March 30, 2011

Follow me to the Cruise Show

After a lot of thought, I have decided to focus on writing just one blog. So from now on, you'll need to visit the Cruise Show website to read my words of wisdom.

You can find it at this link:

You'll find it's the same mixture of news, thoughts and comments about the cruise industry, with useful reviews of ships when I am away.

There's a place to leave comments, good or bad. I'd be delighted to hear from as many of you as possible.

Many thanks for reading this over the years and I hope to see you at my new virtual home.

March 24, 2011

Viking quartet to launch in 2012

Balconies1.jpgViking River Cruises is going to match its own record in 2012 by launching four new vessels in one year - a feat it achieved in 2001 and which it says no other river cruise company has matched.

The four sisters, Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord and Viking Odin, dubbed Longboats by the company, will each have 95 cabins and capacity for 190 passengers.

They have been designed by Yran & Storbraaten - the team behind Disney Dream and Seabourn's new ships - and certainly take the Viking product up several notches.

Explorer_Suite.jpgMany of the cabins have balconies that are big enough to sit on and there are two spacious Explorer Suites with separate living and sleeping areas as well as wraparound verandas.

The Aquavit Terrace is a large lounge with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open up to create an even larger all-weather indoor-outdoor venue; al-fresco dining areas on the upper deck mean more dining options.

And get this - an organic herb garden will be one of a range of on-board eco-friendly features.

You'll get an idea of the light and airy design from these pictures - talk about chalk and cheese compared to the heavy décor on Uniworld's Antoinette, which was launched last weekend - and also from the DVD on the Viking website.

Aquavit lounge.jpgThe new vessels will be sailing company's four most-popular European river cruise itineraries - a 10-day Tulips & Windmills cruise round-trip from Amsterdam, an eight-day Romantic Danube voyage between Budapest and Nuremburg, a 15-day Grand European Tour between Amsterdam and Budapest and eight-day Danube Waltz, sailing between Passau and Budapest.

Free cheers planned for Discovery wedding party

Voyages of Discovery will be celebrating the Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29 with an on-board street party.

Their ship, Discovery, will be visiting St Peter Port in Guernsey on the big day as part of a seven-night French and Spanish Sojourn cruise from Portsmouth.

I'm told party planning is still in progress but the wedding will be televised, the deck will be decorated and festivities will run through the day and into the evening, when there'll be a flag-waving show and possibly a wedding-themed dinner.

When pushed about what they will be doing to get everyone in the party spirit, I got this answer:

"There will also be some form of complimentary drinks and nibbles."

The cruise departs on April 23 and prices start from £499 per person.

March 23, 2011

Smashing honour for the best of British bubbly

Balfour Brut Rosé from the Hush Heath Estate in Cranbrook, Kent, will be used to christen P&O Cruises' Adonia when it joins the fleet in May.

P&O says it's the first time a British sparkling wine has been used to name a ship. Dame Shirley Bassey has been chosen as godmother for the vessel so British is a bit of a theme for the ceremony, which will be held in Southampton.

Balfour Brut Rosé is grown from three classic Champagne varieties - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay - and is said to be England's most exclusive pink fizz.

TV wine expert Olly Smith, who created The Glass House wine venue on P&O's Azura, is typically effervescent in his praise for the bubbly.

"Balfour Brut Rosé is a celebration in a bottle. Gloriously refreshing with invigorating zing and plenty of finely crafted tiny bubbles, this pink fizz is a glimpse of the first rate quality on our shores. Cheers!"

I just hope P&O has ordered a few extra bottles for the big day - May 21 - as I could so do with an invigorating zing!

Crystal to go all-inclusive in 2012

After years of telling me their passengers don't want all-inclusive cruising, Crystal Cruises is going all-inclusive.

From spring 2012, alcohol on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony will be included in the cruise price (soft drinks and bottled water already are), as will gratuities for waiters, bar staff and room stewards, and butlers where applicable.

A lot of travel agent friends have told me they won't sell Crystal because they charge for alcohol and until this year had fixed two-seating dining.

"People paying that much money don't want to be told when to eat"

Well that's changed as well - an open-dining option was introduced this year - so now Crystal is no longer the odd-one out in the six-star market and can take its rightful place alongside other ultra-luxury cruise lines.

It's great news because it so deserves to be there.

It's also so much simpler than the half-way house they have now, where they charge for booze but hand out $1,000 per person on-board cruise credit to help pay for it.

How much simpler not to charge in the first place.

I'm told the cruise credit will go completely - it'll be missed because you could also put it towards spa treatments, shore excursions and the uber-swish Vintage Room, which you can book for private parties and where they hold $1,000 a head dining experiences - but it's not yet clear what will happen to the free flights offer (there are free flights for many cruises this year).

And indeed if they will continue to offer free flights, as they are doing on so many cruises this year.

Cruise show 2011 logo12.jpgUnfortunately the news that they are going all-inclusive came too late to be included in a 23-page ultra-luxury supplement I've written and which went to press on Monday.

Printers-willing, it will be available at the Cruise Show at Olympia this weekend and includes a review of Crystal Serenity so if you're coming along, do remember to pick up a copy. It'll be available on the Stowaway stand, A54.

Read and enjoy.

March 22, 2011

Carry on, don't lose your head

Cabin2.JPGI honestly wasn't sure if I'd like the décor on Uniworld's new vessel Antoinette - like it as in want to spend a lot of time in it.

It is very heavy; certainly not the light, bright look that more and more ship designers are going for.

Having been on for three nights, for the naming and a short cruise over the IJselmeer to Hoorn (a man from there named Cape Horn apparently) I am in two minds.

When I joined Antoinette in Amsterdam, it was moored right up against River Queen, another of Uniworld's boats, and it was right outside my window. What with the heavy upholstery and lack of light, my cabin was like the black hole of Calcutta.

View image

These pictures of the cabin, above, were taken at 3.30pm when it was broad daylight outside. I certainly didn't want to spend time in it.

Not great.

Bathroom10.JPGBut when we set sail and the sun came shining through the window it was a completely different room. It was lighter and altogether more appealing. For seven nights? Absolutely I'd like it - it really is so very different - but always keeping my fingers crossed that my side of the ship was never moored to another boat.

The beds are super-soft and the bathroom is sumptuous, with gorgeous fluffy towels. Just a shame the floor floods big time every time I shower because there is only a very small seal - not up to the job - to hold back the tide.

Antoinette has gone back to the shipyard as it is very unfinished in places and there's time to do something about that as the first paying passengers don't come on until March 27.

I imagine flooding bathrooms is one of the things they will try to rectify, as well as filling nail heads and hopefully fixing the cracked mirror in my bathroom and getting the bedside lights to work.

I don't have a balcony, but I have a large floor-to-ceiling window that opens half way from the top down. And all I have to do is push a button for it to happen.

Very nice but I'm not convinced it's better than having the traditional French windows opening to a Juliette balcony (that is one you can't stand on).

It's also not as unique as they say as I have been on another river cruise boat with a window that opened half way before. The difference was that the window was smaller and I had to open it manually.

In the suites, there is a French window and a piece of room that looks like a balcony with a wooden floor instead of the carpet and then the half-opening window. It's a sort of balcony lookalike as it's totally enclosed on the top.

Leopard bar.JPGWhat was different on Antoinette was the Leopard Bar, a great venue on the sun deck that was rocking with a live singer and late-night revellers after dinner on Saturday, the plush cinema, which I believe is a first on a river cruise boat, and the gorgeous spa pool, in a room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows so you get the warmth and the view - and there are cushioned loungers to make it perfect.

The same cushioned loungers are on the top deck which is a very luxurious touch.

There are also two massage rooms - or at least there will be when the vessel is finally finished (at the moment one is being used as a store room, as is the small gym).

I had a one-hour full body massage courtesy of Ionela from Romania and it was lovely. There were no price lists but she tells me it's roughly €1 per minute so the treatments are not cheap but at least she didn't waste time as they do in the big spas, asking daft questions ("have you had a massage before?" "have you tried these [expensive] products?") and arranging the room to look beautiful, so I felt I got my money's worth.

Omelette chef.JPGImportantly, the food and service on Antoinette was first class and definitely lived up to Uniworld's five-star claim. One waiter in the dining room quickly remembered I liked sparkling water, another waiter fetched the Pinot Grigio white wine when he saw me.

I've was also impressed at how easily the chef was able to provide alternative meals - and really tasty ones at that - because I couldn't eat the fish dishes (usually there is a choice but we had two celebration fixed menus).

"It's easy to claim five-star but not so easy to deliver," Toni Tollman said.

Surely no river cruise operator would do that. Would they?

Antoinette will be sailing a seven-night Castles of the Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Basel starting on March 27. Click here for more information.

March 21, 2011

Versailles is dead, long live Versailles

Cabin1.JPGAt first glance, river cruising and the elaborate décor of 18th-century France might not appear to have much in common.

But what if you are called Antoinette, have parents who own a river cruise company and are building a new boat that they are not only naming after you but letting you do the interior design as well?

Antoinette, to explain, is the daughter of Stanley and Beatrice Tollman, who own the Travel Corporation, parent company of Uniworld, Red Carnation Hotels and coach holiday operators Insight, Trafalgar and Contiki.

With a name like that, when asked to design the interiors what else could she come up with than something that looks straight out of the court of Versailles.

Everywhere. It oozes Versailles in the ornate bedrooms with their heavy drapes, the chairs in the dining room and lounge, which resembles a French salon, the mosaics in the restaurant, even the carpet in the cinema.

Chandelier.JPGAntoinette - Toni for short - was also Godmother of the ship; in her naming speech she explained that it all started when her family bought this chandelier when the famed Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park closed down.

That gave her the idea for the vessel's two-deck-high atrium; her name, the same as the French queen who lost her head, gave her the idea for the Versailles' theme.

"It's 18th-century France in the 21st century, with flat-screen TVs and marble bathrooms," she told the journalists, travel agents and VIPs during the rather bizarre naming ceremony on a cold but sunny day in Amsterdam.

For one thing, it was the first I've attended where the guest list has included dogs - four of them, flown across from the US in the Tollman's private jet with mother, father, various sons and daughters, their husbands, wives and children, two butlers, a personal assistant, dog minder and more.

For another the ceremony was also back to front. The band played, Uniworld president Guy Young said a few words, Toni talked about the décor, love and dedication that was put into Antoinette, blessed the ship and cut the chord to smash the bottle.

Bottle breaking.JPG"Does that often happen," she asked when it gave a little thud but didn't break. She looked so dismayed I didn't like to mention bad luck, especially I was already living in trepidation as one of the mirrors in my bathroom was cracked.

Happily, someone on deck rushed to her aid, smashed the bottle, so we all cheered and started to walk back to the ship, thinking it was all over and anxious to get to the promised Champagne waiting in the lounge.

How wrong we were. Folk from the shipyard, harbour board and city of Amsterdam then had to have their five minutes of fame at the microphone before handing over pressies to Toni and the captain.

The ship was officially handed over, when the shipyard flag was lowered and Uniworld's was raised.

Finally Ingrid, the cruise manager, spoke the magic words. "You are now invited to go on board for the Champagne reception."

You've never seen people move so fast!

March 17, 2011

Uniworld jumps on Mekong bandwagon

River cruise company Uniworld is moving in on the Mekong after chartering Pandaw River Cruises' new 60-passenger vessel River Saigon.

The one-week cruises, sailing between Kampong Cham in Cambodia and My Tho in Vietnam, start in early January 2012 and will be packaged into a 14-night cruise holiday that includes time in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Uniworld is joining what is becoming a crowded market. AMA Waterways launched Mekong river cruises on La Marguerite in September 2009 and was so impressed with sales that it ordered a second boat to sail the river.

Called AmaLotus, it launches in September and will also be sold by Ama's sister company APT.

Viking River Cruises has already moved in. They launched Mekong itineraries in January this year after chartering the 66-passenger Tonle from Pandaw.

They are currently offering double discounts of up to £1,000 per person if you book one of next year's 16-day Magnificent Mekong cruise-holidays, which includes seven nights on the river, before June 30 2011.

Apparently River Saigon was going to be called Saigon Pandaw, but was renamed to be more in keeping with the rest of Uniworld's fleet (they also have a River Beatrice, River Ambassador, River Countess and so on). It will have 30 cabins, all 160 square feet and with an outside sitting area.

SSAnoinette_Stateroom_ new image.jpgI suspect it won't look anything like new river cruise boat Antoinette, left, which Uniworld is launching this weekend in Amsterdam.

I'm going over today, to attend the naming ceremony on Saturday (and an ultra-mini cruise) and am really looking forward to seeing this vessel, which seriously reminds me - from this picture anyway - of something from the court of French king Louis XV.

I'll let you know if I change my mind after seeing the real thing.

Antoinette is one of at least seven river cruise vessels launching this year - Viking, Scenic Tours, Avalon Waterways and Ama have the others - and will be sailing eight-day Castles on the Rhine cruises between Amsterdam and Basel.

Dates and prices for Uniworld's Mekong cruises are not yet available.

Saga's new ship to be a Sapphire

The first tidbits of information about Saga Cruises' new ship are starting to filter out.

It's to be called Saga Sapphire - a name voted for by Saga Cruises' Britannia Club members - and its inaugural cruise will be from Southampton on March 26 2012.

I have it on good authority that that means it will be going south but the itinerary has yet to be released.

Saga Sapphire is currently sailing as Bleu de France for Croisieres de France, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Once Saga get its mitts on it in November 2012, the 37,301-ton ship will undergo a multi-million pound refurbishment - shipyard yet to be confirmed - before joining Saga.

All I know so far is that capacity will be reduced from 1,158 passengers to 706 and the kids' club will go as there is not much call for that in a ship for the over-50s.

I'm told more information is on the way so watch this space.

Zowie! Fred unveils 65s birthday package

David Bowie.jpgYou know you're getting old when over-60's darling Fred Olsen starts talking about your favourite singers and bands.

David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, Elton John.

No they are not performing on a Fred ship (that would be just too unreal) but they are turning 65 in 2012 - just the right age to enjoy the special package the cruise line is launching for anyone celebrating this milestone birthday on one of their ships next year.

The package includes £50 onboard spending credit, a reprint newspaper from their date of birth (where available), a celebration breakfast for two and complimentary pre-dinner cocktails for two.

Ronnie Wood.jpgYou'll also be included in a prize draw, with a chance to win 65 days of free cruising.

To be celebrating your 65th birthday next year, you'll have been born in 1947. Fred Olsen tells me:

  • There was still post-war rationing
  • India gained independence and civil war broke out on the sub-continent
  • The CIA was launched
  • Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, at Westminster Abbey
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls were found

All that and David Jones, the man who would be Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, was born

It was quite a year.

About me

Jane Archer
Travel writer