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(16-08-2010)

Cruising Away From the Crowds



by Mark Tre' - "The Cruise Examiner"

With all the new ship introductions of late, and their attractions including Blue Man Group on Norwegian Epic; over 6,000 passengers and "neighbourhoods" on Oasis of the Seas, whose sister ship is due later this year; and four of the world's largest cruise ships, Norwegian Epic, Liberty of the Seas, Carnival Magic and Celebrity Solstice, all over 125,000 tons, to be based in Barcelona next year, the time may have come to see if there are other products out there for people who really want to get away from the crowds.


STORY OF THE WEEK

What Do People Really Want From a Cruise?

This week we asked one of our regular readers the ten things she might like to get out of a sea voyage. Here is the list she came up with, and when you think about it, it really does bring us back to the original ideas of why we like to go cruising:

1. To meet the captain and be recognized.
2. Time to sleep in and not be bothered about activities.
3. Time to dry your hair on deck all morning.
4. To wander about without having to answer to anyone.
5. Not to have to dress for anyone but yourself.
6. To be just one with nature and enjoy all the sights.
7. To learn about real peace and know that there are no deadlines.
8. To rejuvenate and refresh and heal.
9. To contemplate your life and make new plans.
10. To enjoy the inner beauty of freedom and to discover oneself.

This list is almost impossible to match with most contemporary cruises, what with having to get up every morning at the crack of dawn for another port arrival and get ready for shore excursions, and then when one sails be assaulted with all the on-board "activities" that passengers are invited to attend. This has been made even worse in the Mediterranean in recent years by the addition of "animators" to the crew list, a sort of pep squad that has been engaged to get passengers involved when they don't want to be, into contests and onto dance floors etc.

While this list does consist of the things people have always wanted from a sea voyage in the traditional sense, most cruise lines have now gone so far down the road of installing multiple attractions and on board revenue-generating schemes into their new ships that people don't have the time to contemplate. They thus tend to forget, if they ever knew, what it was like even in the recent past when cruising really first entered the mass market in the 1970s.

In recent years, tiered decks aft have given way to blocks of additional cabins and pool spaces now face inboard rather than outboard, as do many public spaces. Forward views if they exist are given over to gyms rather than lounges and even a cafeteria on one ship. The long teak-laid promenade decks on the Carnival Destiny class have only one door for access on each side and there are no deck chairs to lounge in.

One must go and sit in huge galleries shaped like auditoria on the top decks of the ship. At least Holland America retains the traditional teak promenade deck and steamer chairs, as does the Queen Mary 2. Elsewhere, bright lights and casino noise are actually found to be offending to some passengers. And not all are in favour of the rock-climbing walls that can be found on more than one cruise line now.

But let's have a look around and see where one might be able to find a sea voyage in the traditional sense rather than a week on a floating resort.


Yachting not Cruising

To start with, we borrow a slogan from SeaDream Yacht Club, where, indeed, this company goes as far as saying that what they offer in their all-inclusive deluxe program is not even cruising. People do not have to dress up on SeaDream - country club casual is the style and this is becoming popular on some other lines as well.
Not the blue jeans that are now so welcome on NCL, with its Freestyle Cruising, but careful dress such a chinos and collared shirts for men etc. There are no formal nights with gowns and black tie on SeaDream ships, just being able to mix with up to fifty other couples and enjoy the seagoing life for what it really is.

SeaDream has usually had its two ships based in the Caribbean by winter and the Mediterranean by summer but 2011 is going to see lots of new opportunities. For one thing, the SeaDream I will for the first time cruise the Baltics and the Norwegian fjords. She will do things such as going right into central St Petersburg rather than being out at the cruise terminals in the port area and miles from town, and will do the same in ports such as Tallinn.

In Norway, she will offer private events in the fjords and be able to get much closer to the action than the usual cruise ships. Other new itineraries from SeaDream will include cruises to the Amazon, operating between Barbados and Manaus, and Trans-Panama cruises between St Thomas and Acapulco.

Other lines have also been introducing new ships that will attract this sort of crowd. Compagnie du Ponant has this summer introduced its 264-berth Le Boréal and sister ship L'Austral will follow next year. Along with earlier members of its fleet, and like SeaDream, these ships offer more of a traditional sea voyage in comfortable surroundings and with no crowding.

And Azamara Club Cruises, now under the leadership of ex-SeaDream president, is taking quite a number of steps to slow down the cruise concept so that passengers get to enjoy their destinations, including overnight stays at many of their ports of call. Azamara also asks its guests to wear resort casual rather than black tie and has added complimentary wine with lunch and dinner to the fare.

Another way to get away from the day-to-day grind of a cruise, although still on a big ship, is to book yourself Trans-Atlantic in the Queen Mary 2. In order to save fuel and the environment, crossings now take six or seven days depending on the voyage and what better way to get away from it all and relax in a steamer chair for day after day. With North Atlantic weather being what it is, however, remember it might mean a blanket as well as a cushion on that deck chair. Cunard staff will most graciously provide both.


Freighter Travel

AOL News came up with another idea this weekend when it published a piece by Ben Muessig entitled "Freighter Ships Offer Vacationers a Simpler Life at Sea," espousing the advantages of getting away from the crowds. One of its contributors is quoted as saying that "cargo ship travel is for those who like a bit of peace and quiet," which harks back to our original reader's wish list.

The great advantage of traveling by cargo ship is large quantities of sea time with little to do except keep oneself entertained with just a few fellow passengers. As Muessig put it "In fact, there's hardly anything to do aboard a freighter. And that's part of the appeal," adding that "freighters don't offer passengers pre-planned shore excursions or adventure on the high seas."
According to his source, freighters let vacationers "become a part of the ship and get to know its workings."

Muessig adds that this is "something that would never be possible on a cruise. When passengers aren't staying in their comfortable private cabins, lounging on the deck or using the swimming pool or exercise room, they can pass their time chatting with the officers on the bridge or in a communal lounge. And when it comes to dining, passengers don't need a special invite to get to the captain's table -- they'll be dining right alongside him or her at every meal."

Most passenger-carrying cargo ships these days are European, usually French, German, Italian or Polish, with the French and Italian ships having the advantage of offering passengers complimentary table wine at lunch and dinner.

New itineraries also appear from time to time. Earlier this month, four Leonhardt & Blumberg ships were opened up for passenger carriage on the route between Antwerp and Auckland, New Zealand, by way of the Panama Canal, with port calls at Tahiti and Noumea en route. Each ship carries up to six passengers and there will be sailings twice monthly in each direction. So far, however, bookings are only being accepted four to six weeks prior to sailing.

The latest large container ships of CMA CGM, engaged in the trade between Europe and China, carry only ten passengers on a hull as large as that of the Oasis of the Seas. And the longest voyage, a round-the-world trip offered by Rickmers Pearl String, offers a 124-day get-away from the madding crowd, carrying a maximum of seven passengers each - the maximum number before having to hire a doctor is twelve.

This form of travel shows no signs of dying out as new passenger-carrying cargo ships still come into service almost every month, with about 300 now being equipped with a few passenger berths on each ship.


A Genuine Sea Voyage

The bottom line therefore is that cruising now offers such a vast array of products out there that it is still possible to book a genuine old-fashioned voyage that fulfills the soul rather than just our various appetites for food, drink, entertainment and fun.

After all, people say it was Carnival that made a big thing out of pushing their "Fun Ships." But it was another, much more traditional company that first used the word, when Cunard Line adopted the slogan "Getting There is Half the Fun" in the 1950s. In those days, however, it seems that fun might have had quite a different meaning from what it has today.

For anyone wanting to try a short sea voyage for themselves the best way to do this is to book a weekend voyage from Miami to the Bahamas, for example on the Norwegian Sky, or on the west coast a weekend voyage from Long Beach to Ensenada, Mexico, and return. In Europe, weekend cruises are offered every week from Athens' port of Piraeus to the Greek Isles and also from Limassol in Cyprus.
At certain times of the year, short cruises can also be booked from UK and Italian ports.


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