Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thank You to Norwegian Cruise Line

Within the past two weeks, a majority of the big cruise lines have implemented a fuel surcharge to supplement the increased cost of fuel over the last couple years. Although many of the cruise lines utilized similar fuel surcharge policies, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) has stepped up to the plate by taking a huge risk, all for the benefit of its customers and travel agents.

NCL’s fuel surcharge policy differed in many ways from the policies of other cruise lines but there are two differences which stand out the most for me. The first difference is that NCL’s policy is not a retroactive policy. The majority of the cruise lines have implemented a fuel surcharge that not only applies to new bookings, but also to bookings which have already been made. In other words, travel agencies like Direct Line Cruises are now forced to contact each and every client who has booked on other cruise lines and advise them that they will be charged an additional sum of money despite the fact that the customer has already agreed to pay a set price. Needless to say, this creates a lot of tedious administrative work for the travel agent as well as a great deal of anger, disgust and frustration from customers who are now being told they must spend in excess of $100.00 per cabin booked or as an alternative, cancel their cruise.

NCL, on the other hand, after requesting the opinion of some of its travel agents at a recent event, elected to forgo the additional income it could generate by making the surcharge retroactive and decided that it did not want to burden its agents with the additional administrative work. This was an extremely bold statement by NCL in that it unselfishly looked out for the best interests of its customers and agents at a great expense to NCL.

The second difference is that unlike many of the cruise lines who made their surcharge effective immediately for new bookings, NCL’s surcharge is not in effect until December 1, 2007. By doing so, NCL has given all of its agents an opportunity to sit down and figure out the best way possible to implement the surcharge. Many of the other cruise lines did not afford agencies that luxury which made it extremely difficult for agencies to properly accept bookings with the surcharge included. Thanks to NCL, we were able to alter our computer systems to allow for the fuel surcharge with plenty of time to spare.

On behalf of Direct Line Cruises, its owners, IT personnel, staff and its customers who have already booked an NCL cruise, we thank you for looking out for our best interests at what I am sure is a large cost to you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Celebrity Millennium Mediterranean Cruise Review

Celebrity Millennium Mediterranean Cruise Review & Photos Below:

On October 21, 2007 my wife, Helen, and I embarked on a 14-night Mediterranean cruise aboard the Celebrity Millennium. The last time we saw the Millennium was in the year 2000 when she was first introduced to the travel agent community in New York City. Although she no longer had that “brand spanking new” look as she did seven years ago, she still had a very “fresh” look, with the notable exception of some scratches on the stateroom furniture. But, other than that, she was every bit as beautiful as when we first laid eyes on her before her inaugural sailing in 2000.

The Mediterranean itinerary for this ship is fabulous. Being of Italian-American ancestry, Helen and I both wanted to see a lot of Italy…and we did. But, we also visited several non-Italian ports that further enhanced this cruise experience.

Our cruise started in Venice which is located in the Northeastern part of Italy. It is a magical city that is like no other place on Earth. Our 1-hour gondola ride was followed by a visit to St. Marks Square. Typical “tourist stuff” for sure but truly amazing because, along with the throngs of tourists (mostly cruise ship passengers like us), we were somewhat surprised to see that the locals actually used the gondolas (and water taxis) to get around in their daily lives. In fact, you can’t walk from one place to another without “zig-zagging” around a maze of canals that runs through the entire city.

From Venice, we sailed south to Dubrovnic, Croatia. This was one of the non-Italian ports that Helen and I assumed would just be “filler” until our cruise continued on to other places that we really wanted to see. Boy, were we surprised! Our shore excursion took us to “Old Dubrovnic” which is a self-contained city that was built in medieval times and still thrives today (with a mixture of tourists and locals). It turned out to be one of the most fascinating ports on the cruise.

From Dubrovnic, we then cruise further south to Athens, Greece. Although our visit to the Acropolis was enjoyable, we thought the city of Athens was nothing special (from a tourist’s perspective) and the Acropolis itself paled in comparison to the ruins of Ephesus which we explored while at our next port in Kudasi, Turkey. Unlike the Acropolis which is basically the partially restored remains of three ancient Greek temples (complete with modern construction cranes and scaffolding for the restoration crew), Ephesus contains the remains of an entire city that enables the visitor to sense what day-to-day living might have been like in this ancient civilization.

After a relaxing day at sea, our next stop was Naples (on the west coast of Italy) where we took a shore excursion that included Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii. The isle of Capri was upscale and charming at the same time, particularly riding in the cable-drawn trolley (“funicular”) car up the mountain to reach the city and to witness the spectacular view. Sorrento was also charming but otherwise unremarkable except for the best cannelloni and tiramisu I’ve ever had in my life. The volcanic ruins of Pompeii were interesting but I would have rather spent less time there (perhaps about an hour) and more time in Capri. But, all in all, it was one of the most diverse and exciting days of my life.

We then sailed south again from Naples to Palermo, Italy. (that island just off the tip of the Italian “boot”). In a word, Palermo (which is the capital city of Sicily) is congested. In fact, our bus driver couldn’t complete our scheduled tour because traffic was at a standstill on so many streets of the city. As tourists often say about the island of Manhattan, “…it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there”.

Following our brief visit to Palermo, we sailed north for a 2-night stay in Rome (actually the port city of Civitavecchia which is about 60 miles away from Rome). Because we wanted to see so much, we made advance reservations with a private car service called “Driver In Rome”, which was recommended to us by one of the travel agents on staff at Direct Line Cruises. This enabled us to see the main tourist attractions such as the Coliseum, St. Peter’s, the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps as well as giving us time to “do as the Romans do” by mixing with the locals in several of the beautiful piazzas that are located throughout this spectacular city. Rome is an unforgettable place that cannot easily be described in words (…and certainly not in a few sentences). But perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the fact that the Coliseum (as remarkable as it is) is just one of the many remnants of this great ancient civilization that can be found throughout the city. The Roman Forum, the Temple of Hadrian, the Roman Pantheon (which is still in use as a church), Circus Maximus and many other structures are all incredibly well-preserved from over 2,000 years ago.

After saying “arrivadeci” to Rome, we sailed further north along the west coast of Italy to the port of Livorno, from whch we visited Florence and Pisa. Florence is another one of those Italian cities that must be seen to be believed. As one of the main centers of the Renaissance, some of the buildings (especially the cathedrals) are so breathtakingly beautiful that they almost appear to be “fake”. Then, there is the infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa which is even more splendid “in person” than I could ever have imagined.

Just when I thought that this cruise could not possibly get any better, we visited the French Riviera, including the Villefranche, Nice, Eze and Monaco. The French Riviera is probably as close to Paradise as anyone can get without leaving this planet. Each of its idyllic cities has it’s own unique character. Monaco may be the second smallest independent nation in the world (next to the Vatican) but I doubt that you’ll find as many “rich people” in one place. Bentleys, Ferraris and other super-expensive cars literally line the streets of Monte Carlo (which is the home of Monaco’s world-renowned Grand Casino). This place makes Manhattan’s 5th Avenue look “middle-class”.

After another relaxing day at sea, our cruise ended in Barcelona, Spain where we did a brief tour of the city before transferring to the airport for our long plane ride home.

In retrospect, here are some of general thoughts about our first visit to Italy. Contrary to a lot of negative things that I heard, nobody in Italy tried to pick my pocket or pinch my wife’s backside. In fact, nearly everyone we met in Italy was very polite, except when behind the wheel of a car. Most Italian drivers, it seems, regard red lights a mere suggestion to stop, rather than a rule, and people driving motorbikes are generally referred to as “organ donors”. But, other than that, my wife and I left Italy with a great sense of pride in the Italian history and culture.

Now, here’s a word about Celebrity Cruises. Everything that you’ve heard about the superior quality of the food is true (although, ironically, we found the optional extra-cost specialty restaurant to be a bit disappointing). The service throughout the ship was great. The entertainment was well above average and some of the performers were truly spectacular. In short, it was the cruise of a lifetime.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Norwegian Gem Pre-Inaugural Sailing Review

Photos and Personal Review of NCL's Brand New Gem Below:
NCL GEM Bowling Alley
NCL Gem Balcony Stateroom
NCL Gem Lounge NCL Gem Courtyard Villa NCL Gem Lobby

As owners of Direct Line Cruises, my wife, Helen, and I were among the privileged few travel agents onboard the very first sailing of the Norwegian Gem. Following the official delivery of the ship to Andy Stuart, Executive Vice President of Norwegian Cruise Line, we departed on October 1 from Eemshaven, Netherlands (where the ship was built) en route to the city of Rotterdam. I must admit that it was a rather unusual experience to be on a ship of this size (i.e., nearly 1,000 feet long and weighing in at 93,000 tons) with only 70 passengers (45 travel agents plus about 25 executives from NCL) and a full crew. With more than 10 crew members for every passenger, there were literally more dining room attendants than people eating.

Upon our arrival in Rotterdam the following day, we were joined by several hundred Dutch and German travel agents, as well as some European “cruise buffs” who were honored to be among the first “paying passengers” on this new ship as she made her way from Rotterdam, Netherlands to Dover, England. Photographers were also in abundance, which made my wife and I feel like celebrities as we (along with other travel agents and guests) were interviewed and had our pictures taken for several travel publications.

But the undisputed star of the show was NCL’s new “It Girl”, the beautiful Norwegian Gem. As a sister ship of the NCL Jewel, Jade and Pearl, the Gem has the same well-planned, spacious layout and signature onboard features, including 12 “free-style” restaurants, enormous Garden Villas, exclusive Courtyard Villas, and even a 4-lane bowling alley. But, although the Gem is very similar to her three sisters, we thought that the d├ęcor on the Gem was just a little bit more elegant while still retaining the warm, colorful character that we found on the Jewel and the Pearl.

Despite the fact that it was the Gem’s first sailing, the dining and housekeeping staff were surprisingly well-organized and efficient (something you don’t always experience until a ship’s crew has had some time to become acclimated to the vessel and to each other). We did notice, however, a few minor timing flaws in the first night’s entertainment as the talented singers and dancers premiered a lively new stage production show for us. As always, practice makes perfect.
Of course, no review of a cruise ship would be complete without a critique of the food. To be perfectly honest, my wife and I have generally preferred the food on some of NCL’s competing cruise lines (such as Celebrity and Royal Caribbean). But, the food on the Norwegian Gem far exceeded our expectations. In particular, the Gem’s streak house (Cagney’s) and Japanese restaurant prepared two of the best meals we’ve ever had at sea (or anyplace else for that matter). And, although we had heard that NCL totally upgraded the quality of their regular breakfast and lunch buffets throughout their fleet, we were still very pleasantly surprised at just how good they were.

So, all in all, we think that the Norwegian Gem is going to be very well received by cruise lovers everywhere.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Norwegian Cruise Line and Bermuda Announce Long-Term Agreement

Hot off the Press! The following is a press release issued today by Norwegian Cruise Line regarding their future deployment plans in Bermuda through 2018. Everyone here at Direct Line Cruises is very excited to see NCL's future commitment to this great cruise destination. Enjoy the read:

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and the Bermuda Government announced today that they have reached a comprehensive, long-term agreement that calls for two of NCL’s newest and largest ships to be deployed to Bermuda for the next 10 years, commencing 2009 and running through 2018. These ships will predominantly depart from New York and Boston and will each sail at least 22 cruises per season, making extended calls in Bermuda. The combined itineraries of the two vessels will provide for overnights in Bermuda from Sunday through Friday. The agreement also calls for NCL to continue through the 10-year term its tradition of being the exclusive line to sail from Boston to Bermuda.

“Since NCL first began sailing to Bermuda, it has been one of our most popular itineraries, and we have developed a truly unique relationship with the community and government of our host destination,” said Colin Veitch, NCL’s president and CEO. “Over the past 15 years, we have deployed ships from more US homeports to meet the growing demand from US travelers to visit Bermuda. Our new 10-year agreement with Bermuda confirms NCL’s position as the leader in Bermuda cruising, plus we now have a solid basis on which to commit two of our fleet of brand new purpose-built Freestyle Cruising ships long term – a significant upgrade from our perspective and from Bermuda’s.”

In 2009, Norwegian Spirit, with a double occupancy capacity of 2,000 guests, will sail from Boston to Bermuda, departing on Fridays, calling in Bermuda from Sunday through Wednesday. Norwegian Dawn, with a guest capacity of more than 2,200, will sail from New York on Sundays, calling in Bermuda from Wednesday through Friday. Also in 2009, Norwegian Majesty (the ship which has served NCL’s Boston-Bermuda business for 15 years) will sail to St. George’s, Bermuda from Charleston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“NCL has been a loyal and productive partner in helping us rebuild the reputation of our tourism product. I am proud to say this ongoing partnership will continue now for at least another ten years,” said Bermuda’s Premier, Dr. the Hon. Ewart F. Brown. “This proves once again that major players in the global tourism industry are bullish on Bermuda – and they are bullish for the long term.”

As part of the agreement, NCL will partner with Bermuda’s Department of Tourism and Chamber of Commerce to contribute to the Bermuda experience. This includes becoming one of the sponsors for the annual Bermuda Music Festival, supporting the St. George’s Foundation and the Bermudian Heritage Association, and developing a new program to continue encouraging cruise guests to dine in restaurants ashore.

This 10-year agreement follows NCL’s announcement In May 2007 of its largest deployment to Bermuda in the company’s history with its 2008 itineraries from five East Coast cities. The 2008 Bermuda itineraries include: Norwegian Dawn sailing from New York, featuring the city’s only seven-day cruise to Bermuda; Norwegian Dream replacing Norwegian Majesty sailing from Boston offering Boston’s only Bermuda cruise; and Norwegian Majesty sailing to Bermuda from three cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston.