(11:15 a.m.) -- Cruise ship debuts, which for a decade have been as regular an event on the cruise calendar as the postman's "neither rain nor sleet" delivery credo, are not the story in 2011 -- aside, that is, from the debuts of Disney Dream and Oceania Cruises' Marina, the two most exciting and interesting prototypes this year. Alas, they'll both be christened and well into their maiden seasons by the end of February. (Stay tuned, as we'll provide extensive coverage on both debuts.)
So how will we ever get through the rest of the year?
If 2011 is not a fireworks extravaganza of exciting new developments, we're by no means yawning at the prospect of a quiet year in cruising. The upcoming months will be fun (how could they not be?) and potentially quite interesting. (Who can predict what dramas, weather-related or otherwise, will take place?) We anticipate some challenges, too.
What is Cruise Critic excited about this year? What makes us nervous? Consulting our trusty crystal ball (our 2010 predictions were, incidentally, dead on), here's what we're predicting to be the definitive trends of 2011.
Alaska's on the Comeback Trail
2011 Highlights: Disney Cruise Line's entry into the Alaska/British Columbia region will create an unparalleled sense of excitement -- much as the line did when it debuted in Europe. That's because the premium-priced line has no intention of competing against lines like Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Holland America, all longtime players in the market. Instead, Disney offers a fresh experience that extends from onboard entertainment to creative, uniquely designed shore excursions. (Check out the offerings, as experienced by Cruise Critic, here.)
There's more good news. After the political (not to mention travel) fumble of Alaska's government the past few years -- it decided to raise state funds by levying extra taxes on cruise visits, and the lines pulled ships from the region in protest -- the major players are back in droves. And, what does that mean? More ships equal better values, and cruise fares -- not to mention value-added packages that include air, onboard credit and other treats -- could offer genuine deals.
Another bright spot: As luxury line Crystal Cruises and luxury-lite line Oceania Cruises assign ships to spend a summer season in North America's northwest corner (for the latter, it's the first time its ships have called there), upmarket cruisers have more choices than in years past.
Possible Challenges: The now-defunct U.S.-flagged Cruise West, with its small-ship, expedition-oriented fleet, had dominated the region. We're curious about other lines -- like Alaska Safari's moderate-priced InnerSeas Discoveries, Alaskan Dream and the nonprofit, soft adventure-minded Boat Company -- which have been cropping up, and we look forward to reviewing them. There are also other well-regarded small-ship operators in the region, including Lindblad Expeditions.
Ships: What's New and Different
2011 Highlights: We are, of course, plenty excited about the launch of 128,000-ton, 2,500-passenger Disney Dream, which is the innovative entertainment behemoth's first new ship in more than a decade. Disney's all about creating new-to-cruise experiences onboard, and Disney Dream's include the AquaDuck, the most intriguing water slide afloat; unique-to-Disney Broadway-style productions; an exquisite new, adults-only alternative restaurant, Remy, which serves French cuisine; and a revamped kids' program. Oceania's 65,000-ton, 1,252-passenger Marina, the line's first-ever new-build, will have a vast culinary arts center (in conjunction with Bon Appetit magazine); Red Ginger, an Asian-fusion restaurant; and hugely expanded suite offerings (Owner's Suite pictured left).
Possible Challenges: Of course, there are other ships debuting in 2011, but these are siblings to existing vessels and so, for the most part, offer lines like Costa (Favolosa), Seabourn (Quest), Carnival (Magic) and Celebrity (Silhouette) the opportunity to tweak onboard features here and there, but they don't feature anything massively different in terms of design innovations. Still, we're pretty chuffed that Silhouette will be homeporting out of Cape Liberty, offering a whole new style of ship to Northeast cruise travelers.
Caribbean-Based Resort Ships Still Making Waves
2011 Highlights: Has the cruise-ship-as-destination-resort craze peaked? Well, there aren't any more mega-new-builds on the drawing boards, but the experience is still compelling enough that people are buying cruise tickets . . . and not getting off the ship in port. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Caribbean, where several of the most exciting new ship designs of the past few years operate seasonally (particularly Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic and Celebrity's Solstice class) and Royal Caribbean's dynamic duo of Oasis and Allure of the Seas can be found year-round.
Possible Challenges: The newest ships may get the lion's share of attention, but that doesn't mean cruise travelers who want great kids' clubs and state-of-the-art features won't have much from which to choose. Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, Carnival Dream and Princess Cruises' Crown class offer a fantastic array of options and, we suspect, may come at attractive fares because they're not quite so newsworthy.
Another challenge: As ships get bigger and bigger and, well, bigger -- and despite their alluring "let's just stay onboard" qualities -- passengers will be debarking en masse into already-crowded ports like St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau in the Bahamas. If six mega-ships are in town on the same day, be prepared to encounter gridlock.
Safety Concerns Grow: Onboard & In Port
2011 Highlights: It's way too early to talk about positives when it comes to safety efforts by cruise lines, but President Obama's signing the Cruise Ship Safety Act into law is a bright spot. It imposes new rules on cruise lines' reporting of crimes at sea, makes necessary the addition of safety enhancements onboard (such as additional surveillance and installation of peepholes in cabin doors), and requires cruise staff and crew to undergo training on reporting crimes.
Possible Challenges: No question, last year was a tough one with serious issues, none more so than the fire onboard Carnival Splendor that left the ship dead in the water off the Mexican coast. Celebrity Century had rudder issues and abruptly ended a Mediterranean cruise, stranding passengers in Europe. (The line's handling of the incident still infuriates travelers on Cruise Critic's forums.) Bad weather and high waves caused dangerous rolling on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas near Alexandria, raising questions about whether it was caused by human error. And, rough seas in the Drake Passage led to engine failure on Travel Dynamic's Clelia II, resulting in the cancellation of one cruise -- and some incredible video footage.
Cruise lines that had troubling incidents in 2010 have not fully explained what went wrong -- nor have they noted what changes will be made to ensure there's no repeat of what could have been, in all cases, serious failures. It's important that they do so in 2011. The same requirement goes for ports of call with tragic occurrences of crime against cruise passengers. Particularly troubling was the murder of a young passenger caught in a gang-related shooting on St. Thomas. Another was murdered on Antigua, and a group of passengers on a ship-organized shore excursion in St. Kitts were robbed at gunpoint. These islands will be watched carefully by cruise lines and travelers alike in the coming year.
Solo Travelers Find a Friend
2011 Highlights: We're still feeling a great vibe about one of the most spectacular innovations in cruising this decade: NCL's Studio compound debut on Norwegian Epic -- 128 cabins designed for singles are clustered around a social gathering spot. In our mind, it's the most innovative approach for lone travelers in cruise history. The concept means that solo passengers who opt for a Studio don't need to pay the dreaded single surcharge (often requiring these folks to pay the price for two people just to occupy a cabin on their own). But, this development is also special for the community component that NCL's introduced with its Living Room lounge. As cruise ships get larger and often feel more like cities than small villages, offering solos an easy chance to meet those traveling similarly is a huge boon.
Kudos also to U.K.-based P&O Cruises, which incorporated a handful of solo staterooms into the design of its recently launched Azura; they, however, do not have community-minded facilities.
Possible Challenges: We're excited to hear that Royal Caribbean is considering a plan to integrate single-traveler cabins into older ships, such as Radiance of the Seas and Grandeur of the Seas, during planned refurbishments, but there's been no confirmation.
European River Cruises Lollapalooza!
2011 Highlights: There's no such thing as a new-build malaise affecting river cruise lines that operate European itineraries along rivers like the Rhine, Danube and Duoro. These companies are in the midst of a historic (and fantastic) building boom, as is evident by Uniworld's new S.S. Antoinette (pictured); AMA's Amaverde; Viking Prestige; and Avalon's Panorama, which will be river cruising's first-ever all-suite vessel.
We love the way that river lines -- despite the fact that their ships are necessarily much smaller than mainstream vessels -- are incorporating more upmarket features. Last year's new-builds sported spas and free Wi-Fi (AMAWATERWAYS), junior suites and French balconies (Avalon Waterways), Nintendo Wii systems and marble bathrooms (Tauck Cruising), museum-quality art collections and swimming pools (Uniworld).
This year, we're intrigued by River Antoinette's top-deck cabins and suites with private balconies that can turn into glass-enclosed conservatories with just the flick of a switch.
The river cruise industry will also be doing more makeovers than your favorite salon in 2011. Uniworld's River Ambassador, River Baroness and River Princess will receive top-to-toe makeovers for the 2011 season. Viking's Viking Pakhomov, which sails in Russia, will be stripped down to just its hull and rebuilt nearly from scratch. Viking Schumann will also be upgraded from bow to stern, including the addition of eight 180-square-foot deluxe cabins. Avalon is getting into the upgrade spirit by adding premium bedding (orthopedic mattresses, duvets, Egyptian cotton linens), L'Occitane bath products and luxe bathrobes and slippers to all cabins in Europe.
Tauck is another contender in the bedding wars, adding new beds that can transform from two twins into a king, 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and Hungarian down pillows.
Possible Challenges: These newest introductions are part of the genuine transformation of European river cruising that's happened over the past few years. This type of cruise travel had long appealed to more sedentary travelers, who were more likely to take packaged tours than to enjoy modern cruise travel. Major investment in new ships (and refurbishments) in this sector, however, has meant that more contemporary amenities and styles have been introduced. Open-seating dining, upgraded decor and cuisine, larger cabins with high-tech toys, more verandahs (or, more commonly, French balconies in which you can open floor-to-ceiling glass doors but can't really lounge), and more compelling shore experiences are highlights of the new generation of river cruising in Europe. So what's the challenge?
This niche of river cruising still hasn't quite caught on with mainstream cruisers (whether luxury or mass-market; river trips are found in all price points), and we can't figure out why. They're a great way to experience parts of Europe that you can't easily get to from an oceangoing cruise.
Entertainment's New Era
2011 Highlights: How do you improve on entertainment innovations like Norwegian Epic's Blue Man Group, its Cirque Dreams dinner theater and the Legends in Concert celebrity impersonation show? And, how can you top Allure of the Seas' productions of "CHICAGO," its water acrobatics show and its DreamWorks components, including 3D movies, festive character parades and themed ice-skating shows?
We'll tell you how: You introduce the first new Disney ship in more than a decade! When Disney launched Magic back in 1998, it changed the face of onboard cruise entertainment in a way not eclipsed until 2010's launch of NCL's Norwegian Epic and Royal Caribbean's Allure and Oasis duo.
It's a given that Disney's new entertainment for kids will be top-notch, and this includes, among other things, a teen club called Vibe, "enchanted" art that comes to life (pictured), animated characters that will interact via a huge plasma screen, a recording studio where kids can compose and sing their own songs, and an animation simulator where participants can learn to draw cartoons.
Aimed at a broader audience are options such as the all-new Walt Disney Theater production of "Disney's Believe," a new twist on "Pirates in the Caribbean," an enhanced version of the Buccaneer Blast fireworks-heavy deck party.
Possible Challenges: Clearly, the larger the ship (and the more often it's actually integrated entertainment into its design), the better the chance that it will draw passengers because of the quality. And Royal Caribbean, NCL and Disney have really raised the bar. Can cruise lines with even slightly older and smaller vessels compete? And, will Disney's reputation for superb onboard entertainment entice travelers to pay its premium fares?
Australia and New Zealand Cruising Heats Up
2011 Highlights: Cruise lines that market to North American and European passengers had just started to promote Australia and New Zealand as important regions for seasonal cruising when the economy fell apart. Celebrity, which had committed to a big investment in the market, retreated. As the economy improves, however, Celebrity's heading back with Celebrity Century, and Royal Caribbean is adding a second ship in the southern Pacific for its 2011-12 season. Cunard is planning a circumnavigation of Australia as part of its 2012 world cruise on Queen Mary 2, and Princess and Holland America have been increasing their presence Down Under over the past few years.
Another plus is that Aussie travelers, who love to cruise in their own region, are among the most fun and sociable passengers who take to the sea.
Possible Challenges: The economy is improving, but slowly, and it may take another year or two before most North Americans will feel comfortable taking such a lengthy and expensive trip.
Middle East Cruising Boom
2011 Highlights: Cruise lines have long been calling at Middle East ports in Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Dubai and the U.A.E., but they're ramping up travel to the region in the winter months in a huge way. Royal Caribbean will offer a longer cruising season than originally planned, with Brilliance of the Seas returning to Dubai in November 2011. MSC Cruises will offer its first Middle East cruises for the 2011-12 winter season, with MSC Lirica sailing out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Costa Cruises continues to operate two ships in the region, including the new Costa Deliziosa, which debuted in Dubai in 2010.
Possible Challenges: The Middle East is a tougher and more costly sell for North American travelers than for Europeans. The region is a long-haul destination for North Americans; for example, a nonstop flight between New York and Dubai, the region's most common homeport, is 12.5 hours (versus seven for Brits). And, the region is struggling to market itself to North American tourists who may not be as aware of its geographical breadth.
The For-Fee Frenzy Continues
2011 Highlights: Hmmm, this is a tough one. While most cruise lines have long considered extras like cocktails, spa treatments, shore excursions and casino gambling to be a la carte priced (and thus not included in cruise fares), other small-but-niggling charges continue to inch their way into the onboard experience. Some lines -- like NCL and Cunard (specifically with its Queen Elizabeth) -- have restaurants that go beyond the service charge to actually price specific food items. (The effort by Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines to charge for specialty steaks in main dining venues continues to rankle Cruise Critic members.) Now you can pay out-of-pocket for things like cupcakes, pizza delivery, build-a-pet shops and specialty coffees.
And, it looks like cruise lines are kicking it up a notch in 2011. When Disney Dream debuts in mid-January, it will have the highest industry-wide dining fee for Remy, its elegant French boite -- an eye-popping $75 a head. And, under the guise of upgrading older ships to more closely resemble their new-builds, cruise lines like Celebrity and Royal Caribbean are adding more expensive cabin categories (balconies and spa cabins), extra-fee restaurants (like Allure's Samba Grill and the Solstice-class Tuscan Grille and Bistro on 5) and even retail stores (like Celebrity's Apple product store).
Possible Challenges: Will the nickel-and-diming drive cruise passengers to other, less fee-intensive ways to vacation?
U.K. Passengers Adopt Drive-To Cruising
2011 Highlights: U.K.-based passengers love the drive-to cruise, particularly Southampton departures, even if travelers have to bus, drive or train it from more-distant-than-central-London points north, west and east. And drive-to cruising is only increasing this year. Last year's disasters -- including the ash cloud that closed U.K. and European airspace for weeks, snowstorms that crippled airports, and cabin crew strikes that nearly shut down British Airways -- have made cruises departing from Dover, Harwich and Southampton (the most popular homeports) particularly appealing.
In Southampton alone, there will be a 16 percent increase in ship visits this year, and most are embarking passengers. The port's popularity is not just limited to warm-weather seasons. Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas is pioneering year-round cruising from England's southern tip, and it'll be joined by P&O's Oceana in March. And this is the year that Portsmouth becomes a contender: Its new terminal is aimed at smaller-ship niche lines like Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery, Hebridean and Compagnie du Ponant.
Possible Challenges: While the southern ports may be booming, cruisers in the north still have considerable distances to travel to join their ships. Turnarounds in the northern ports are mostly limited to a handful of cruises from Newcastle, Edinburgh and Liverpool, although the latter is still struggling with regulatory issues over its future development as a home base for cruise ships. Northern cruisers may well resign themselves to flying and opt for ports like Copenhagen and Amsterdam as voyage starting points.
And while it was widely hailed as good news when the Port of Southampton announced plans in late 2010 to build a fifth terminal, we wonder: Can the port currently handle the extra demands on facilities when there are as many as six ships in port in one day?
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief, with reporting from Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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