to believe everything we see on television (especially those shows where people have “powers”) real life is not quite a happy. Same goes for the other passengers on the ship. People-watching can be a really entertaining activity at home. Imagine your
  10. Watch a sunset. It’s the same Sun you see at home. The same Stars in the sky. The same Rain that fell from the clouds thousands of years ago. The difference is where you are and who you are with. That you got there by cruise ship is an insignificant detail to sharing the moment with someone you like, love or just met and are not quite sure about yet.

Take the time to enjoy yourself whatever you do, however you do it and whenever you go. These 10 things to pass the time in port are not the ultimate answer but they are a good start. That might take saying out loud “I am on vacation. I may never pass this way again. I will enjoy this.” Whatever it takes, enjoy yourself. Whatever that may mean to you, all the tools are available as only a cruise vacation can provide.