Focus On Cruising

Exploring the Wonderful World of Cruise Ships

South Street Seaport Museum

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The South Street Seaport Museum of New York was chartered in April 1967. It pains me to admit that I was “chartered” in New York even before the museum. I’m even further pained to confess that I had never been to the museum until a few weeks ago.

This is a small, understated museum with a certain charm. Currently there are two exhibits on display. New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World explores the early Dutch settlement. Replete with maps, letters, grants and proclamations, many on loan from the National Archives of the Netherlands, it is a fascinating glimpse into the life and politics of the inhabitants of early to mid 17th century New Amsterdam. While most of the documents are official and somewhat dry, there are some all-too-human elements as well. I found myself smiling while reading several letters bitching and moaning about Peter Stuyvesant’s method of governance.

The highlight of the exhibit for me was the original letter from Peter Schaghen, written late summer 1626, advising the government in Amsterdam of the “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the local Native Americans. This is the earliest surviving record of the transaction. The accompanying description makes it clear that two enduring, commonly held beliefs about this are incorrect. When the letter was re-discovered in the 19th century, the purchase price of 60 guilders was simply converted into dollars at the then prevailing rate of exchange, thus $24.00. In 1626, however, 60 guilders was actually much more valuable, roughly equivalent to eight months average wage. Looking out my office window down 51st Street, I would still consider this a bargain!

The more fundamental misconception, however, is the notion of “purchase”. In the Native American worldview, they could no more sell land than they could sell air. In their view, they were more accurately granting the right of access and use to the Dutch. This wasn’t necessarily unique access either. They could just as easily grant such rights to other settlers, a situation which did, in fact, arise in other areas, much to the consternation of the groups involved.

The other exhibit is FDR at Sea, an exploration of Franklin Roosevelt’s lifelong love of the sea, primarily through items from his large collection of naval memorabilia. Much of this is on loan from the Presidential Library at Hyde Park. This exhibit was a bit drier and less interesting to me. I’m sure, however, that someone more interested in this sort of collecting would find the exhibit fascinating.

The Museum is at 12 Fulton Street, on the East side of Lower Manhattan. If you have the opportunity, it’s well worth a visit.

QE2: An Appreciation

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It has been reported in both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph that Nakheel, a subsidiary of financially strapped Dubai World, will be forced to sell QE2.

I had the pleasure to sail on QE2 only once, but that was enough to fall under her spell. She was elegant, refined, sleek and beautiful. She was also surprising and delightful.

I vividly remember reading the events calendar on the first day of our crossing from New York to Southampton and discovering that Ray Bradbury was on board as a guest lecturer. For a lifelong science fiction fan, this was almost too good to be true. I had the great pleasure to speak with him a couple times during the sailing, and I’ll never forget it.

We had the unexpected good fortune to sail in a Queens Grill stateroom, and thus the very real pleasure of dining in the Queens Grill. Service was excellent and the kitchen was quite impressive. The chef and his staff would do whatever they could to meet a guest’s request, on the menu or off. We expressed a yen one evening for cherry pie, an item not on the menu. Next evening out came a full cherry pie to our table with our coffee.

One wit has opined that Queens Grill was akin to a retirement home with better jewelry. Amusing yes, but hardly the whole picture. While the couple at the table next to ours did tend to nod off during dinner, a glance past them revealed Ray Bradbury in animated conversation with his tablemates while in the opposite direction was Francis Ford Coppola.

Every ship has a soul, a spirit. The best ones can beguile you. To borrow a bit from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, QE2 “had the manners and deportment of a great lady, and behaved herself as such”. While FDR was speaking of another great ship, these words are no less true of QE2. I fervently hope that she finds a new home worthy of the Queen she truly is.

Costa Atlantica

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From the sublime to the….well, not so sublime.

It’s not often that a Costa Cruise Line ship visits New York, so anticipation ran high when the time came to tour Costa Atlantica. Costa, in turn, was eager to have the New York media and travel agent community become better acquainted with “cruising Italian style”. Sadly, distance oft times lends enchantment.

The 85,000 ton, 2114 passenger, Costa Atlantica went into service in 2000. The unifying theme of the ship is Federico Fellini’s films. Each passenger deck is named after one of his films – Deck 8 ½ , for example – and decorated with large paparazzi photos of movie stars.

One enters the ship via the 10 deck high atrium. Structurally, this area has great impact. Soaring? Yes. Dramatic? Absolutely. Beautiful? Attractive? Appealing? Not so much. The whole area is gaudy in a way that would make Las Vegas blush. Restraint doesn’t reign supreme elsewhere on the ship either. Almost as if placed to ambush the unsuspecting, one encounters dizzying combinations of geometric patterns at war with each other, scattered throughout the ship.

The main dining room is Tiziano Restaurant. Since there is only one alternative restaurant, Café Atlantica, most passengers will eat in the main dining room each evening. To accommodate such a large number of guests, the restaurant occupies two decks with a central staircase in the center. On many ships with a two-level dining room, there is a large open central area around the staircase which gives the dining room a feeling of space and airiness. This is not the case in Tiziano, however. The lower level feels closed in by the low ceiling, emphasizing the length of the room and negating the impact that the large windows at the stern should have. The overall effect is oddly claustrophobic.

There is, however, a bright note. Caffe Florian is a faithful reproduction of the restaurant by the same name in Venice, and is quite beautiful. Here it functions as a lounge.

The ship was full at the time of my visit, having just completed a transatlantic crossing with a layover in New York before continuing on to Canada/New England. Great for Costa, but a limiting factor for the tour participants since there weren’t any cabins available for inspection.

Costa currently commands 2% of the American cruise market. They are launching a marketing campaign aimed at increasing their market share. I wish them well. Based on my observations, it will be a tough sell.

Murphy’s Law

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The Norwegian Dawn, fresh from its electrical misadventure off Puerto Rico last week, departed this evening on a nine-day Southern Caribbean sailing.

As was widely reported, the Dawn suffered a complete power failure last Friday when she was about 95 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. Propulsion, lights, air conditioning – all were off. Partial power was restored overnight and the ship was moved to San Juan for repairs. NCL gave the passengers a 75% refund (although the power failure occurred on the 7th day of a nine-day cruise) and a credit equivalent to 50% of what they paid for this cruise to be used toward a future sailing in 2010.

Amidst the flurry of breathless reports and numerous interviews with unhappy passengers, little attention has been paid to the truly impressive job NCL did in arranging air transportation back to Miami and hotel rooms for close to 2000 passengers over Thanksgiving weekend.

Things can go wrong. Mechanical systems breakdown. In fact, we have Mr. Murphy’s assurance that it is inevitable. Every company, no matter what industry it is in, faces situations out of its control, situations that can negatively impact its customers’ experiences. The response is what is important. A company proves its mettle by its response to the unexpected. NCL acquitted themselves well last week.

Crystal Symphony

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Crystal Symphony spent several weeks weeks in New York recently, fresh from a $25+ million makeover. I had the opportunity to tour her and there is no better word to describe her. She is simply beautiful.

Updates have taken place on the 922 passenger, 51,000 ton vessel in her penthouses, pool areas, Prego (the Italian Restaurant), and the Lido Café. There have been some “behind the scenes” improvements as well.

The Penthouse Deck has been completely redone. Wonderful new carpeting has been installed in the corridors, a soft brown with an arboreal motif along the edge. The two 982 square feet Crystal Penthouses have been stripped and re-imagined as elegant residential apartments. The living room and bedroom have been enlarged, both bathrooms have been redone in marble, and the master bath features a Philippe Starck whirlpool tub with 90 degree ocean views. A large veranda, dining room and exquisite fabrics add to the overall effect.
The Penthouses and Penthouse Suites, 61 in total, each with butler service, have also been transformed. Custom cabinets with stone counter tops, flat screen televisions, new end tables with stone tops and crystal reading lamps, upgraded bathrooms in clean white and neutral tones, and beautiful fabrics all add to a sophisticated and pleasing interior. The color scheme is sand and taupe, with accents in either citrus or blue. I found the blue tones to be particularly attractive.

Prego, Crystal Symphony’s Italian restaurant, has been turned into a gem of a dining room. It’s low light, deep chocolate colored wall fabrics, splashes of rich red, and intimate size all result in a space which Crystal characterizes as “moody and dramatic”. I think it’s simply sexy.

Upstairs, the Lido Café now demonstrates what a shipboard buffet restaurant should be. Starting with its dramatic wall treatment at the entrance and progressing through its newly designed food and drink stations, well thought-out traffic flow, and expansive glass for wonderful natural light, the room is another winner.
The pool areas have also undergone a transformation. The area around the Seahorse Pool has been re-configured to offer conversational areas as well as sunbathing options. The seating has been upgraded to thick plush cushions in antique white and taupe accented with yellow and tropical fruit colors. Even more significant, the Neptune Pool has been removed and replaced with teak decking which now accommodates alfresco dining and lounge areas.

After the tour, we met in the Palm Court for a lovely cocktail party hosted by Crystal Cruises’ President, Gregg Michel. It was a fitting end to a most enjoyable visit. The party demonstrated to an audience that needed no convincing or reminding, that Crystal’s staff is among the finest to be found – at sea or on land.