Saturday, January 10, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Five: Days of Future Past

The International port-to-port cruisers made famous by Hollywood movies, the old sailings with movie stars like Bogart or Bacall from Hong Kong to Oahu or Tokyo, or Liverpool to New York, where tuxedos and at least one white dinner jacket were de rigueur, have been replaced by cruises that circle a small geographic area and return to the port of departure, like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Tampa, or Galveston, Texas. 

These basin type cruises usually require minimal formal dress, and while tuxedos have occasionally been seen, they certainly aren't required. From the cruises we've been on, it appears the women passengers certainly enjoy the opportunity to dress well and love being treated accordingly. Formal dining on today's cruises usually requires gentlemen wear a jacket and tie, but the jacket is no longer the white dinner jacket of days gone by. A sports jacket seems to meet the requirement, though most men wear suits. Most cruises have only one or two formal nights, almost always one called the Captain's night. Unless you choose one of NCL's cruises where the entire fleet has adopted the "Freestyle Dining" model. That is the new business model and it seems to be NCL's salvation.

According to the Economist, more than 40% of first-time cruisers today are under the age of 40. The cruise industry knows exactly what it is doing by tailoring shorter, introductory type cruises to the less demanding tastes that appeal to today's younger cruise passengers. They are the passengers of tomorrow who will eventually book a 7 or 10 day cruise sometime in the future. Hey, wanna climb a rock wall or drink all night to club music at ten dollars a drink? 

The piano lounges are slowly being replaced by sports bars. The younger, first time cruise customer being courted by cruise lines today apparently doesn't care as much about the formality of having the same dining room staff at every meal as it does about eating whenever they want at the open buffet, but of the top five reasons given by, the second most popular reason for cruisers aged 18 – 30 was the "money saving aspect of an all inclusive cruise, including food/drink/entertainment." Boy, are they in for a surprise!

For the segment of the industry's customer base that is fast fading into oblivion, us retired, middle class customers - we are called "wrinklies" by the cruise industry – who actually expect melted Gruyère cheese on our French Onion Soup for the price of passage, the days of quality dining included in the base passage, or ticket price, may be over. It isn't the menu that has changed as much as the caliber and quality of the food. What the cruise planners have done is force passengers to spend another $50 to $100 daily for dining, in addition to our passage, to have the taste and quality of food we would normally expect in the dining room.

Specialty restaurants cater to those who don't mind paying above and beyond the price of the cruise. The idea is apparently not only to lower food costs, but to also drive the traditional passenger to the extra cost specialty restaurants. On our ship, the Il Adagio restaurant charged an extra $15 extra per person for Risottos, pastas, and pizza; Le Bistro charged an additional $20 per person for beef fillet, escargot, lobster tails; and the specialty signature steakhouse, Cagney's, hits you with a $30 fee per person. You can sign up in advance for a dining package for $74 per guest for 4-day cruises that allows you to dine in the extra cost restaurants. Basically your passage, or ticket price only covers the break even point for the cruise companies, every penny you spend from the moment you board ship is profit. 

The fare for our four night cruise to the Bahamas was $1468 (Balcony, Norwegian deck), plus $203.92 in "Government" taxes, and $180 for bus fare to and from the Port of Miami, all paid to NCL. Add to that the travel insurance at $86.39 we bought separately and the bill just to get on the ship comes out to $1938.31. For four nights at sea, the cost came out to $484.58 a day for the two of us. Then came the on-board charges, where Ilse and I must be among the most frugal, or cheapest, cruisers of the entire cruise. Our bill, with a $25 credit, was an additional $127.67. It could have been higher, but I balk at $10 gin and tonics served in plastic cups and $6 Budweisers. We did have a couple of glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon at $10 each since we couldn't get to our confiscated wine. Oddly enough, a bottle of Heineken beer was only $5.25 while a Bud Light was $6.00.

The basin cruising industry created by Knut Kloster and Ted Arison in Miami has blossomed far beyond their expectations and has become a world-wide financial powerhouse, a business model that has been molded to fluctuating International markets. Arinson's original company, Carnival, owns Carnival line, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, Cunard, Costa Cruises, Aida and Iberocruceros, each personalized for a specific segment of the market. Kloster has morphed into Norwegian Cruise Lines and currently owns Norwegian, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas. NCL was known as "No Cash Left" only fifteen short years ago, but they currently have six ships in the construction pipeline.

NCL shed its high end lines, the Royal Viking and Royal Cruise lines amid a convoluted series of acquisitions and mergers that diluted reputations, and decided to compete with Carnival and Royal Caribbean in the downscale Caribbean market instead. As far as their executives are concerned, the current business model is full speed ahead. According to Cruise Market Watch, "The total world wide cruise industry is estimated at $39.6 billion – a 6.9% increase over 2014 – with 22.2 million annualized passengers carried – a 3.2% increase over 2014." Cruise Lines International Association, Inc., estimates "First-time passenger growth will be driven by the 95 million Millennial generation, based on population size and positive experiences cruising with their parents." 

While the Europeans were slow to understand the uniqueness of the Mediterranean, and even the North Sea, cruises and facilities that once mirrored the original cruises out of Miami have now matured into world class destinations on their own right. The European market has faltered somewhat in the last two years, but the strong U.S. market – 52 % of all cruise passengers are from the US – will soon have fierce competition. 

The Far East market is rapidly being exploited and cruise companies are adding cruise ships to rival the Caribbean and Alaskan cruises. The future star of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, the 4180 passenger Quantum of the Seas, due in May, 2015, will be permanently based in Shanghai and offer cruises for Chinese passengers to Korea and Japan. She joins the modest China Star, the first Chinese cruise ship introduced only three short years ago. Obviously, neither my wife nor I are in the passenger demographics targeted for these ships. The menus on the Chinese ships will not reflect the offerings found on the Caribbean cruises, and the on-board activities will be designed for that market. Our problem is we are not even in the demographics targeted for Caribbean cruises by today's marketing goals. 

Tell me about flying today. How do you feel about being charged for lunch, or even a bag of peanuts? How about paying for that extra blanket because your legs are freezing? How about leg room? Need a pillow? Are you treated like you were just a few years ago? How do you like the new attitudes of the flight attendants when they tell you, in so many words, to go fly yourself? The same business model has been applied to ship cruising, and if you decide to cruise, be ready to buy your peanuts. Lots of them. You may have cold knees as well. Cruise line executives have failed to see the difference between doing something because you have to and what you would do for fun, and the results just may startlingly similar. I personally feel the same distasteful revulsion for both, and that will keep me from cruising in the future. I won't spend my money cruising: I don't have to. 

 The difference is in the marketing, and Norwegian currently spends over $53 million a year in advertising, selling sandy beaches and tropical nights without telling you about the cost of peanuts. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, by the way, spent $82 million on advertising. Perhaps that's why they had two cruise ships at Coco Cay simultaneously.

San Pedro, California, 1989 
 I was sent to San Pedro, California in 1990 to survey the wiring of the M/S Royal Viking Star – which later became the Westward – after she arrived in port from Hawaii. She had been purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines from Royal Viking and was being upgraded to standardize their computer systems and replace stand-alone cash registers with real-time, point-of-sale terminals. She was an upscale, high-end point to point ship that became a Caribbean basin cruiser. I didn't get to see the much of the passenger, "outside" ship, we ate in the crew dining room and spent our time on board checking cable runs and access panels.

Still, while the feeling of class and style was that is missing in today's mega-ships was apparent everywhere, I do enjoy the new style balcony staterooms and modern amenities of the new ships. And the quietness as well. The new ships are far quieter than the old ships. I would much rather pay for my cruise up front than be nickel and dimed to the point of frustration. Redefinition of the customer base has apparently excluded my wife and I, and all of us in that small, dwindling category of retired, middle income passengers, us "wrinklies" who look for quality and service at a fair price. Those days are long gone. Just like the S/S Norway. 

Nothing but a distant memory.

Moths to a Flame - One Last Try at Cruising - And the inspiration to try again - 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Four: Christmas in Freeport

I leaned on the balcony rail outside our state room in the chilly, overcast first light of morning as we slowly entered the channel into Freeport Harbor. Well, to me it was chilly, compared to the warm sunshine of the last two days. It must have been in the mid 60's, overcast with occasional rain showers just as it was the first time we visited Freeport back in November of 1989. And just like the first time, we decided not to go ashore, spending the day on-board instead.
Freeport - 2014 -  Freeport channel aboard the M/S Norwegian Sky
Ilse and I expected to have the ship to ourselves once again, but far fewer passengers went ashore than when we visited the private island at Great Stirrup Cay two days before. We assumed the stores in Freeport would be closed Christmas day, and apparently so did the majority of passengers as the public areas of the ship were full. Besides, not many wanted to suffer the drizzly weather. The stores and vendors who did open in Freeport were probably disappointed in the low turnout. Many of the Jitney drivers on the dock chatted among themselves waiting for passengers who didn't show up. 

Freeport, 1989, near the Emerald Seas, another basin cruiser pioneer.

Ilse and I took advantage of the of the empty jogging deck – almost all current cruise ships now have one – and walked our three miles before heading up to the exercise room for the stationary bikes. Every lap around the ship found more people sitting on the deck, some leaning on the rail, all glued to their laptops, tablets and smart-phones. 

A Bahamian vendor on shore had an Internet router running with no security. It didn't take long before the free WiFi was discovered and people began logging onto the Internet. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers WiFi service at any time on ship, but at 75 cents a minute, so by the time we finished our eighth lap, the dock side of the ship was beginning to get crowded. The signal was strongest on the dock side closest to the vendors store. We took advantage of the free access later as well, checking e-mail to make sure the world at home hadn't fallen apart. We spent the rest of the day reading and just strolling around the ship.

We weren't curious enough about Freeport to disembark the first time, and we certainly didn't have the spark to do it this time. The 12 mile ride to town is $5 a person if you use one of the jitneys, which today are mostly vans, and about $25 if you ride by yourselves. When taking a jitney, you have to wait until the driver has a full van. The round trip alone pretty much wipes out any savings from shopping in town, but it is too far to walk. Freeport and its beach suburb, Lucaya, form the second largest city in the Bahamas, and how it came about is worth a volume of its own. Freeport became an International tax free port in 1955 and has been a financial cornerstone of the Bahamian economy ever since. 

Jitneys waiting for customers, 2014

They will lose their tax free trade zone status in 2054, but until then, shoppers can take advantage of better prices than found in Nassau. Freeport and the island Grand Bahama has many sites we would like to have visited, but the weather wasn't inviting and we decided to spend Christmas on the boat.

Few vendors, and no restaurants open - Christmas day
The oil storage facility here has benefited from the canceled deep water port planned for Biscayne Bay in Florida, just south of Miami, in the early sixties. Due to action from the Miami Herald's Juanita Green and Lancelot Jones, one of only two Elliot Key residents, President Lyndon Johnson created Biscayne National Monument in 1968 and canceled plans for the eight-mile long deep water channel through pristine Biscayne Bay. Freeport offered the port facilities needed by the deep water oil tankers and containers ships, and has more big ships laying off shore than I've seen anywhere else in the Caribbean. Freeport even has dry-dock facilities.

The Jitneys wait for customers, 1989
If you want a thrill in cruising, stand on the starboard side, the right side, of a large ship as it exits the Freeport Channel and look down into the clear water as you sail past the rather close coral rock shore. I thought the exit from Aruba was tricky with a ninety degree right hand turn as we cleared the channel, but it wasn't as breath taking as simply sailing straight out of Freeport. The port pilots earn their money. Soon after clearing the channel, we changed clothes and headed to the dining room for our last meal of the cruise.

As the gods of cruising seem to pick odd times to smile on us, we met a senior staff officer in the hallway on our way to the dining room, and after the required but awkward courtesies and niceties, I mentioned the exit from Freeport as distinctly awe inspiring. He smiled and said it was indeed narrow, but not dangerous. I asked if the ninety degree exit from Aruba was the most worrisome and he answered, "Oh, no! The port we dislike the most is New York! That is one port the pilots really earn their money."   

If this view departing Freeport doesn't make your pulse race, you have ice in your veins
Once again, we suffered a terrible meal, or half of one. While Ilse's Salmon was done well and quite delicious, I sent my dinner of chicken cordon bleu back. Once again, the Maitre D stopped by our table, and this time picked up the tab for our two glasses of wine. 

This last meal showed another reason we don't like Freestyle dining. No one will ever again hear Dexter Poindexter's classic "Hot Hot Hot" played over the sound system as waiters do a Conga line through the dining room carrying Baked Alaska Flambe on their heads as the sitting comes to a close. In Freestyle dining, the sitting never closes because diners come and go, and the tradition of Baked Alaska as the final day of cruising desert falls by the wayside, another loss in the romance of cruising. This is our sixth cruise, and the only one without the joyous Caribbean cruising tradition, even if the real Flambe had been replaced last time by battery powered LEDs.   

Exiting Freeport Channel

[updated March 3rd, 2017]

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Three: The Bahamas

[From Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Two]

We slept the first night with the balcony door open as we slowly cruised from Miami toward Great Stirrup Cay, listening to the ocean and enjoying the cool salt air. We were on the top floor of the M/S Norwegian Sky, only a few cabins from the bow, as we always reserve a balcony room as high and as far forward as possible. We awoke to the sound of the forward anchor being lowered into the Northwest Providence Channel a few hundred yards off NCL's private island. I walked onto the balcony and watched as two Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships anchored to the west at the nearby Coco Cay. 

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships at nearby Coco Cay (Little Stirrup Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas)

Nassau -  November, 1989 

Both are islands used as private islands for the enjoyment of the cruise passengers who want to relax on a sandy beach and snorkel or take advantage of other barbecue-type activities along with the other two thousand or so passengers. Or, in RCCL's case with two ships visiting simultaneously, with four thousand sun-deprived passengers waiting to soak in the sun's rays. With three ships at anchor, the two private islands will handle about five or six thousand people for a quiet, private day at the beach. If I were on-line, I'd put a smiley face emoticon, oh, sorry, emoji, here. 

When we visited the NCL island on the S/S Norway in 1992, she lowered her own tenders to ferry passengers to the beach, but today the tenders are based on the island and greet the ship soon after it drops anchor. The first tender headed to the island loaded with boxes of food and drink before the cruise director announced passengers could board the tenders for the trip to the island. 

Ilse and I have been to the island twice, but would rather spend time on board with the ship all to ourselves while the multitudes enjoy the beach and the hot dogs. Being Floridians, the December water is too cold for us anyway. This is when we normally enjoy the buffet as the ship is almost empty. I won't belabor the poor quality of the food we had on this ship and that includes the buffet, but after dumping a cold pizza, I finally had a great pasta lunch custom made while I waited by myself in an almost empty dining room. Ilse, unfortunately, had to go to the other side of the ship to find coffee cream.

Nassau - 2014

We anticipated a ship full of retirees escaping the commercialism or family commitments of Christmas, but there were few couples our age on the ship by themselves. Much to our surprise, this four-day holiday cruise appealed to families, lots of them. There were many people our age on board, but traveling as grandparents with their entire families. Children – 360 of the 2000 passengers were below the age of 21 – drove the average age on this cruise to only 36 years old. It appears families chose this cruise because of the timing of the cruise during the Christmas holidays as much as the freestyle of dining offered by NCL.

Many of the families were Asian, with a large contingent of Chinese passengers from Peking University who held a conference on board during the cruise. Without doubt, this was the most diverse group we've ever sailed with. The kids were no problem, we hardly knew they were on board. During the welcoming stage show in the ship's theater the first night, a bottle of champagne was presented to a couple celebrating their 68th anniversary. Yet another couple had their 53rd, while Ilse and I tied with several others with our 50th anniversary. Freestyle dining certainly appeals to the family cruisers, while the more structured formal style appeals to older passengers traveling as couples or peer groups.

One other aspect of this cruise intrigued me: the casino. For most of the cruise the nicely decorated casino was fairly empty, most of the poker tables had dealers anxiously waiting for players who never showed up. I haven't played poker since Texas Hold' Em became the game of preference, but then again, I'm not really a gambler. The lack of customers was probably because of the overwhelming number of families on board, or perhaps even the new unpopular electronic slot machines. I talked with several people who actually miss pulling the handle on the old mechanical slot machines, but the biggest complaint was the complexity of the new slot machines. Too many windows and too many gimmicks. Less and less chance to win, even if it was only two cherries. Most slot players seem to yearn for the old style machines, but, cest la vie, damn the consumer, full speed ahead.   

M/S Emerald Seas, the other main component of the birth of modern cruising, berthed in front of the M/S Sunward II
We quietly slipped into the night leaving Great Stirrup Cay behind us, and slowly trundled along to Nassau. We arrived just at daybreak on Christmas Eve and were greeted by two ships already at berth. That would mean somewhere around 4000 extra people walking around town.

Ilse and I took our time eating breakfast and watching the crowd disembark. We liked Nassau the last time we were here, and we were anxious to see if we would enjoy it as much this time. We immediately headed for the area beyond Bay Street and the shoppers.  After walking three miles – Ilse took her pedometer - we headed back to the boat, but not until we stopped by the new Straw Market and bought a new hat.

We were astonished at how high prices were in Nassau. They've always been geared to the tourist trade, but there were few bargains to be had in town. Few shoppers carried bags back to the boat. Items for sale on the ship were far more reasonable than in Nassau.

Nassau was gearing up for the annual Junkanoo street parade and Bay Street was already set up with bleachers for the Boxing Day - the day after Christmas - celebration. The cruise ships no longer leave Nassau late at night, so evening events and side excursions to the casino at Cable Beach for late shows weren't on this trip's agenda. Many of the passengers spent the day at Atlantis swimming with the dolphins or one of the many other side excursions. The perfect weather could have been ordered by the Chamber of Commerce, but was beginning to change as we headed back north toward Freeport.

I could rant about the quality of the food on this cruise even more, believe me, it got worse, but first, I need to explain on our last cruise, with Princess Cruises, I was so impressed with the quality of the dining room food I bought the coffee table book Courses – A Culinary Journey offered during the galley tour. I should donate it to Norwegian Cruise Lines, they could use it.

The shows were really great, with talented dancers and singers performing some really outstanding productions. On-board shows have become an art form of their own and are a highlight of cruising today. We really enjoyed when they integrated fifty or so of the passenger's children into the Christmas special.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Two: What Style, Dining?

Watching Miami disappear behind us as we cleared Government Cut in the softening evening light was a strange feeling. I barely recognize my hometown. The changes have been massive since I retired some seventeen years ago and moved to Florida's west coast. I walked downtown Miami for many years carrying a tool-case, servicing IBM terminals and keypunches in an era long gone. The Centrust building used to be on the south side of the skyscrapers that dominated downtown Miami. Today, it is on the north side of town as Brickell and the entire area south of the Miami River have grown into a new metropolis that gives my hometown a whole new, unfamiliar profile. 

A Chalks seaplane takes off alongside the M/S Sunward II in Miami, our first cruise, 1989

Gone also are the twin-engine seaplanes from Chalk's that used to take off alongside the departing cruise ships. The parade of departing ships has changed as well, dominated today by cruise ships that dwarf the cruise ships of twenty-five years ago.

One of the new behemoths seen from afar.

Miami is still one of my favorite cities, and without doubt one of the most unique in the United States. I don't miss the traffic, though, and the parallel MacArthur Causeway headed into South Beach was a sobering reminder of weekday urban America. 

We watched the Florida coastline fade into the peach-colored distance from the top deck, then headed down to the Palace Dining room for our first dinner using the freestyle approach. The pleasant hostess led us to a table and our server approached us as we were seated. The dining experience on the first night is usually laid back, informal, as many passengers haven't received their luggage by dinner time, and we were no exception. Ilse's suitcase arrived shortly before we shoved off, but mine was, ah, diverted by the x-ray machine and set aside for physical examination. I went to dinner wearing the same bluejeans and walking shoes I wore all day, while Ilse freshened up and changed into more appropriate clothes. 

Everything seemed normal, the server was a sweet Filipino girl named Irish, and the menu had the items we've come to expect, so we ordered the French onion soup with Gruyère cheese with great expectations. We were startled to have our soup bowls placed in front of us with a small piece of dark bread floating in the soup with no trace of cheese. Closer examination proved there weren't any onions, either, only broth. I went to the Maitre D' and asked him to join us at our table. I pointed out the soup had a serious problem, quite expecting him to be surprised, quite possibly upset at this travesty that could possibly threaten Norwegian Cruise Lines reputation of fine dining. Well, our opinion of it at any rate. The Maitre D' reached across my plate, took a fork from my table setting and flipped the bread over, exposing a white splotch on the center of the bread.

"See!", He said, "There's the cheese!"

I looked at the piece of bread more closely. The splotch of melted cheese was about the size of a tablespoon. Astonished, I waited for another comment, but he was quite finished.

"Things certainly have changed, haven't they?" I asked as I sat back down at the table. Irish seemed to be far more embarrassed than our Maitre D' and quickly removed the soup. We ordered a Caesar salad as a substitute and were once again stunned by the lack of quality. Two croûtons, each about the size of an end piece of French bread, hard as a rock, among lettuce that was way past being fresh. Ilse and I sat staring at each other across the table. What has cruising come to, we thought.

For the first time ever on a cruise ship, I sent a dinner back. It tasted like a prepackaged piece of a poor quality meat "product" I once sampled at a shopper's warehouse. I actually sent two dinners back this cruise and can honestly say I only ate one meal I thoroughly enjoyed the entire cruise, and that was at lunch the third day when I had a custom-made pasta dish. 

Apparently our Maitre D' had a change of heart as he returned and offered us a bottle of wine to make up for our displeasure. We accepted the wine but it didn't make our Braised Beef and spaetzle any more palatable. We both had indigestion well into the night, even after taking Pepto-Bismol, the first time we have ever used it even though we always take it for emergencies. To make us more at ease, our Maitre D' offered us reservations with the same server for the next evening's seating, something not usually done with Freestyle dining. Irish turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip and convinced us traditional dining is something we much prefer to the unassigned format of Freestyle cruising. 

Exactly how I felt after dinner...
The disadvantage of the shorter cruises for us is we miss most of what we enjoy about cruising; sitting on our balcony enjoying the vast expanse of open ocean. Most of the cruising in the Bahamas is done at night. The distances between Bahamian islands are so short the ship's speed rarely exceeds ten or twelve knots, about half of its full cruising speed, and the schedules are set so the ship is in port during the day. Cruise ships usually are out of home port by dusk, headed for their first destination, and ours will be Great Stirrup Cay, an island in the Berry Islands used for picnicking and snorkeling. 

After slowly toodling along, we will arrive at Great Stirrup Cay, only 150 miles away, by daybreak. After a day at the private island, we'll cast off at dusk to be in Nassau by sunrise the following day. Again there is no need to rush, it's only a 55 mile trip to Nassau. The ship quietly loafs along at a computer-controlled seven knots or so, saving fuel and arriving in time to pick up the mandatory harbor pilot right at day break. We'll be out of Nassau at sunset for the overnight trundle to Freeport at Grand Bahama. This was the only part of the cruise the ship got even close to half speed. as we closed the 130 miles to Freeport. Freeport back to Miami is only 110 miles.