The line's 4,500-ton, 120-passenger, all-suite Spirit of Oceanus will embark on what may be the longest world cruise since Magellan's 16th century voyage. The ship will begin its 335-night "Voyages of the Great Explorers" cruise on March 5, and the circumnavigation will ultimately visit 242 ports in 59 countries that span six continents. (The ship has no ice-class rating, so Antarctica was left out of the mix.)
"Alaska is not really a repeat destination; you mostly cruise there only once," says Dietmar Wertanzl, president and CEO of the line. "As a company, you can't just keep doing more of the same. There's too much capacity in Alaska. Alaska is who we are, but in this tough economy, we have to do something to stand out."
The Emergence of a Global Strategy
In the past few years, the line has expanded beyond its comfortable Alaskan confines by sending its own ships to the Sea of Cortez, the Columbia and Snake Rivers and Southeast Asia and by offering a slew of new charter cruises to Antarctica, the Galapagos (Cruise West's hottest ticket, says Wertanzl) and Europe's rivers. In 2010, Cruise West will actually cut its Alaska capacity in half, from a peak of eight Alaska-based ships in 2007 to just four ships in 2010.
Spirit of Oceanus' "Voyages of the Great Explorers" is an ambitious next step. But, there's no doubt that Cruise West's Wertanzel can handle the job. The longtime cruise industry veteran has played leadership roles for both Crystal Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises.
Since few passengers actually sign up for the entire trip -- as is the case with most world cruises -- its Great Explorers voyage will be broken into more manageable segments for those without the time or the cash to spend 335 days onboard. It's been divided into "chapters," each one inspired by the routes of Columbus, Magellan, James Cook, Leif Eriksson and Marco Polo. The six chapters are further split into 24 nine- to nineteen-night segments.
"Each of the 24 segments is a voyage by itself, each held at the best time to cruise the best ports in the world," says Wertanzl. In a nod to the destination focus, the line has timed several of the cruises with regional festivals -- something often grossly missing from so-called destination-focused lines. Spirit of Oceanus will visit Edinburgh during the Military Tattoo, a festival showcasing Scottish military music. Passengers on the Auckland-to-Sydney sailing, starting December 17, 2010, will spend New Year's in Sydney Harbor.
Expect Port-Intensive Cruising
Much of Cruise West's appeal is found in its small ships, an obvious need for truly destination-focused cruising. "In the Port of Venice, the ship docks right in Plaza San Marcos. In St. Petersburg, it's right in town. In London, we head up the Thames. We're trying to limit the need for a motorcoach whenever possible."
The world cruise also includes visits to 85 UNESCO World Heritage sites -- from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland to the creepy stone heads of Easter Island. There will also be 11 overnights in port, including places that typically get the treatment (St. Petersburg, Istanbul), as well as more unusual ports (France's Bordeaux and Honfleur, Australia's Brisbane). Eleven overnights on a 335-night voyage seems a little low to us, but Jerrol Golden, spokeswoman for the line, told us that logistical reasons prevented the ship from offering more multi-night stays.
With any destination-focused cruise, pairing country with cuisine seems like an obvious move. On Cruise West's world sailing, "there will definitely be lots of regional cuisine integration," Wertanzl tells us, much of it as part of the included shore excursions. In Barcelona, for instance, a Catalan meal with traditional flaming punch will be served in a castle. Passengers can enjoy dinner with wine in a Chateau in Bordeaux and a food market experience in Mumbai. These excursions are included in the cruise fare.
Onboard, passengers will still have access to the "standard" Continental menu (recognizable beef, seafood, chicken, vegetarian picks), but there will also be some regional touches. When visiting Greece, the ship will host a Greek Taverna night on deck, featuring regional food and wine. In Spain, it'll feature tapas during the social hour.
As part of a partnership with the Smithsonian, the ship will host Smithsonian Journeys Special Guest Lecturers on 12 of the voyages. A professor and PhD in Italian Renaissance will sail with passengers on the Rome-to-Barcelona leg. Richard Bangs, the renowned storyteller and adventure traveler, will be on the Muscat-to-Alexandria voyage. "We don't have any big Broadway shows," says Wertanzl, "but you'll get to socialize and dine with the special lecturers about their respective expertise."
The line is also aiming to create some truly special excursions (also included in the fare), beyond the standard panoramic city tours that leave so many cruisers dozing. Its "Ultimate Explorers Experiences" are included excursions in certain ports. For example, the Alexandria-to-Istanbul segment features an evening classical music concert among the ruins. In Aqaba, Jordan, passengers will head inland to visit Petra, the stunning ancient city.
So now to the big question: Who is booked for the whole voyage? Wertanzl tells us there are two solo travelers, so far, for the full 11 months at sea. (They'll incur a 50 percent single supplement.) "They're thinking, 'I can do [it] in one shot -- $250,000-plus for the whole thing -- fulfill my entire travel list.'" (And, according to the line, these passengers will get free laundry service throughout.)
Still, some 85 percent are booking a single voyage, according to Golden, and 15 percent are booking two or more segments. Somewhat surprisingly, the most popular sailings seem to be the more exotic Southeast Asia and Middle East offerings: Singapore to Chennai, Chennai to Mumbai, Mumbai to Muscat and Papeete to Lautoka. The slower-booking voyages are Istanbul to Venice and Venice to Valletta. Golden tells us it's because there's more competition in this region.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor