Monday, April 26, 2010

Madonna AND Elvis? Only on NCL

USA Today

And the first three headliners will be ... Madonna, Tina Turner and, yes, Elvis.

That's the word today from Norwegian Cruise Line, which says the much-ballyhooed Legends in Concert show planned for its next ship, Norwegian Epic, will kick off with (lookalikes of) the three musical giants.

Norwegian announced in November that Legends in Concert -- a staple of the Las Vegas Strip for more than 25 years -- would be one of several big name shows to have a home on Epic when the ship debuts in June, but it didn't release which tribute artists would be performing.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has said the Legends cast members will perform regularly in two venues on the 153,000-ton Epic -- the line's largest ship ever. The celebrity lookalikes will take the stage in the ship's 685-seat Epic Theater for six 45-minute shows over three days during each seven-day cruise.  In addition, a cabaret-style show will be performed on three additional nights in the Manhattan Room, the ship's New York-inspired supper club.

The celebrity performers will change every four months.

Norwegian is promising to take cruise ship entertainment to a new level with Epic, which also will feature performances by another well-known icon of Las Vegas, the Blue Man Group, as well as the dueling piano show Howl at the Moon and a comedy show by Chicago's Second City.

The ship also will be home to an unusual circus-and-dinner show called Cirque Dreams located in what's billed as the first big top at sea (click HERE for a sneak peek, including video).

Bigger than all but a handful of Royal Caribbean Cruise ships, Epic will be more than 60% larger than the largest NCL ship currently at sea and dwarf the biggest vessels operated by such big-ship lines as Carnival, Princess and Celebrity.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas Makes a Huge Impression

USA Today

ABOARD THE OASIS OF THE SEAS — It takes exactly 20 minutes after boarding the world's largest cruise ship to hear the dreaded L-word.

"The line starts there," snaps a fellow passenger waiting to book show reservations for the seven-night Caribbean cruise. That it takes that long to encounter a wait is the surprising part. After all, when you're sailing with a crowd of 5,800 passengers and 2,100 crew, you expect, well, crowds.

By now, you'd have to be a cave dweller not to have heard of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which made its debut in December. The subject of breathless, exclamation-point-laden coverage (6.7 million Google results!), the ship is all about excess, from its 6,296-passenger capacity to its $1.4 billion price tag. On this late February sailing, it will pause for a day in St. Thomas and St. Maarten and a half-day in Nassau, Bahamas.

But this cruise isn't about ports. Heck, it isn't even really about the ocean, which seems a mere backdrop to the whiz-bang onboard spectacle — the wave pool, zip line and ice rink; Broadway musical, dive show and ice-skating extravaganza; the 23 eating venues, 17 bars and 37 cabin categories.

As the behemoth takes its place alongside cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale past 2,000- and 3,000-passenger vessels that seem dinky in comparison, its horn emits a guttural mine-is-bigger-than-yours blast. Inside on the Royal Promenade, one of seven onboard "neighborhoods" and a cross between Disney's Main Street USA and a shopping mall food court, waiters hawk $7.20 piña coladas in commemorative glasses. Stunned newcomers gaze around the three-story expanse. And "Cruise Director Richard" Spacey, a manic cheerleader whose amplified voice will be ubiquitous this week, booms: "Ladies and gentlemen, you're officially on vacation! Somebody sccrreeaamm!!" Let the cacophony begin.

'Decadent' experience

The people behind the Oasis of the Seas are masters of crowd control. Yes, there are waits — 20 minutes for a table in the main dining room the first night; 17 minutes to reboard in St. Maarten. But, happily, those are exceptions on this sailing.

Among congestion-busting measures: Passengers are encouraged to make pre-cruise reservations, not only for the specialty restaurants but for major performances. Initial boarding is a breeze, thanks to an army of check-in personnel. And in most ports, multiple security portals ease logjams. Besides, in a space this vast, it's not hard to find serene spots.

Still, the unrelenting sensory input creates a frenetic atmosphere. It's virtually impossible to escape the piped-in music. Trivia questions flash on giant screens in the open-air theater. On the Royal Promenade, an electronic ticker tape emits non-stop factoids reminding just how wondrous the Oasis is. It has the deepest (17.9 feet) pool afloat, the first carousel at sea and a 12,000-plant "Central Park." If that's not enough to wow you, a bagpiper inexplicably appears around dinner time each night.

From scuba certification to scrapbooking, there are dozens of daily seminars and activities (though some turn out to be shameless sales pitches). And, as Cruise Director Richard announces on Day 1, "It is possible to eat 36 meals a day!"

"It's decadent, but I love it," says Dorene Benuck of Chicago, who with her husband, Irwin, paid about $1,800 each for a stateroom overlooking the ship's "Boardwalk," meant to evoke the ambience of a seaside resort. That's double or so the cost of sailing on a similar, smaller-ship Royal Caribbean itinerary. Not only is the Oasis commanding premium rates, onboard spending is "handily above other ships," Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain told Wall Street analysts in late January.

Pitch perfected

And no wonder. There's a lot to separate you from your money on this ship. Nine specialty restaurants charge premiums (from $4.95 for burgers at Johnny Rockets to $75 for a seat at the Chef's Table dining room). In-room movies cost $11.99 (more for the adult stuff). And the spa hawks everything from 24-karat gold facials ($325) to Botox injections (from $330).

At the moment, Sarip Hamid is merely seeking free advice on how to flatten his stomach. The chirpy Sea Spa receptionist invites him to join the acupuncture lecture. (It may be free, but a treatment costs $150.)

Hamid, a retiree from Kuala Lumpur, moves on to the fitness center, where a standing-room-only crowd is focused on a piece of Germanic beefcake who promises to cure everything from constipation to aging — without exercise! The personal trainer doubles as a pitchman for a product containing algae and seaweed that supposedly detoxes your body.

The infomercial continues for an agonizing 65 minutes, ending with an invitation for a $35 consultation. Hamid does it, but later, he's disgusted. "He tried to sell me $800 or $900 worth of supplements," he says. "That guy isn't even a doctor."

Of course, Royal Caribbean Cruises offers plenty of free activities. Some, like zip lining, surfing and ice skating, are novelties in the cruise world. A stargazing session from the ship's bow turns out to be a standout event (partly because only two people show up).

Bob Kozell is joining in many of the onboard high jinks, including the Sexiest Legs Contest, from which he has emerged victorious. Departing the stage to make way for the Thriller dance lesson, the seventh-grade teacher from Fort Lauderdale says he didn't come on this cruise to lie in the sun. "I came for fun and foolishness. Today is about foolishness," he says.

Giving in to excess

But not everyone is so easily amused. Donna Carrasquillo of New York complains of the dearth of port calls. "It's confining. When are we getting off already?" she says. "Of course, my son loves it. He's drinking, partying, out picking up girls."

Many, like Scott and Sabrina Blackburn of Denver, are here precisely because size matters. "We didn't come for the ports. We came for the ship," he says.

Indeed, as the week progresses, even passengers who are tepid about cruising find themselves embracing the sometimes peculiar aspects of shipboard life.

By Tuesday, you're ordering two entrees and multiple desserts at dinner. By Wednesday, the karaoke singers in the On Air lounge are sounding like American Idol finalists. By Thursday, you're tuning into a video rerun of Cruise Director Richard emceeing the Love and Marriage Game Show. By Friday, you're stopping by the pizza parlor for a late-night slice — just because you can.

First-time cruisers Bill Lewis and his wife, Lou, of Kerrville, Texas, certainly have no regrets. "It's fabulous — if that's a big enough word for this ship," she says.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Danube Cruise is an Opportunity to see the new Eastern Europe


Usually, I'm too busy getting ready for a trip to actually get excited about it beforehand. I think about bailing out because I can't get everything done in time. Invariably, I realize how stupid that would have been, when I'm on the plane, and it's heading for the clouds, and I finally think about where I'm getting to go.

The routine was proceeding as usual until the FedEx guy rapped at my back door last week. He handed me the Viking River Cruises package, which contained the documents for the 15-day "Eastern European Odyssey" sailing I'm scheduled for, starting Saturday .

I tossed it on the kitchen table. Later, maybe. It took a couple of days of later, but during a cereal snack break I needed some reading material. The envelope was within reach. And I needed to get some particulars on the trip, actually, because I wanted to let you guys know about this latest escapade, to let you know you can follow along, moment to moment (or at least mishap to musing to epiphany) on my blog at

So I opened the envelope and pulled out the itinerary and turned to a random page; which turned out to be the details of the Bucharest and Transylvania Post-Cruise extension I'd added. My eyes slid down the day-by-day information. …. Bucharest … Brasov … "mysterious Transylvania"…. Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage site and birthplace of Vlad Tepes …. Carpathian Mountains, Sinaia ...

I noticed, after a while, that my cereal spoon had disappeared into a mush of soymilk-bloated flakes and overpuffed berries. I relocated to the couch, to the side closest to the reading light. I decided to read from the beginning, from Day 1, embarking in Munich. The cruise itinerary started with places I'd been to before: Passau, Melk, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. But by Day 3, my heart was speeding up just a little. Cesky Krumlov, among the best-preserved cities in the Czech Republic, is a World Heritage Site, a place I'd never heard of and the first of many places on the itinerary with accents on letters I'd never known could be accented (Cesky features a convex curve, like a parenthesis on its back, arms up – called a hacek, or hook – atop the C, and an accent aigu over the y). From there to the neighboring Budweis — original home of that all-American, day-at-the-stadium staple, Budweiser, the King of Beers.

I kept reading, to Kalocsa, Hungary's red-paprika capital; Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia, the latter full of art nouveau architecture; Kostolac, Serbia, "the Balkan Pompeii" with Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years; the Iron Gate of the Danube — not a gate but a treacherous (once, not now) stretch consisting of four gorges in a row; Belgradoshick, whose weird red rock formations sounded to me like Bulgaria's version of Sedona; Rousse (aka "the small Vienna" because of its architecture and location on the Danube) and Veliko Tarnovo, with ancient castle ruins and serious handcrafts; Constanta, not only Romania's oldest settlement (originally founded by the Greeks in the sixth century BC) with an art nouveau casino, but yet another surprise accent – a cedilla/comma sort of thing under the second "t." Ending on Day 15 in Oltenita (one more accent note: another cedilla-esque second "t").

Don't you just love going to places you can't pronounce, much less type?

Of course, this cruise along the Danube and ancillary waterways etc. wasn't an actual surprise. I had become intrigued by this particular cruise itinerary last October, as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall drew near. Though there were other cruises to Eastern Europe, they usually hit the most popular cities and sites. I'd been to quite a few of these places myself, and the rest were so well-explored I felt like I'd been.

So I was stuck on Viking's "Eastern European Odyssey," with its unfamiliar, unpronounceable and even unlocatable (at least to me) destinations.

Alas! It was apparently intriguing enough for all 2009 departures to be sold out. So I booked quickly for 2010. In fact, I made the first payment two months ago – an unfathomable act of advance planning for me. Since then, when friends asked, "Where are you off to next?" I've answered, "Eastern Europe, to places I can't pronounce and probably couldn't pick out on a map." I couldn't give any more detail than that, because, as I said, I was too busy getting ready to go away to prepare for where I was going. The only other information I could say with certainty was, "I can't wait." Because it's one of travel's basic truths: All that as-of-now unknown will, soon enough, reveal more surprise and discovery than you could ever have imagined. I imagined this to be especially true in Eastern Europe.

Did I – do I – sound jaded? Like I've been traveling for so long the only parts of the world that remain intriguing are the completely unpronounceable and barely known?

I'll admit, there is some fun in the outré. But the main attraction of this Eastern Europe itinerary has to do with the definition of "Eastern Europe" these days. Sure, once upon a time the label was valid for those countries behind the Iron Curtain – Soviet images of landscapes, breadlines, a babushka on a street corner selling one lace collar, newspaper cut into squares for use as toilet paper.

But much has changed in the past 20 years. And in some countries, the stereotypes and the stereotypical division between Eastern and Western Europe no longer apply. Some of the countries involved have insisted that the broader (more descriptive) term "Central and Eastern Europe" be used instead. The meltdown of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the wall broke the barriers to new freedoms and opportunities. At first, there was chaos, and confusion and corruption, and deer-in-the-headlights what's next. But there was determination, and experimentation, and a palpable spark of excitement, ignited by a future filled with possibilities.

I visited several Eastern European countries early on – and felt that sense of possibility and change. I also saw, in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Budapest, some of the corruption and fear still lingering.

Eventually, there was progress, prosperity. But it has come in different ways and not evenly paced. Slovenia and the Czech Republic were clear winners, as far as freedom and the Westernization and economic development are concerned; the Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and Bulgaria are still far behind.

As far as tourism goes, the progress has similarly run the spectrum. While Eastern Europe was once synonymous with "emerging tourist destination," and "unbelievably inexpensive," the stereotypes no longer apply. Prague has basically become part of mainstream European tourism. It is one stop in the triangle of Eastern Europe's three most popular destinations, which also include Budapest and Krakow.

Today, Prague, where I was basically able to steal gorgeous crafts and glass and see black-light puppet performances for next to nothing, is as expensive as many Western European cities.

I remember visiting Krakow 20 years ago, strolling the Old Town and being stunned by the beauty of it, but also feeling thwarted by the language: The only English-speakers I found were two university students, and there wasn't a translated sign in sight. I particularly remember buying a soda from a street vendor; I opened the unlabeled bottle (no opener needed) and found rust around the top. I can't be sure, but I believe I dumped it.

I bet they've dealt with the bottling process by now in Poland.

Eastern Europe was, and remains, a vast laboratory in freedom, in human nature, in the best and worst of human beings. Upsetting, frustrating, and exhilarating.

So what I wanted was an overview, a broad range that would sample the spectrum. An Eastern European experience that confronted stereotypes, a snapshot of life in this part of the world right now. Granted, a cruise doesn't provide the ideal situation for really digging in, getting to the nuances of a place. But it's a good start. Especially if the cruise is designed with educational opportunities along the way. Which is something Viking River Cruises is known for, through its Culture Curriculum and hands-on Old World Highlights immersive experiences.

So starting Saturday, I'll be hitting the road – and the river. And reporting back in my blog, as often as events – and technology – permit. Follow along.

And if you would like to really follow along, sign up at and you'll hear from me when I post a new entry to the blog, or find myself held captive by some count with disturbingly prominent canines.