Saturday, August 26, 2017

Adventure in Iceland

Author and Pictures by Gene Sloan, USA Today

HAIMAEY, Iceland — "Are you ready for an adventure?"

The cheerful guide speaking to us from the front of the 36-foot-long RibSafari boat signals the driver to flip a switch, and the chest-thumping opening notes of Queen's We Will Rock You erupt from speakers all around us.

We have been dressed head-to-toe in bright yellow survival suits and told to hang on tight, and soon we find out why. As we begin to bob our heads to the music, the driver opens up the throttle on two giant, 400-horsepower engines, and we blast out of the Haimaey harbor in a cloud of sea spray.

Moments later we are racing along the soaring lava cliffs that line the volcanic island, banking sharply around rocky outcroppings and darting into deep black sea caves. We stop to admire unusual rock formations that resemble elephants and dinosaurs, and we watch as hundreds of puffins dive into the sea from cliff-side perches.

"It gives you a new perspective on the place," quips Lilija Kubilius, a sprightly, 76-year-old retiree from Philadelphia who is here with her daughter and granddaughter. "You always see more of a country if you can get away from the bus tours and out into the middle of it."

Out into the middle of it, indeed.

Kubilius has arrived in remote Haimaey, just off the coast of mainland Iceland, on Windstar Cruises' Star Pride. It's a small, 212-passenger vessel that is operating an expansive new Iceland itinerary designed to give travelers plenty of such opportunities to dive deep into the suddenly booming destination.

In fact, the ship is making a complete circumnavigation of the country — one of the newest trends in cruising.

Windstar became the first traditional cruise line to operate regular circlings of the Kentucky-size island nation last summer when it deployed one of its six ships to the itinerary, and this summer it has doubled down on the route with a second vessel.

Ranging from seven to eleven nights in length, the voyages offer travelers an easy way to get to some of Iceland's most remote areas and see the full range of its famously striking landscapes, from geothermal fields of geysers and fumaroles to mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls.

"We're getting to see a little bit of everything," notes Star Pride passenger Karen Brower, of Butte, Mont., moments after emerging from a maze of giant, hardened lava formations known as the Catacombs of Hell.

Brower is on an all-day excursion out of the port of Akureyri to the otherworldly Lake Myvatn area, which also is home to the spectacular geothermal fields of Hverir. She and her companions gaze over a Mars-like landscape pocked with bubbling, boiling mud pots, hissing steam vents and sticky red soil. The smell of sulfur oozing from deep within the earth is overwhelming.

"It's really interesting to see the different expressions of the same forces as we have at home," says Brower, who lives just a few hours from the geothermal areas of Yellowstone National Park. "But, unlike home, this is such new land."

Located along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting apart with explosive volcanic force, Iceland is, indeed, one of the newest places on Earth, and it's still growing. During tours of Haimaey, passengers see frozen-in-place lava flows from a 1973 eruption that expanded the island by 20% even as it buried a third of its harbor town. Near Lake Myvatn, rugged lava flows just a few hundred years old reach like fingers into the valleys.

If the stops on the itinerary have a common denominator, it's the emptiness of the landscape. With no more than a few thousand people a piece, the small towns where Star Pride ties up quickly give way to vast expanses of sparsely-populated backcountry.

Still, each of Star Pride's calls bring something a little different. At Isafjordur, on Iceland's fjord-spiked West Coast, some passengers head out kayaking, while others ride a boat to a nearby island to see Eider ducks in their natural environment. In Grundarfjordur, along the remote Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a popular outing is a hike onto the glacier atop nearby Snæfellsjökull volcano — made famous in Jules Verne's 19th century classic Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Upscale but with a laid back atmosphere, Star Pride also has its own water sports platform, which opens for one of the highlights of the trip: A "polar plunge" into the frigid waters just off Grundarfjordur. Even at the height of summer, the water isn't even 50 degrees.

The Iceland itinerary is typical of the unusual offerings available from Windstar, which is a leader in cruises on small vessels that carry just a few hundred passengers. The small size of Star Pride and its sister ships allow them to tuck into tiny harbors and hidden coves that are off limits to bigger vessels, and the line's schedule is full of trips that take advantage of that with stops in remote locales.
With barely 100 cabins spread over three decks, Star Pride feels more like a large yacht than a small cruise ship. Passengers spend much of their time on board in one of just two main public spaces: The forward-facing Yacht Club observation lounge or the aft-facing Compass Rose bar. There's also a single main restaurant, casual buffet eatery, small casino, spa, fitness center, library and shop.

"The size of the ship makes it a very personal experience," says Neal Mayer,  of Millsboro, Delaware, a veteran of seven Windstar voyages who says he has no interest in the giant vessels that many lines are building.

Pausing to talk during a Windstar-organized reception at a quirky machinery museum in Seydisfjordur, on Iceland's east coast, Mayer says he's attracted by the camaraderie among passengers that is typical of smaller ships. Like other Windstar vessels, Star Pride draws a sophisticated and lively crowd that likes to be social. Passengers gather around the pool bar at cocktail hour to share stories of the day's adventures, and they crowd into Compass Rose after dinners for dancing.
It’s the perfect ship for exploring an off-the-beaten-path destination such as Iceland, Mayer adds.

“We don’t want big crowds,” he says. “This is just about right.”

If you go ...

Windstar Cruises offers circumnavigations of Iceland each summer on the 212-passenger Star Pride or one of its sister vessels. The seven-night Around Iceland voyages begin and end in Reykjavik and include stops at Heimaey Island, Seydisfjordur, Akureyri, Isafjordur and Grundarfjordur.
Windstar also offers 11-night Lands of the Midnight Sun sailings to Norway, Denmark and Scotland that begin or end in Iceland.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Private Islands - Version 2

Thirty years ago, the idea of going to a private island in the Bahamas was enough to get cruise passengers excited. A piece of rock with a strip of beach, a barbecue for lunch and some basic watersports was the formula, and it worked fine at the time.

But now, cruise lines are launching a new set of islands or upgrading old ones, adding luxury amenities and enhancements large and small, all meant to turbocharge the guest experience.

These 2.0 versions of private islands have better bars, acres of lounge chairs, more shade, improved landscaping and easier accessibility. Many have features such as ziplines, spas and deluxe beach pavilions. Even an entertainment amphitheater is in the works at MSC Cruises' project.

For cruise lines, private islands have become another front in the competitive battle.   All hope that cruise passengers will want to spend time on their islands, enjoying the white sands, leafy pathways, swimming pools, bars and recreation gear. None can afford to be left behind.

Carnival's private Bahamian beach

Also putting together an outpost for its flotilla sailing in the Caribbean and the Bahamas is Carnival Cruise Line, which is the largest operator without a dedicated private island in the Bahamas.
In May, Carnival signed a long-awaited agreement to build a 226-acre private beach attraction on the eastern part of Grand Bahama Island.

The northerly location is convenient to Carnival ships up and down the East Coast, cruising from cities such as Baltimore; Norfolk, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and even New York.
Carnival's year-round deployment in the Caribbean and Bahamas means it can justify the investment, estimated by the Nassau Tribune at $100 million.

At a signing ceremony, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said Carnival had been working for the better part of 15 years to establish a "new and authentic" Bahamian port experience.

"I am very pleased that this port is now on track to become a reality," he said.
The as-yet-unnamed Carnival port will rank as "the largest purpose-built cruise facility ever constructed in the Bahamas," Donald said.

It is eventually expected to host up to 1 million passengers a year.

Bigger ships, bigger private islands

One reason that private beach attractions are getting bigger is that the ships going to them are getting bigger.

The first step is to add a permanent pier, so guests don't have to take tenders from the ship to get ashore. When Disney Cruise Line opened its Castaway Cay island in 1998 with its own pier, it became the new standard for passenger convenience, as guests could easily come and go from the ship during a daylong stay.

On Grand Bahama, Carnival's plan includes a pier that can dock two 3,000-passenger ships at once. MSC is also planning to dredge a channel and build a pier for its large ships, making them easier to offload.

At CocoCay, after building the pier, a second phase of Royal's improvements will include a new craft marketplace, a shore excursion building, a bike and equipment rentals structure and a transportation center. Plans also call for a building for suite guests, a new active aquatic zone, additional food and beverage venues and more infrastructure and landscaping.

A third phase is expected to add a ropes course, zipline, water park, lagoon cabanas and pools. The $150 million project is targeted for completion by 2019, with the dock opening timed to the debut of the Symphony of the Seas next spring.

In making its improvements, Royal is keeping up with rival Norwegian Cruise Line, which opened a new island port of call in Belize with many similar features in 2016 and is in the process of upgrading its resort at Great Stirrup Cay, just a stone's throw from the smaller CocoCay.

Norwegian re-engineers its island

By most accounts, Great Stirrup Cay was the cruise industry's original private island, purchased by Norwegian in 1977. Guests go ashore in 300-person tenders with ramps that drop from the bow.
Norwegian has made improvements over the years but nothing as dramatic as those it made in 2016-17.

The line has learned from 40 years of operations what works and what doesn't.
For one thing, Norwegian has re-engineered the beach, which drew complaints that it was too rocky. It built a jetty to block sand from eroding and found a sand mine on the island so it doesn't have to rely on dredged sand full of shell bits.

Norwegian has installed more irrigation to keep vegetation green and growing. It has focused on four or five trees that thrive in the Bahamas to introduce more of a canopy on the 72-acre property.
There's also more pavement in place, making it easier to move between the shops, bars, recreation centers and cabanas.

Seating areas at the bars have been upgraded, and table servers will be available for some ships. There's more live music planned at the bars, some of which will have added table umbrellas.

When it comes to service, Norwegian has learned that speed counts. At the bars, machines have been added to make frozen and mixed drinks, cutting wait times in half.

The same goes for food. At the main restaurant, two small bars were demolished and rebuilt as larger outbuildings connected with pathways, to ease congestion. The grill has been streamlined from four lines to two.

Nearby covered seating areas have also been decked, so that people aren't eating in the sand. That has the side benefit of making the area easier to clean. More landscaping suppresses windblown sand and dust.

On a bigger scale, Norwegian has built an infirmary with eight patient rooms, so that multiple cases of sunburn, sprained ankles, heat exhaustion or insect bites can be treated. More serious injuries don't necessarily have to be sent back to the ship or evacuated by helicopter to Nassau anymore.

Thirty custom-made underwater sculptures have been added to the snorkel garden. There are more and bigger bathrooms, including two family ones that are ADA-compliant.

Norwegian has rebuilt the private cabanas, making them larger with better amenities, such as refrigerators, and with more vista-like views of the beach. They have ramps to improve accessibility.

After Hurricane Matthew raked Great Stirrup Cay in September 2016, Norwegian did a redesign to reduce erosion through a combination of more concrete foundations and more local plantings.

The really fancy side of Great Stirrup Cay is still under construction. It will initially include 16 air-conditioned, oceanfront cabanas for use by guests of the Haven, Norwegian's secluded onboard luxury enclave. The cabanas will have locking doors, restrooms, covered patios and, in some, even bedrooms.

Adjacent will be a new five-bay spa, also air-conditioned, with a nice lobby, a deck and its own private beach.

There are several reasons why cruise lines continue to increase their level of investment in private destination development.

One is that it gives them greater control over the entire experience. They can design the docks, the shopping and the excursion staging to what is ideal for cruise lines, or even to their specific brand and ships.

Another reason is that lines have greater say over who comes and goes. As a recent flare-up of concern over passenger harassment at the port of Falmouth in Jamaica shows, there are different levels of control, depending on whether a private port is connected to the mainland, or completely isolated, as at Great Stirrup Cay.

Passenger demand for private islands is strong. The cruise lines freely admit that their custom-built destinations are consistently the best-rated ports of call on their Bahamas/Caribbean itineraries. They're able to tailor the experience to what guests say they desire.

It's a really fun, cool experience on these islands.  The waters are great. It's really a great day. If you're sitting at home visualizing what a Caribbean-Bahamian beach should look like, these islands are beautiful places.

Excerpts Courtesy of Travel Weekly 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

6 Things You Can't Do on an Ocean Cruise - But Can on a River Cruise

Ocean cruises are great for a fantastic vacation and relaxing getaway, but they’re by no means perfect. The ships can be big, the ports can be crowded with tourists, and the experience can feel a bit impersonal. If you want to completely immerse yourself in local food, entertainment, and culture, there’s an even better option: a river cruise.

1. Have local entertainment come onboard for a private show

Because port stops on river cruises are less touristy than their Caribbean counterparts, you can usually expect to find more authentic culture and entertainment. Better yet, often the entertainment will come directly to you, with local dancers and musicians boarding the ship to put on a private show for the passengers. Ocean cruisers may be able to see Broadway productions and big name music acts, but river cruisers have the chance to see unique, intimate performances they’d never be able to see back home.

2. Quickly Embark and Disembark

On a river cruise, you’re sailing with less than 200 passengers, so that means easy boarding. You don’t start or end your vacation waiting in line, and getting off the ship in port never has to be a production. Simply walk off the ramp and you’re in the center of town.

3. Forge a personal connection with the crew.

The quality of service on a cruise ship is above and beyond what most people are used to experiencing with hotels, and we’re amazed that even on ships with thousands of crew, we still have clients raving about a waiter or room steward who made their vacation truly spectacular.  On river cruises, you’re likely to have an even better experience. The small size of the crew means that they’ll know your name within the first day, and they'll be like an old friend by the end of the voyage.

4. Cruise With Other Adults

No matter how much you love kids, sometimes you want to be able to relax around other adults without having to deal with screaming children monopolizing the hot tubs. While you may see an occasional child onboard, there likely won’t be even a handful, and they’re usually well behaved.

5. Be guided by a Cruise Director who actually directs your cruise

On most ocean cruises, the Cruise Director is the face of the ship and responsible for scheduling entertainment and activities. But typically, that’s where their duties end, with shore excursions, itineraries and other matters left to other officers.

On a river cruise, your Cruise Director (they also can be known as a Program Director, Cruise Manager or a similar title) has a much bigger hand in your cruise, responsible for everything related to your itinerary, activities, excursions, entertainment and more. They’re typically from the region you’re cruising through and have intimate knowledge of the local ports. They’ll often go out of their way to share a sample of local cuisine while your group’s on an excursion, assist you in planning your time ashore if you want to go independently, and personally take responsibility to ensure you have an engaging cruise.

 6. Enjoy locally-sourced food and beverages

So locally sourced, in fact, that part of your evening meal may have been grown on the ship. The Viking River Cruises Longships in Europe have an herb garden on the top deck, and in the afternoon, you might find your chef topside picking the seasoning for the evening meal. Everything you eat onboard comes from local suppliers, and you might even have the opportunity to visit their operations. Some Viking River cruises along the Danube offer an optional tasting excursion to tour the award-winning Mörwald Winery and meet Erhard Mörwald, vintner of Viking’s house wine.

Article Courtesy of