December 30, 2010

December 30, 2010
Top Cruise Stories of 2010

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Thursday and I hope you are having a safe and great week so far. It is a nice day morning before a busy night for Dab the AIDS Bear and me.

Now many of you know I love going on cruises. It is my favorite way to travel and cruise lines have been in the news a lot this year. Sometimes the news was great and sometimes not so much.

New ships were launched. Hurricanes barreled through Caribbean islands. Cruise lines made some curious decisions when it came to banning items.

But somehow, through it all, 2010 may go down in cruising history as The Year They Did Not Eat Spam. That was just one of the takeaways from November's Carnival Splendor incident (in which an engine room fire crippled the massive vessel off the Mexican coast), but it still seems to resonate with our readers. Just to remind you: No, passengers did not eat Spam while stranded onboard it was delivered to Splendor during a Navy rescue operation and never served.

In case you need other reminders about the year gone by, here are some of the top news in cruising over the past 12 months, from weather woes to passenger rows (think Queen Mary 2 and the two booted Manhattanites). Even dust played a supporting role, after the April eruption of an Icelandic volcano formed an ash cloud so massive that it crippled European airspace for days, delaying thousands of flights and stranding boatloads of cruisers.

Still, not every bit of news was grim. We continue to marvel at a few of the new ships we sailed, and we will never forget one particularly magical moment during the launch of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth when the ship's typically stoic godmum Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II was caught by surprise during a speech and showed genuine delight.

1. Haiti Rocked by Quake "Should they or shouldn't they?" That was the debate surrounding Royal Caribbean's return to Labadee, the line's private resort on Haiti, after an earthquake crippled nearby Port-au-Prince in early 2010. Ships delivered supplies and financial aid despite a flurry of articles and blog posts condemning the line for bringing guests to sip cocktails and sunbathe close to the devastation zone. The majority of Cruise Critic readers supported Royal Caribbean and its humanitarian effort and Cruise Lines International Association committee chairman and MSC Cruises chief Rick Sasso said media criticism of the cruise line's decision made him sick.

Postscript: Royal Caribbean weathered the media storm. Haiti, however, has a very long road to recovery.

2. Reality Check: Island Crime

In the Caribbean this year, a trio of serious crimes against cruisers made headlines. In January, a Star Clippers passenger was murdered on Antigua. In November, 17 passengers on a Celebrity sponsored tour in St. Kitts were robbed. And, on St. Thomas, a 14 year old Carnival cruiser was accidentally killed in July while riding in an open air Safari cabs. She was headed to a popular beach and was caught in gang crossfire of opposing gangs. All three incidents, which occurred in established tourist areas, again beg the question: Is crime out of control in the Caribbean?

Postscript: While the crimes raised concerns about whether the islands are safe enough to visit, it is now business as usual. (In some cases, lines cut calls for a time.) But "paradise" has lost a little luster, and we encourage visitors to be alert when visiting Caribbean ports.

3. Carnival Bans Items

Nothing sends cruisers into a tizzy more than being told they can not bring their beloved curling or straightening irons, fans and power strips onboard. In May, after Carnival announced a new list of banned items with vague warnings such as if such devices are determined to pose a hazard, they will be removed and electronics are allowed onboard when used with proper caution, the line's fans threw a fit, vowing they would not go on vacation with bad hair and uncharged electronics.

Postscript: Faced with an angry mob of frizzy haired cruisers wielding dead cell phones, Carnival caved on the hair dryer wattage restriction, but if you plan on taking frayed extension cords or old electronics onboard, you may still face confiscation.

4. Norwegian Epic Takes to the Seas

Big, brassy and bold, the 4,100 passenger Norwegian Epic put the cruise industry on notice when it debuted in June. Already a pioneer for its freestyle cruising shtick, NCL introduced multiple concepts with Epic, including 128 Studio cabins for solo cruisers; a massive AquaPark with a giant funnel like waterslide; smaller entertainment venues for shows like the Blue Man Group and the Second City comedy team; and cabin bathrooms that split the commode and shower in separate stalls sheathed in smoked glass.

Postscript: While the see through loos continue to generate howls of protest (despite the fact that curtains can be drawn to separate the units from the sitting area), the solo cabins are a hit. Other lines are now promising to include their own solo rooms in the future, and Epic's studios are usually the ship's first cabins to sell out.

5. The Ash Takes Over Europe

Like the plot of a bad horror film, a volcano in Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull region erupted several times in April and May, enshrouding Europe in a cloud of ash and triggering global travel chaos. At the time, it was deemed too dangerous for aircraft to fly through the thick plume, and thousands of European flights were grounded, their payload forced to find other means of transportation while the skies cleared. Amid the confusion, Celebrity Cruises came out looking magnanimous the line canceled a two-night preview cruise on its new Eclipse, opting instead to help repatriate stranded British and Irish vacationers.

Postscript: The eruption was declared over in October 2010 by an Icelandic volcanologist. But the area is still geothermally active, and future spewings are a possibility.

6. Stormy Weather

2010 was the sort of year that meteorologists love and cruisers hate. This year's Atlantic Hurricane Season was a doozy with 12 hurricanes, many of which rerouted cruise ships and pummeled Caribbean islands. But, even after the storm season, there was no rest for the weary sailor. In December, rough seas in Antarctica sparked a power outage on the 100 passenger Clelia II; later in the month, a huge storm knocked about passengers on Brilliance of the Seas (injuring more than 100) near Alexandria.

Postscript: We can't predict next year's weather patterns, but we recommend that travelers worried about stormy weather choose peak, not shoulder season, sailings in typically calm places like the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Oh, and pack your choice of seasickness meds.

7. Cruise West Goes Under

It is always sad to see a line fail, but the demise of Cruise West, one of the last family owned companies, was particularly distressing. The small ship line, which had been operating mostly in Alaska since 1958, expanded its routes and invested heavily in upgrading ships in recent years. It was in the midst of its first ever world cruise a 335-nighter when the bottom dropped. Alas, while Cruise West was generating buzz about its enhancements, its aspirations finally doomed it, and in September, it closed for good.

Postscript: This is the latest nail in the U.S. flagged cruise coffin, following the downfall of Majestic America and the continued delay in launching the Pearl Seas line. But there are still choices, especially in Alaska, where Inner Seas, Spirit of Alaska and the Boat Company sail, plus East Coast based options like American Cruise Lines and the Atlantic Stars Hotels & Cruises' Arabella.

8. Passengers Behaving Badly

This year answered an important question: What does it take to get thrown off Cunard's Queen Mary 2? The answer: belligerent behavior on formal night. In October, a wealthy Manhattan couple, ages 82 and 91, got the boot after a dinnertime spat with other guests; post-row, the pair were kept in their cabin without alcohol until the ship's return to New York. Then, in December, jaws dropped at the news that a drunken passenger still dressed in his formals entered a restricted area of HAL's Ryndam and released the ship's anchor. Ryndam was not damaged.

Postscript: Alcohol makes people do funny things, but the anchor incident was no laughing matter. It opened up serious questions about access to off limits areas. If one drunk could pull off such a stunt, what about several experts with bad intentions?

9. A New Queen's Arrival

The October naming of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth was a seriously British and fervently patriotic affair. But that is not to say the world was not watching. Cunard, known for its inspired christenings, did not disappoint. A sea of dignitaries, travel honchos and hat wearing society ladies roared, sang and cried with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, who served as godmum and chief bottle smasher. Of the event's many memorable moments, one stands out. During a speech by Cunard bigwig Peter Shanks, it was revealed that only one person had attended the namings of the first QE (1938), QE2 (1967) and the new QE: Her Majesty. Her response? The woman, known as a stoic, grinned like a schoolgirl!

Postscript: 2010 also marked another historic occasion for Cunard. In December, the line appointed its first female captain. It only took the company 170 years.

10. Fire on Splendor

On November 8, a fire broke out in Carnival Splendor's engine room, leaving the ship adrift off the coast of Mexico. Over the next few days, the media blitz was on. Splendor images of the ship bobbing helplessly in the Pacific, the darkened cabin corridors, the unprecedented Navy relief mission were everywhere, and you couldn't escape the ubiquitous, eventually debunked, reports that passengers were being fed Spam. Four days after the debilitating fire, the ship was tugged into San Diego. The cruise from hell or the adventure of a lifetime was over.

Postscript: Cruises have been canceled until February 20 as the ship undergoes repairs. The National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and the ship's flag state of Panama are investigating the incident.

Even given the bad things that can happen, I will always prefer going on a cruise for a nice relaxing and great vacation.

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab