Friday, 23 October 2009

More River-Cruise Choice

It seems river cruises are definitely the flavour of the month. No sooner do I detail the great advantages of this option compared to their big-ship, ocean-going brethren, than a new operation arrives dedicated to river cruising.

US-based Avalon Waterways is now available to a UK audience for the first time, bringing another array of high-quality riverboats to the attention (and availability) of an interested public. A new British office, website and countrywide marketing, highlight their drive to broaden their passenger base - and make river-cruising even more popular.

To start with, Avalon boast one of the youngest fleets in Europe, with eight boats dating back no longer than 2004 and two more due to come on line in 2010. They feature six main European rivers (Rhine, Danube, Moselle, Main, Rhone and Seine), as well as a range of themed cruises, and their newest six are powered by a state of the art, pod-propulsion, Silent Drive System. Two of their vessels, Avalon Poetry and Artistry, feature aft navigational bridges, which earned them an innovative design award as they allowed for more spacious public rooms and a Sky Deck.

Since their inauguration in 2004, Avalon have earned an enviable reputation for outstanding service, cuisine and onboard style, as well as featuring an attractive array of itineraries from 4-15 days (although most are in the 10-12 day range).

It's no wonder UK Managing Director Alan MacLean says: “Having become the most recognised and fastest growing river cruise brand in the world, we are delighted to launch our first class product on to the UK Market. River cruising is definitely bucking the trend in the recent economic downturn, being enjoyed by a largely recession-proof sector of the population who are prepared to pay for the highest level of quality and service.”

Their staterooms are currently the largest available on European rivers, from 172sq ft for standard rooms to a massive (by river-cruise standards) 258sq ft for suites. Virtually all have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors with French balconies, affording panoramic views of the areas they cruise through. They are also superbly appointed, with state-of-the-art amenities and décor, such as flatscreen satellite TVs, Egyptian super-combed cotton linens and individual climate control.

Their high-class cuisine is prepared by an impressive range of chefs, who include classic dishes and regional specialities, while the full board arrangement includes complimentary regional wine with dinner, taking advantage of the numerous classic varieties to be found close to Europe’s principal rivers.

Importantly, most excursions are also included, with personal headsets provided for all guided tours ashore. To add to the first class experience, Avalon offers complimentary round-trip door-to-home pick-up service in chauffeur-driven executive cars within 75 miles of the chosen international departure airport or Eurostar station.

If all that doesn't tempt you, then wait for the prices, which are all extremely value-conscious, especially for continental Europe (try getting four-star full-board accommodation in Germany, France or Austria for £160 a day!):

Prices for 2010 start from £915 for the five day ‘Taste of the Danube’ cruise on board Avalon Tapestry. Other itineraries include the ‘Legendary Danube’ (Prague-Budapest, 10 days from £1635), ‘Danube & Black Sea Coast’ (Prague-Bucharest, 13 days from £2949), ‘Romantic Rhine’ (Basel-Amsterdam, 8 days from £1369), ‘Burgundy & Provence’ (Cote d’Azur-Paris, 11 days from £1669), ‘European Splendour’ (Vienna-Amsterdam, 13 days from £1789) and the ‘Central European Experience’ (Paris-Prague, 12 days from £1955).

For music and wine connoisseurs there is also a range of themed cruises on specific departures such as the Burgundy & Provence Wine cruise or the Magnificent Europe Music Cruise with shore excursions to include a Strauss concert in Vienna, an organ recital in Melk and a visit to the Opera House in Bayreuth.

Interested yet? It certainly gets my attention, and the Danube & Black Sea Coast would definitely be my idea of a memorable trip. Now, where's their phone number...........!

Friday, 16 October 2009

River v Ocean Cruising

It's a question I hear time and time again - what's the difference between river cruising and it's Big Brother ocean variety?

It goes hand in hand with the alternative version (usually from die-hard big-ship cruisers), why would I want to down-size to a river-boat?

Both are valid queries, but both can be met with an equally emphatic response: river-cruising IS a very different animal to the ocean-going variety, but it also affords a rich and diverse experience that big-ship folk ignore at their peril!

To take the first issue, the difference between the two, requires a lengthier reply, though.

The differences between the two types of cruising are significant but well worth detailing. The obvious issue is one of size - river-boats rarely hold more than 150 people (although the new Victoria Jenna on the Yangtze in China will hold an amazing 378 passengers), and there are far fewer public rooms.

Fewer rooms means less space and fewer frills in terms of big-ship glamour and glitz. You won't find fancy casinos, high-tech Spas (although, again, the Jenna is an exception), elaborate theatres and multiple dining venues. If you're looking for expansive pool facilities, water-slides and rock-climbing walls, this isn't the right choice for you either.

But you will find plush, comfortable surroundings, well-fitted cabins, high-quality fittings and furnishings, and an overall commitment to service and attention to detail normally found only on the more deluxe, smaller-scale ocean vessels.

There is also a substantial difference in pace, both in terms of your actual travel and also of the onboard ambience. River-boats typically procede at a very leisurely speed, sometimes not much above walking pace, and the need for periodic negotiations of locks and other river traffic means you can't count on vast changes of scenery as you can in places like the Baltic and Alaska.

But this also lends itself to a more relaxing and comfortable vibe, with no discernable hustle and bustle, no need to go dashing from one show to another or requirement for lengthy daily activity programmes.

River-cruising really allows you to unwind, decompress from the real world and chill out, in a comfy environment that provides no great demands of time or choice.

Finally, and this is an important distinction as cruise ships get ever larger, it is an immensely personal experience, both in terms of your fellow passengers and the destinations you visit.

The slow pace affords plenty of time to get the know the people around you, with plenty of opportunity for conversation and social intercourse, while at the same time providing an almost slow-motion tableau of scenery and cities.

Cities are also the bread and butter of the typical river cruise, especially in Europe, with the river routes offering all manner of wonderful urban backdrops (as well as fabulous rural scenes).

In France, you can take in the likes of Lyon, Tournon, Viviers and Avignon ; in Germany, you can enjoy a cruise that includes Frankfurt, Mainz, Nuremberg and Heidelberg; further along the Danube, the routes takes in Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Bratislava; and in Russia you can cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg, and unveil some marvellous mysteries along the way.

And that's before you consider the alternative destinations of the Nile, China and Myanmar, all of which can add the a taste of the exotic to the river-cruise experience.

River-cruising is probably not ideal for families with younger children, but for those with children of senior school age (especially those learning a language), it can also be a wonderful opportunity, and for the river-cruise exec who recently stated that his product was not for "the 40-somethings," that is a shocking undervaluing of the possibilities.

Put simply, river-cruising is for those who really like to get under the skin of a destination, to take their time and savour a country, a city or a countryside. It is highly personable and often provides memorable dining. And it reconnects us with our fellow traveller.

There are other reasons why you might want to give river-cruising a try - notably the chance to avoid any vestige of seasickness! - but I'll save those for another day and another argument.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Crystal's 'Experiences of Discovery'

Crystal Cruises announces an inspired collection of 2010 Experiences of Discovery theme cruises designed to enrich more than two dozen Crystal cruises with a special-interest focus. Special classes, events and, in most cases, shoreside options will augment voyages throughout the Middle East, Australia/New Zealand, Europe and beyond.

A new Science & Technology theme joins classic favourites such as Crystal ’s Wine & Food Festival (set for seven cruises, with two back-to-back options), Mind, Body & Spirit, Jazz, Golf, Film & Theatre Festival and Big Band. Additionally, Crystal ’s annual President’s Cruise adds special programming and events in celebration of the line’s 20th anniversary of luxury cruising.

The Experiences of Discovery theme cruises available in 2010 are:

· *NEW* Science & Technology – Guest expert lecturers focus on the world’s latest scientific developments on a winter Caribbean itinerary.

· Emerging Artists – Tomorrow’s stars shine today through Crystal ’s exclusive partnership with The Music Centre Los Angeles, showcasing the brightest talent on two European cruises.

· Wine & Food Festival – World-renowned culinary experts share techniques and specialties on Australia/New Zealand, Mediterranean and Mexican Riviera voyages.

· Mind, Body & Spirit – Wellness experts focus on yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates and general fitness on Asia/Indian Ocean, Mexican Riviera and Transatlantic voyages.

· Golf – PGA pros offer onboard and shoreside tips and play at exclusive courses in New England/Canada.

· Fashion & Style – Personal style consultations with designers and stylists, fashion shows, films and lectures showcase European fashion.

· Film & Theatre Festival – Guest film experts salute film and theatre on a Pacific Ocean crossing.

· Jazz – Live performances and discussions about musical legends jazz up South America and Mexican Riviera itineraries.

· Big Band – Swing to live daily performances, music lecturers, and extra dance hosts on an Atlantic Ocean crossing.

· President’s Cruise – Crystal ’s President Gregg Michel hosts Special Crystal 20th Anniversary events on board and ashore on a Red Sea journey.

Experiences of Discovery programmes complement Crystal ’s exclusive ongoing Creative Learning Institute, which presents language classes through Berlitz, keyboard instruction through Yamaha, and stimulating guest lecturers from the Crystal Visions Lecture Programme.

2010 prices start from £2,365 per person based on a seven-night Mediterranean voyage from Athens to Rome departing 26th May. Price includes return scheduled flights, transfers, seven nights in a deluxe stateroom with picture window with all meals and soft drinks, port taxes and basic gratuities.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Now You Can Rail-Cruise!

I couldn't find this anywhere online, so I thought I would turn this press release on AMA Waterways into a Blog. It should have real appeal to river-cruise fans, methinks.

AMAWATERWAYS, the fastest growing river cruise line in Europe, is offering a new series of escorted European rail-cruise holidays in partnership with York-based Great Rail Journeys. The five new itineraries take the stress out of flying, combining the excitement and romance of First Class rail travel from St Pancras International with the leisurely pace of a river cruise. Itineraries include:

Rhine Cruise – Nine days cruising the Rhine on Amalyra or Amalegro, passing through the beautiful scenery of the Black Forest, the Neckar Valley and the Rhine Gorge. Ports of call or excursions include Breisach, Strasbourg, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Cologne and Amsterdam. The journey starts at St Pancras International, with Eurostar to Brussels and First Class rail through Luxembourg to Basel, returning from Amsterdam. From £1,735 per person, with departures from April to October.

Europe’s Heartland Cruise – Nine days’ travelling including a river cruise on Amadolce or Amacello from Cologne to Trier, via Nuremberg, Bamburg, Wurzburg, Miltenberg, Mainz, Rudesheim, Cochem and Bernkastel. Rail from St Pancras International to Cologne and from Trier is included. From £1,895 per person with departures from May to October.

Danube Cruise – 10 days from Nuremberg to Budapest on Amacello, Amalegro or Amadagio, calling at Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Melk, Vienna and Budapest. First Class rail is included all the way from St Pancras International to Nuremberg and from Budapest back to the UK. From £2,195 per person with departures from May to October.

Waterways of the Tsars – 16-day rail-cruise including the Jan Kiepura sleeper train to Warsaw and then the overnight Ost-West Express to Moscow, flying back to the UK from St Petersburg after a scenic 12-night cruise on MS Tolstoy across the Russian countryside, with several days in both Moscow and St Petersburg. From £2,975 per person, departures in July and August.

Rhône & Provence Cruise – Eight days in beautiful Provence, with Eurostar and TGV travel to Arles and from Lyon. The cruise, on Swiss Pearl, takes in Avignon (photo, above), Viviers, the stunning Ardeche valley and Vienne. From £1,949 with departures in September.

Each AMAWATERWAYS cruise includes all meals on board (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner), unlimited wine with dinner, a daily sightseeing programme, on board folklore and musical performances, bicycles for use in port and free internet access. First Class rail travel is included wherever possible, as well as four- or five-star hotels en route and the services of a friendly and professional Tour Manager.

Steve Williams, AMAWATERWAYS’ representative in the UK, says: “These exciting rail-cruises are the perfect way to travel for anybody who prefers a slower pace of life, which is what river cruising is all about. The fact they are fully escorted makes them ideal for single travellers, those who are less confident travelling independently or, of course, anybody who prefers not to fly. On all these itineraries, the rail element of the journey is an enjoyable part of the holiday, rather than merely a means of getting there. And what’s best, of course, is that there is no need to budget for any shore excursions, drinks with dinner, transfers or meals. With AMAWATERWAYS and Great Rail Journeys, it’s all included.”

Julian Appleyard, Commercial Manager for Great Rail Journeys echoes this sentiment: “We have seen a rapid expansion in our ‘cruising by rail’ concept and have refined our product over the previous two years. We know our customers like the comfort of First Class rail travel across Europe, and once ‘in resort’ four- and five-star hotels are expected. We are therefore delighted to partner with AMAWATERWAYS, a company that matches our own high standards of service and customer care.”

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Early Bird Gets the Bargains!

Holiday companies have accustomed savvy buyers to wait for the best deals in recent years, offering various last-minute and late-discounted offers for those who are happy to hold out for a bargain.

But the cruise world is changing tack, quite literally, with a whole raft of new ideas, offers and incentives that make sure the early-booker gets the best deals.

And 2010 is now the perfect opportunity to put this to the test, with a combination of mouth-watering packages and even, in some instances, a cut-price guarantee that promises any future savings will be passed on. Here’s what to look for.

Great Deals

Luxury line Silversea Cruises offers up to 60% savings and FREE flights and transfers on select 2010 sailings.

The boutique style of Oceania Cruises is offering up to $1,000 off per person if booked by 31 December.

Book with any of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises or Azamara Cruises for 2010 and save up to £400 per suite, with free car parking AND up to $150 per person onboard credit if booked by 30 November.

More luxury? Crystal Cruises have re-priced select 2010 fares, as well as featuring 20th Anniversary Savings and discounts on Mediterranean and Northern Europe voyages, PLUS up to $2,000 per couple onboard credit.

Cruise with sumptuous Regent Seven Seas and enjoy FREE shore excursions and flights on select 2010 dates if booked by 31 December.

Or try Holland America, and receive their Early Advantage benefits of lower rates, first choice of staterooms, savings on hotels and reduced deposits.

How about a river cruise? APT River Cruises are offering 2010 voyages at 2009 prices on their 15-day Magnificent Europe cruise from March-October or FREE flights on selected cruises if booked by 31 October.

The more adventurous may want to try Swan Hellenic’s Best Price Promise, with many published fares for 2010 lower than corresponding fares in 2009, while Voyages of Discovery insist there will be NO fuel or current surcharges after you book.

Big-ship European line Costa Cruises have PRONTO pricing, which is the lowest possible price available and Fred Olsen feature early saver advance booking prices, giving the widest choice of cabins and preferred sitting for dining and table size. Ocean Members who book at least 6 months in advance will also receive a 5% discount.

Pay early for the sail-cruise style of Windstar and receive a Gratuity Package on all 2010 & 2011 sailings, PLUS $500 per couple shipboard credit if booked by 31 October.

There are even incentives for the deluxe Yachts of Seabourn, with early bookers receiving savings ranging from 10-50% off brochure fares. As the sailing date draws closer, these savings typically decrease or are withdrawn altogether.

Price Guarantees

Six-star Crystal Cruises have the Crystal Assurance Plan, which means if you book a 2009 or 2010 cruise and the fare is reduced later, you will be protected at the reduced fare (policy may not apply to special promotions).

Silversea will honour lower prices, provided it is their Silver Savings discount system that has changed. Silversea also have a Reassurance Programme, whereby if you cancel for any reason, you receive a 100% Reassurance Cruise Credit (subject to terms and conditions). The fee for this Programme is 3% of the guest’s holiday when purchased with a travel insurance that contains trip cancellation benefit.
Oceania Cruises will also match new rates where main brochure prices are reduced at a later date, as will Regent Seven Seas and the Yachts of Seabourn.

And Swan Hellenic's new Price Promise means if their prices reduce in future, they will automatically refund the difference, plus there are NO fuel or currency surcharges.

It all adds up to the BEST holiday style, at the BEST price and with the BEST discount guarantee. So it HAS to be a cruise in 2010!

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Luxury Gap

Despite the continued onslaught of the megaships, the luxury end of the cruise business continues to develop very nicely, with many of the main players bringing in new vessels, new services and a variety of upgrades and enhancements for their six-star style.

Seabourn set new standards with the launch of their Seabourn Odyssey in the summer and the debut of Silversea's Silver Spirit is eagerly anticipating in December. Add in more details of the Oceania Cruises new-build Marina - due in late 2010 - and a second ship in the Odyssey-class, also in 2010, and the deluxe choice continues to get better and better (love the new-look Oceania website by the way - extremely eye-catching).

Regent Seven Seas have been one of the few upscale lines not to have a new ship on the horizon. Instead, they have gone for an extensive fleet refurbishment, and the latest details of what is planned for their Seven Seas Navigator only goes to underline how luxury cruising continues to raise the bar, especially when it comes to dining.

Just consider some of these headline improvements and additions being planned for the 490-passenger Navigator's dry-dock period in the next two months:

"A glamorous and contemporary grill, Prime 7 will feature a stylish décor and an innovative menu of the finest prime-aged steaks and fresh seafood. Rivaling elegant restaurants ashore, a rich palette of green and golden hues will create an ambiance of glamour and intimacy. Supple leather, polished granite and burnished woods will set an impressive stage accented by custom-designed china, flatware and crystal."

This adds to a dining line-up that is already considered by many to be the finest at sea. Then there is this:

"Compass Rose – the ship’s main dining room – will appear dramatically different. New and sumptuous armchairs in rich jewel tones of cranberry and opal atop plush carpets of russet and cocoa will create a regal setting for gourmet dining. New draperies, china, silver and glassware will complete the redesign."

Sound good? There's more:

"La Veranda, offering indoor and outdoor seating, will replace the current Portofino’s restaurant. New furniture, carpeting and window treatments will be complemented by signature table settings. The new restaurant will serve breakfast and lunch in a casually elegant atmosphere and, in the evening, feature regionally themed specialty dinners."

As if all that updating isn't enough, Regent will also be adding yet another new option:

"High atop the ship on Deck 10, a new Pool Grill featuring a barbeque grill, hot and cold buffet, panini sandwich station and coffee and dessert area creates a casual, al fresco dining option that is open throughout the day. The ship’s bars and lounges will also receive masterful transformations. A mix of traditional and contemporary furnishings with complementary upholstery, carpeting and curtains will give Stars Lounge an eclectic ambiance reminiscent of a chic designer estate home."

The refurb doesn't stop there, however. Oh no, there is still more in store:

"Galileo’s will sport bold new interiors of burgundy and gold offset with accents of soft lavender, sky and moss while a sleek new bar area is awash with rich, tufted textiles and polished stone flooring. A new al fresco lounge has been created on the terrace and features comfortable seating areas with plump sofas and chaises overlooking the sea. The Navigator Lounge will also feature a new décor with rich hues of cappuccino, camel and navy accented by bold apple-green and lemon to create a vibrant, urbane feel. The ship’s card room and library will be redecorated as well and all public spaces throughout the ship are being refreshed."

Finally, almost as an afterthought, Regent announce that Canyon Ranch will be creating a whole new area aboard the ship, in keeping with their luxury tie-up on the other two vessels:

"The Canyon Ranch SpaClub will feature a state-of-the-art spa, wellness and fitness facility, plus a luxurious full-service beauty salon. SpaClub will offer the most desirable spa amenities available: massage, body and skin-care treatment rooms, a gym and weight room with cardio and weight training equipment, a juice bar, men's and women's locker rooms, thalassotherapy, sauna and steam rooms. The facility will offer array of rejuvenating spa treatments, some created specifically for RSSC guests, include massages and therapeutic bodywork, mud, aromatherapy, ayuvedic and seaweed treatments, facials and masks featuring Canyon Ranch’s award winning Your Transformation skincare products, conditioning body scrubs and therapeutic body cocoons."

And they also add that the ship will feature a range of new itineraries as well, making her appeal absolutely full of possibilities:

"Seven Seas Navigator will operate 7 to 11 night cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America this winter, followed by a summer season of seven-night Alaska cruises between Vancouver and Anchorage. Following her Alaska season, Seven Seas Navigator embarks on her lengthiest and most exotic voyage to date with a 96-night Grand Asia Pacific cruise sailing from Anchorage, Alaska to San Francisco, California."

All in all, it is the stuff of luxury dreams, but it comes at an ever-more-affordable price in 2010. The big watchword of the luxury end of the cruise market is 'Book Early' (OK, that's more than one word, but you get my drift!), and you will find this mantra repeated at every opportunity as the six-star lines look to make themselves more attractive, especially for those who can book well in advance.

OK, now what's stopping you........?!