It's the custom, in the waning days of the year at hand, to stop and take a look back at the events that made news in cruising. A couple of tragedies most obviously make the top of the list -- and we'll get to them shortly -- but there were more good developments than there were bad ones along the way. Most notable? Cruise lines were ever more innovative in creating ever more interesting itineraries. Onboard, there were numerous evolutions in "just plain fun" stuff -- namely, Princess' introduction of the cruise equivalent of a drive-in movie has now spread to Carnival's newest, and Royal Caribbean's sun decks (in many cases the best at inspiring fun and frolic) kept luring us outdoors. But there's more, much more.
The News: If 2005 was the year of the hurricane -- particularly for places like South Florida, the Mexico's Cancun and Cozumel, Grand Cayman and parts of coastal Texas -- we'll never forget the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the people of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Never. As it affected the cruise industry, New Orleans was particularly impacted as lines moved ships to places like Tampa and Galveston; the city was completely off-limits to tourists. Mobile, too, was impacted; that city's one homeporting ship, Carnival's Holiday, was pulled out of service.
Carnival's controversial arrangement with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to supply three ships for use as temporary housing meant that Sensation, Imagination and Holiday were temporarily denuded of itineraries. All three ships will receive significant refurbishments before re-emerging in the spring of 2006.
New Orleans is already starting to welcome back cruise travelers on smaller ships, such as RiverBarge's River Explorer, and, coming in early 2006, vessels like Swan Hellenic's Minerva II -- though it's anticipated that New Orleans won't see its regular complement of cruise ships until next fall. Mobile gets its Holiday back in the spring.
HURRICANES -- IN GENERAL
The News: Hurricanes not only arrived with ferocity this year, but also simply refused to let up. Beyond the fact that the ongoing flurry of storms hit at the usual times (July - October), they also appeared early and late in the official hurricane season (which runs June 1 - November 30). And it may not be over yet! Believe it or not, as we type today there's word of a tropical storm brewing in the East Atlantic. There were so many hurricanes that, for the first time ever, they outnumbered the National Hurricane Center's alphabetical list and millions of folks got a refresher course in a foreign language as storms took on letters of the Greek alphabet -- Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Zeta.
Here at Cruise Critic we've long cautioned travelers about cruising in places commonly affected by hurricanes during what we call hurricane's high season -- between July and October. Next year, though, we'll expand our view to remind folks that hurricanes can happen early in the season, late in the season and even after the season ends. Travel insurance and a flexible attitude will indeed be the two most important travel accessories for folks heading to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico next year (and beware that of course the U.S. East Coast, Bermuda, and the Mexican Riviera also suffer through hurricane watches and warnings. On a more serious note, we also anticipate that people will take warnings much, much more seriously in the future.
The News: 2005 may have been a much less flashy for new ship intros than previous years, but there were still some nice moments. NCL finally did launch its oft-delayed Pride of America(and it's a beautiful ship). Carnival Liberty, also lovely, represented a very intriguing milestone in that line's evolutionary process. NCL had a two-fer year, as it also introduced Norwegian Jewel. P&O debuted Arcadia. But that was pretty much it.
2006 will be a reasonably quiet year in terms of the number of ships launching but we anticipate plenty of fireworks to emerge from the long-awaited and much-hyped debut of Royal Caribbean's biggest-ever Freedom of the Seas in the spring. Other debuts in 2006 include Holland America's Noordam, Princess' Crown Princess, NCL America's Pride of Hawaii, CostaConcordia and MSC Musica (we can't wait for 2007 and beyond -- new ship orders are much, much stronger). On the luxury front we hope that there's er, hope, at least in the area of newbuildings. We're hearing rumors -- Silversea, RSSC, and Crystal are all indicating in some way they'll commission new vessels -- but we're waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting....
The News: While in some cases we said a sad goodbye to older vessels -- most notably Celebrity's Horizon, Costa's CostaTropicale, Crystal Harmony, Radisson Diamond and Royal Princess -- a nifty burgeoning trend is significant refurbishment of also-dated ships. In particular, Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas returned from its surgery -- literally, surgery -- with a whole new middle section and bungee jumping! Holland America's ongoing Signatures of Excellence series of enhancements, almost completed fleetwide, has resulted in lovely new touches to storied ships ranging from Rotterdam to Ryndam.
We can't wait to see how Celebrity will embark on its major refurbishment of Century, itself a trail blazer in its time. It's also worth noting that Oceania Cruises, which has carved out quite a niche for itself in refurbishing existing mid-size vessels, is getting more and more creative with its onboard features; check out Oceania's Nautica, in particular. The line's newest addition, its pool deck cabana areas, is fabulous.
The News: Onboard safety (or the lack thereof) was one of the most controversial issues in 2005 -- propelled, in large part, by the publicity generated over the disappearance of a young honeymooner off Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas in July. The passenger was never found -- and disconcerting aspects of the case, including a blood stained cabin, raised doubts both in Congress and the news media of the handling of the situation. Indeed, numerous shows, ranging from "Larry King Live" to network news programs, devoted much time to the topic. Other cases in which passengers disappeared, presumably overboard, began generating mainstream coverage. Overall, the principal concern amongst passengers, press and lawmakers? The fact that cruise lines carrying North American passengers are typically registered in foreign countries, and thus are not legally accountable when crimes are committed (as well as a sense that in such instances, cruise lines are far more interested in protecting themselves against lawsuits than helping solve the mysteries).
We anticipate this will continue to be a front-burner issue throughout 2006 and that momentum is moving toward establishing some kind of universal requirements and regulations regardless of a ship's registry. It's likely the issue won't be resolved anytime soon, however. And we've said this before and we'll say it again: As cruise ships get bigger and bigger, replicating a small town, it's important to remember that just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you should leave common sense at home.
The News: Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates wielding machine guns and rocket propelled grenades while sailing off the coast of Kenya, but the ship's captain managed to outrun them and head to safety. Neither passengers nor crew members, who in all likelihood were somewhat alarmed by the events of that early morning in November, were seriously injured -- we assume they have one heck of a story to tell the folks at home.
This news, and the subsequent announcement that the German Navy was asked to keep on eye on Peter Deilmann's Deutschland as it traveled the somewhat dangerous waters of the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, doesn't seem to have daunted well-traveled folks drawn to cruising the world's more exotic waters. Whether cruises to Kenya -- with the highlight (and sidelight) of pre- or post-voyage safari trips -- will fall off lines' radars for 2007 is anybody's guess but to date no other cruise ships have been bothered by pirates.
The News: Cruise lines continued to explore ways in which they could use technology to improve passenger experiences. Right up front in that arena are sister lines Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, which have not only fine-tuned their online pre-registration program that generally helps travelers whiz right on through the embarkation process, but have also turned their attention to helping folks get off the ships smoothly via a luggage valet service for people who fly home the day they return. Princess Cruises gets kudos for its effort to permit spa fans to book treatments online and Carnival deserves praise as well for its fabulous bow-to-stern Wi-Fi access on Carnival Valor and Carnival Liberty, its newest ships. In a dubious innovation, Norwegian Cruise Line and Costa are making it easier for folks to stay in touch via cell phone, even at sea. (Just keep it down, will you?)
As mass-market ships continue to get bigger and bigger and host thousands upon thousands of travelers, it would behoove cruise lines to venture further into pre-cruise booking options online for areas ranging from shore excursions to alternative restaurant reservations. And at this point, there's no excuse for any line not to step up to the so-called plate and revamp its Internet connections, particularly via WiFi services -- which offer, we must say, a much less intrusive way to stay in touch than the aforementioned cell phones.
The News: We give Norwegian Cruise Line a lot of credit for really embracing the concept of around-the-coast homeport options (that even includes Hawaii for folks who live there) -- and for inspiring its competitors to follow suit. In particular, the success of its Norwegian Dawn, which is based year-round in New York, has spurred numerous options for folks who live within driving or easy flying distance from the Big Apple.
Still lagging a bit in the seasonal and regional homeporting arena are some smaller ports, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Norfolk. And we'd like to see Boston gain a more competitive edge over New York -- the big hook for Beantown to increase its success will be cruise lines' assignments of newer, more contemporary ships rather than those that almost fall in the old-tub (i.e. few balconies) category.
THE ROGUE WAVE
The News: Wacky and wild waves nearly rival hurricanes as the year's biggest weather-related story. Most public was the incident in which NCL's Norwegian Dawn, heading back to New York after a Bahamas/Caribbean cruise, was slammed with a freak 70-ft. wave, causing much damage and some injuries (the incident was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the line was cleared of culpability). In other instances, the Spanish Iberojet's Voyager (once known as Royal Olympia's Olympia Voyager) was pummeled by a rogue wave while in the Mediterranean and, in an eerie coincidence, the vessel's one-time sister ship -- Explorer (previously known as Royal Olympia's Olympia Explorer) -- was slammed by a wave while sailing in the Pacific.
Who knows ... there's no predicting a rogue wave. It is, alas, a risk that is not controllable by cruise lines (aside from training officers and crew to respond to such a crisis). We must admit to hoping that all those folks who'd talked of a class action suit against NCL for the incident on Norwegian Dawn will refocus energies in another direction after the NTSB report. Nature happens.
HERE AT CRUISE CRITIC'S HEADQUARTERS
The News: Well, we celebrated our 10th anniversary -- impressive in the Internet world where sites age much the way a dog would (think seven years for every human one!). We also expanded our news coverage to include a dynamic news ticker and cruise scoops "hotline" -- we very much appreciate all of your input so far and please keep it coming.
Our feature stories got a big boost with unveiling of new sections, geared at cruise travelers' specific interests -- if you haven't checked out Golf, Gourmet, Solo and Soft Adventure, now's the time! We also ventured into places where many folks haven't been -- Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown spent two weeks in the Middle East on Hapag Lloyd's Europa (her tape-delay virtual report will debut in early 2006). Associate Editor Melissa Baldwin, an avid fan of "Live with Regis and Kelly," got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail with television's dynamic duo on a special "Live" cruise and inaugural voyage aboard NCL's Pride of America. And our wildly controversial Members Speak Out: Deck Chairs earned one of the hugest reader responses of the year. Y'all had something to say and you said it!
In our community arena, we launched new features as well, including a new Member Poll and Roll Call tools. In response to ever-increasing leaps of community member registration, we also upgraded to new servers (er, several times -- and we appreciated your patience when it was occasionally challenging to log on). So that's cruising's year in a (hefty) nutshell.
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