Sunday, August 1, 2010

Two Ships Cross The Atlantic

Traveling by airplane, for almost half a century the most efficient way to get from one distant place to another, is no longer cost effective, nor even minimally pleasurable. Rail travel in the United States, while notably improved from Amtrak’s first days in the 1970’s, is not yet up to acceptable standards, especially on long distance routes. (Only the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle; the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the premium Acela high-speed train from Boston to Washington, DC, are truly memorable experiences with enough special features, decent food and onboard services, to justify the extra time it takes to go by rail from city to city.)

What has become available to most traveling and vacationing Americans, seeking luxury accommodations, exceptional food and great service, is travel by ship. In the old days, there were a small number of transatlantic liners and a larger number of cruise ships that transported, fed and entertained the nation’s elites in grand stye. Today, thanks to perhaps overbuilding of large new cruise ships, a holiday at sea is now the most affordable value in travel, the highest quality experience, and the by far most fun.

Since my first voyage on the Queen Elizabeth I in 1964, I have made 29 international sailings to near the tip of South America; to the Caribbean; to, from and throughout Europe; through the Panama Canal, and in the Pacific Ocean. Already by the 1960’s, great travel by sea was becoming affordable to middle class travelers. Before that, ships were strictly separated by class, and the luxury experience limited to first class passengers only.

Millions of new Americans, of course, came to the U.S. in steerage across the Atlantic in ships large and small, fleeing persecution, famine, poverty and prejudice in Europe. In the highest decks, first class passengers lived in spacious staterooms, drank champagne like water, dined in Edwardian splendor and were constantly taken care of by servants and stewards. At the same time, numerous emigrants below, with literally no more than the clothing they wore, lived in crowded dormitories in the decks below, decently fed but with simple food, no entertainment but the music and pastimes they provided for themselves.

Today there is only one transatlantic liner left making the crossing on a regular basis. The Queen Mary 2, only a few year old, is the culmination of a grand tradition of non-military naval history, and is almost certainly the greatest passenger ship that has crossed the Atlantic. Its sister ships, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth II, now rest in moorings in Long Beach, CA and the Persian Gulf where they are hotel destinations. Queen Elizabeth I now rests at the bottom of the sea off Hong Kong. Cunard has also built two new cruise ships (cruising and crossing are two different maritime experiences), Queen Elizabeth (in effect, QE3) and Queen Victoria. These latter now routinely tour the Caribbean, the Pacific and Mediterranean Seas, stopping at ports, and providing luxury cruise itineraries.

But Cunard is only one of many cruise ship companies serving the seas and waterways of the world to a rapdily growing cruise vacation clientele.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has just launched a gigantic new cruise ship, Norwegian Epic, a ship so large that it could contain several Titanics.

On my recent trip to and from Europe, I sailed from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2 (QM2), and back from Southampton to New York on the maiden voyage of Norwegian Epic.

The route was essentially the same each way, but the experience was quite different. Most of the passengers on the QM2 were American and British retired couples (60-90 years old). The ship retained much of the formality and program of the traditional transtlantic crossing, including formal attire (although dark suits were allowed), fixed dinner seating, high teas, bridge tournaments, professional theater and classical music concerts and (!) self-service laundromats.

The Norwegian Epic experience was quite different. The passengers were overall much younger. Young couples with children, and slightly older couples with teenagers were much in evidence. There were numerous facilities for the young to play and socialize. Adult entertainment included the famed Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group (first time at sea) and Second City (improvisational comedy from Chicago). There was also a blues and jazz orchestra, country music duo and numerous orchestras for Las Vegas and Broadway-styled shows, magicians, dancers, singers and many other entertainers to keep the 4000-passenger capacity occupied during the 7-day crossing. An elegant spa and gymnasium provided everything from private trainers to manicures to tread mills, and an NCAA-regulation basketball court was open for athletic passengers who wished something more than the shuffleboard, table tennis, virtual golf and badminton (also available). While the QM2 had bridge games and a planetarium, none of that was available on the Epic. There was a very large (10,000 volumes) library with plush chairs on the QM2. No library was available on the Epic, although a small one will be open for its Caribbean cruises. Both ships had an enclosed smoking room where cigarettes, cigars and pipes could be smoked. Fine Cuban and other cigars were available for sale. The Norwegian Epic, however, also permitted smoking in some public spaces, most notably the large casino in the middle of the most travelled pubic deck, and passengers going to breakfast, lunch and dinner had to go through this area. (I heard the most complaints from fellow passengers on this smoking policy. I bet it will be changed soon.)

A special feature of the Epic is that it has rooms for single passengers. On most liners and cruise ships, rates are PER PERSON (and that almost always means two persons per room. The net result is that sailing for single passengers is often financially prohibitive (although some cruise lines will make price accommodations if their ships are not full) or they seek the single passenger market.

Your ticket on the QM3 covered almost all expenses, including all meals, room service, port taxes, entertainment, most public facilities, and of course your
stateroom. The only extras were for liquor, tips, use of the spa and masseurs, the casino, and internet time. There was also one haute cuisine specialty restaurant ($20 extra for lunch, $30 extra for dinner.)

There were more extras on the Norwegian Epic. There were eight specialty restaurants for which you paid $10-$25 extra per person. There were no free self-service laundromats. Laundry and dry cleaning service was provided at high cost. Most entertainment was free, but there was an extra charge for Cirque du Soleil. Espresso drinks in the dining room were free on the QM2; on the Epic there was a charge for these drinks (although they were better). Fruit juices, except at breakfast, were extra on the Epic; always free on the QM2.

The British ship took their extra charges, but alway discreetly. The Norwegian Line made no bones about seeking extra revenue from passengers, including a
huge casino in the middle of the ship that no passenger could avoid passing through, and omnipresent photographers offering to take photos at high prices.
Both ships offered internet services also at steep prices.

The quality of the food was high on both ships. The QM2 was much more formal in their dining rooms, but also offered informal and excellent food, buffet-style, on its upper decks. The Epic was informal everywhere, something that fits better for cruising, and for passengers with children. Fabulous food is available on these large ships 24/7. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, high tea, dinner, midnight buffets were only the official occasions. Room service, special order pizzas delivered to your stateroom and always-open pubs (chicken pot pie, omelets and steaks) filled in the rest of the intervals.

For the first class (Grill) passenger on the QM2, there was much pampering and special services, although having sailed on Cunard in all classes, I found “steerage” on the QM2 was about all most passengers would want, including lobster, fliet mignon or other steaks, rack of lamb, fresh ocean fish, etc., on all the menus. Caviar (sevruga), however, was $90 extra per serving (but free for Grill passengers). Grill passengers could also special order anything they wanted at at no extra charge. Their staterooms were of course larger and more luxurious, but the less expensive tickets offered comfortable if smallish rooms. (If the ship is not full, Cunard will also routinely upgrade passengers with inside rooms to larger outside rooms with balconies at no extra charge.)

Both Cunard and Norwegian Cruise Lines offer special incentives to frequent clients. As a “Platinum” World Club member on Cunard, I received four hours of free internet ($90 to other passenger), fast-facilitated embarkation and disembarkation (sometimes saving two frustrating hours of waiting time), a free wine tasting, and two exclusive cocktaii parties with the captain and other ship officers. There were similar, but less generous rewards for frequent NCL passengers. As a first-time NCL passenger, however, I asked for and received an almost one-hour tour of the bridge and interview with the captain. Both ships’ staffs went out of their way to satisfy passenger special requests, including special dietary needs.

In short, there was so much to do and experience on both these ships, and extras available just by asking for them, that it seemed to me unnecessary to spend the considerable difference in price for the first class ticket. (But if you have money to burn, and are accustomed to special treatment when you travel, you can indeed receive it at sea.)

Something I noticed on both ships were the numerous passengers in wheel chairs. In the past, ships were not designed for the handicapped, but the newest ships are designed to make almost any handicapped traveller comfortable and able to move easily anywhere on the ship. On the Norwegian Epic, it was explained to me that the crew is prepared to find quickly all disabled passengers during an emergency, and if it is necessary to evacuate the ship, make sure they are promptly and safely taken to their lifeboat. This is a boon to many travelers who otherwise could not vacation or make a transatlantic crossing. Safety features and procedures are many on these huge new ships, and I doubt that even an iceberg could do the kind of damage it has in the past. (As we passed over the the area where the Titanic lay in the Atlantic near Nova Scotia, the QM2 captain went on the public address system to inform us respectfully where we were.)

The most frequent objection to sailing or cruising I hear from friends and others I meet is an anxiety about seasickness. If you sail in the high season (June or July), you will likely not even know you are on a ship. The size and stabilizers of the QM2 and the Epic make even average sea waves almost undetectable. The seven days on the QM2 were ultrasmooth, and the sun was always shining. Occasional whales and schools of porpoises were sighted. But even in the off-season, or in the case of an unexpected storm at any time of the year, new and easy-to-take medications will minimalize discomfort on these large ships. (Smaller cruise ships might be another story.)

Once, when crossing the Atlantic in October, I experienced a Gale Force 10 sea on the Queen Elizabeth II. Even its size and formidable Denny Stabilizers could not alter some very rocky few days. I remember being one of only a handful of passengers in the vast QE2 dining room for several lunches and dinners (I have reasonably good sea legs, but even I felt some queasiness). Today also, captains routinely go around storms if they can, and since most ships go slower than they are able to go (to conserve expensive fuel), they can easily make up lost time from such maneuvers. The Norwegian Epic, for example, took a southern detour to avoid a storm on our June return to New York, and still arrived into New York harbor a few hours earlier than planned.

One of the most splendid aspects of traveling by sea is the variety of fascinating persons you can meet. On the QM2, with so many retired couples, I met former and current CEOs, Knights of the Garter, retired labor union officials, artists, Amish vacationers (they don’t fly), teachers and professors, shopkeepers, a young European couple who had just literally bicycled around the world (not counting the ships they had to take by sea), lawyers, physicians, and individuals with political views that ran the gamut of what I knew (and added a few dimensions I hadn’t thought about).

There is only one reason, then, NOT to travel or vacation by sea. It is easily cheaper, more delicious, more fun and more sociable than any other means of transportation. But you have to have more time, especially if you are making a transatlantic or transpacific journey. It’s the same for train travel. It does take longer, but the quality of the experience is light years apart from plane, bus or automobile travel when you travel by ship or train.

As for cost, the emergence of online travel brokers has made the price of passenger sailing the biggest bargain in travel. I used Vacations To Go ( ), but there are numerous others. Discounts are routinely 30-60%, but sometimes go even higher. Onboard credits, free bottles of champagne at sea, and other amenities are frequently available. My online travel agent at Vacations To Go also provided numerous extra services, particularly solving various travel issues. Frankly, he did much more than any local travel agent on land did for me in the past.

Travel insurance is a must. I would suggest NOT to buy the insurance sold by the cruise lines. It is usually more expensive and not as inclusive as the insurance available from you online travel agent. But insurance is a must. Last-minute cancellations, delays of any kind, accidents, baggage loss, all medical and dental emergencies are all covered (most likely, your own insurance will not cover most problems). I know you don’t seek to be transported from the jungles of New Guinea to the Mayo Clinic with a life-threatening problem by private jet helicopter, but it’s covered (without the insurance, it could be $100,000 or more).

There is a ship larger than the Norwegian Epic. It’s called the Oasis of the Seas. I believe it is twice the size of the Epic. The open area at the center of the ship is four football stadiums long. It holds 6000 passengers It is so large it cannot dock in New York and many other ports in the world. I’m sure it is a unique experience, although I suspect it is similar to the experience of walking through the Mall of America. I am not likely to sail on the Oasis or its twin sister just finished. The Queen Mary 2, Norwegian Epic or many other cruise ships are just fine for me.

In fact, the experience they offer is unlike any other on earth or sea today.

[NOTE: The opinions above are my own. I paid for my ticket on both ships, and received no services from either cruise line that were not available to all paying passengers.]

No comments:

Post a Comment