Friday, March 28, 2008

18-night S. America-Panama Canal cruise for $400? It's a Norwegian Dream price

This sounds like a typo, but Cruises Only is advertising an 18-night cruise from Santiago, Chile, to Boston next month for the ridiculously low starting prices of $399 and $449 per passenger double occupancy in an interior or oceanview cabin, respectively, aboard NCL's Norwegian Dream.

That's at least 75 percent off brochure prices and an unbelievable $22-$25 per night -- cheaper than staying home! And no, you don't have to ride in a lifeboat (though that may have an ocean view), nor will you have to eat in the kitchen or wash dishes. It includes all the usual cabin, meals, ocean transport, onboard entertainment, and port charges.

It does not include airfare, shore excursions, or government taxes and fees ranging from $5 to $150 per person (at these prices, you can probably spring for that).

The itinerary stretches from April 13 to May 1, 2008, and includes several port stops in Chile before stopping in Peru and crossing through the Panama Canal on its way to Costa Rica, Key West, and Boston.

For more information or bookings, click here or call 800/278-4737, ASAP.

Photo from Norwegian Cruise Line.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Short-time worldwide sale from Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises is offering specials until the end of this month on upcoming river cruises in Europe, China, and Russia.

Here are some of the deals:

* Choose between $199 roundtrip airfare from the U.S. or $1,000 per stateroom savings on two China cruisetours.

* Choose between $495 roundtrip airfare from the U.S. or up to $1,000 per cabin on three Russia itineraries.

* Discounts of up to $1,000 per cabin on a variety of European river cruises (including Vienna to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Basel, Paris to Prague, Amsterdam to Budapest, and eight more).

The fine print: You must book by 8 pm PST Monday March 31, and you must pay in full at time of booking. A "foreign currency surcharge" ranging from $35 to $100 will be added depending on length of the cruise; however, prices include port charges and fuel surcharges.

To book or for more information, click here or call 800/304-9616 or a travel agent. It's a good idea to ask for the specific offer code you're interested in, so go to the Viking website and look for it under "Specials and Promotions."

Photo from Viking River Cruises.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Final Carnival "Funtennial" offers: free upgrades, reduced rates

Carnival's month-long "Funtennial" is coming to an end on March 31, but you can still capitalize over the next few days.

The current offer is a free cabin upgrade for virtually any 2008 Carnival cruise that you book by the end of this month; just exactly what upgrade you receive depends on current availability and which sailing you choose.

And there's a bonus offer as well: reduced rates (as low as $99) for the third and fourth passengers in a cabin on cruises from September-December 15, 2008.

These offers expire at midnight EST on Monday, March 31. For the free upgrade, ask for fare code CPF4; for the third and fourth passenger deals, ask for fare code CP45.

To book or for more information on Carnival, click here for the Carnival website or call 888/CARNIVAL or a travel agent.

For our earlier item on how to win a free Carnival cruise this month, click here.

Photo from Carnival Cruise Lines.

Cruise the Americas with Holland America for $115 a day, including air

Holland America Line has a special offer on a 22-day cruise from San Diego, California, to Santiago, Chile, for prices starting at $2,499 per passenger for an inside cabin -- including airfare to and from a number of U.S. gateways.

The ms Amsterdam cruise departs from San Diego on November 23, 2008, and visits several ports in Mexico as well as Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru before making three stops in Chile.

While I don't usually recommend getting airfare from your cruise line, it can make sense on a one-way cruise since flying one way to San Diego and then flying home from Santiago could get very pricey. Without the airfare included, Holland America is pricing the same cruise on its website for $1,708 and up. If you can match or beat an $800 airfare expenditure by arranging it on your own -- for example, if you live in or near San Diego -- go for it, because you'll be able to make your own choices of schedules.

The cruise and air option does have one additional advantage: the $70 per passenger fuel supplement is included in the price, whereas it's extra if you book the cruise only. Some taxes, however, are additional for both.

For more information or bookings, click here for Holland America's website or call 877/724-5425 or a travel agent.

Photo of ms Amsterdam from Holland America.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cruise Fiji with Blue Lagoon's two-cabin family specials

Fiji's Blue Lagoon Cruises is offering special rates for families -- two adults and up to three children 15 years and under sharing their own cabin -- for various three-, four-, and seven-day cruises through these magical Pacific islands.

Family prices for two cabins start at around $1375 U.S. ($1515 AUD) for the three-day Yasawa Islands 'Club' Cruise, which goes roundtrip from Lautoka, Fiji, to the Yasawas, where you can swim, snorkel over a coral reef, visit a traditional Fijian village, and enjoy traditional island cuisine and entertainment onboard or on the beach. Cruising time averages four hours per day.

The special prices are available from now through March 31, 2009, and include all school holiday periods. Prices do not include international airfare or most beverages, but do include cabins, all meals, and cruise and cultural activities (scuba diving is extra).

For more information or bookings, click here for the Blue Lagoon website. In North America, you can call toll free 877/252-3454; or e-mail the Australian office ( or in Fiji.

Photo from Blue Lagoon Cruises.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Live it up on Regent in Tahiti with $1,000 shipboard credit

Vacations To Go, the online cruise discounter, is offering an 11-day luxury Regent Seven Seas cruise through French Polynesia for $3,680 per passenger for an oceanview cabin on the Paul Gauguin. That's a 33 percent discount from the brochure price. And if you book by March 31, you'll get a $1,000 onboard credit.

The cruise departs from Papeete, Tahiti, on August 16, 2008, and stops at Rangiroa, Bora Bora, and two stops in the Marquesas, among others.

For more information or to book, call Vacations To Go at 800/338-4962 and ask for Fast Deal #23239 or click here.

Another thing to note for Regent cruisers: If you book a 2009 cruise by March 31, you can avoid the line's planned fuel surcharge of $7.50 per passenger per day next year.

Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Prices slashed by a third on special Danube river cruise

General Tours World Traveler has just announced price reductions of $2,500 to $2,700 per couple on a special eight-day Danube sailing this September aboard the luxury river cruise ship MV Mozart, a Peter Deilmann ship.

The September 14-21, 2008, itinerary takes passengers from Passau, Germany, into Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. The cruise includes specially arranged shore excursions in every port, private receptions, exclusive concerts -- including a private concert by the Vienna Boys Choir --and specially arranged shipboard parties.

Cruise fares have been cut from $3,999 to $2,749 per person, double occupancy for Main Deck outside staterooms, while Upper Deck staterooms have been reduced from $4,899 to $3,549. Fares include meals, unlimited wine with dinner, transfers, shore excursions, private events, and port and fuel charges.

For more information, click here or call 800/221-2216.

MV Mozart photo from Peter Deilmann Cruises.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Save 50 percent on companion fare for Hurtigruten world cruise

Hurtigruten is offering half off a companion fare when you book its fall 2008 Arctic-to-Antarctic World Cruise Voyage by the end of this month (March 31, 2008).

This is its second annual north-south world cruise, a 66-night voyage on the MS Fram -- the newest expedition ship in the Hurtigruten fleet -- that you'll find on no other line. The cruise starts in September 2008 and features 44 port calls in 17 countries, embarking from Iceland and ending in Argentina after visiting Antarctica.

The offer also applies to booking selected segments of the cruise from Rejkavik and New York. Both offers apply to new bookings only.

To be sure, the entire 66-night cruise is expensive, with cabins starting at around $14,000 per person, double occupancy for an inside cabin. But the other way to look at it is that you could save $7,000 for your companion by booking in the next two weeks. That's a bit over $300 per day for two people on what could be the most memorable cruise of your life.

For more information or bookings, visit the Hurtigruten website or call 866/257-6104 or a travel agent.

Photo of MS Fram from Hurtigruten.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A chance to win a free cruise by visiting MSC Orchestra website

MSC Cruises is luring visitors to a new website celebrating one of the newest ships in its fleet, the MSC Orchestra, by offering chances to win a free cruise through the month of May.

It's easy: all you have to do is go to -- and yes, it's such a mouthful that even MSC misspelled it in their official contest rules -- fill out a short form the first time you enter, and click to see if you're an instant winner.

Some losing entrants will be given a chance for special offers, such as free upgrades, but the main incentive is the free week-long Caribbean cruise for two aboard the Orchestra in the winter of 2009. The 2,550-passenger Orchestra debuted in 2007 and will arrive in Fort Lauderdale for Caribbean cruising in early January 2009 and stay until early May 2009. Value of the cruise for two is $2,500.

You can enter once a day every day until May 31 if you wish, and you only have to fill out the form once. Only U.S. residents are eligible, and you must pay for your own transportation to Fort Lauderdale and some government fees if you wish to take the cruise.

Orchestra photo from MSC Cruises.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Aboard Fred. Olsen's Balmoral cruise, port stop: Antigua

Our story so far, as chronicled in Smarter Cruising on March 12-14:

I'm aboard the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' newest ship, the Balmoral, on its maiden voyage out of Miami into the Eastern Caribbean. Previous port stops have included Grand Turk, St. Bart's, and St. Maarten, along with two full days at sea. Fred. Olsen is a longtime, well-respected British cruise line with a fleet of five ships, and is starting to acquire greater name recognition in the U.S. High points on the Balmoral have included great food, lots of deck space, and a friendly, low-key atmosphere.

The Balmoral arrived in St. John's, Antigua, at 8 a.m. March 8 and tied up at Heritage Pier, a short walk from town.

I wanted to get out for an early walk since I had to fly back to the U.S. that afternoon (after an all-day stop in Antigua, the Balmoral and most of the rest of its passengers would continue on to St. Kitts and Tortola before returning to Miami in a few days). I was off the ship before 9 despite feeling a bit woozy that morning. Having to dodge a number of zealous taxi drivers offering rides around the island didn't help my equilibrium, but I was able to have a look around St. John's before heading back to the ship for final packing. (The only advantage to leaving a ship before the end of the cruise is a more leisurely, less crowded disembarkation.)

While the area near the pier is fairly colorful and seemed a bit more authentic than your typical cruise ship pier shopping complex, I can't promise you great things from St. John's, which overall seemed a bit shabby. Its major landmark, the twin-spired Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which dominates the city from a hilltop, is in severe need of a landscaping makeover.

My suggestion is to take a look around on foot and then head for one of the island's 365 beaches (whether this number is entirely accurate, I can't say, but it does make for a great tourist slogan: "a beach for every day of the year"). There's not much in the way of public transportation so you may want to make a taxi driver's day and hire him for the trip.

I got to see a fair amount of Antigua's coastline on the ride to the airport in early afternoon, and it does appear to be a lovely island, though one with a good deal of development (Barbuda, which together with Antigua make up the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, is more pristine). No less a celebrity than Eric Clapton maintains a home here, though I must add that he also has a house in Columbus, Ohio, so we may have reason to question Eric's taste. (That gratuitous slam at Columbus was brought to you by a University of Michigan grad -- Go Blue!).

But I digress. En route to the airport the group of travel writers I was with stopped at a very scenic local resort for lunch, complete with views of the turquoise Caribbean and a menu that could have been out of a, well, Columbus, Ohio, diner: burgers, hot dogs, fries. Most people opted for the one interesting-sounding item, curried chicken, and liked it. I was still feeling woozy or worse and the owner, taking pity, brought me a delicious pumpkin soup, not on the menu. But where was the grilled fish? Still swimming in the Caribbean, I guess.

Antigua has a beautiful little airport, and after forfeiting my half-finished bottle of water to airport security, which I'm sure made everyone feel safer, I was winging my way to San Juan and later to cold, grim Newark, New Jersey, and then into New York City.

Starting next fall, the Fred. Olsen line will begin Caribbean sailings out of Miami aboard the Balmoral's sister ship, the Braemar, which carries between 700 and 800 passengers. As did the Balmoral last fall, the Braemar will be undergoing a lengthening and refurbishment, adding more cabins with balconies and an English-style pub.

Meanwhile, the Balmoral will return to Europe and other destinations for the near future.

To check out all that Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has to offer, go to its website here or call 800/843-0620 in the U.S. or 44 (0) 1473 746175 in the UK.

Photos courtesy of Peter Knego.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Aboard Fred. Olsen's Balmoral cruise, port stops: St. Bart's, St. Maarten

In yesterday's post, I talked about the port of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the first stop on my Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Fred. Olsen ship Balmoral.

Those of you following this saga know that Fred. Olsen is a British line with a predominately British clientele that is now trying to lure a greater number of North American passengers, especially for its remaining three Balmoral departures from Miami this spring and aboard another ship in its line scheduled for winter 2008-09. (You can find the Balmoral in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and British Isles this summer.)

Like any cruise line, Fred. Olsen isn't right for everyone -- nor does it try to compete with American mega-ships. For instance, two of the big sporting activities aboard the Balmoral last week were carpet putting and carpet bowling, which don't exactly rank with waterslides and climbing walls on the action meter. And though there are a few gaming tables, there's no casino with whirring shot machines and flashy lights.

You will find two decent-sized swimming pools, some hot tubs, a spa and gym, quite a lot of deck space (though often not enough unoccupied deck chairs, it seems -- the Brits love to linger in the noonday sun), a number of bars and restaurants, various music and show venues, a well-stocked library, and some lectures and quiz games thrown in for good measure.

On my Balmoral cruise, service was generally helpful and friendly, despite a few housekeeping glitches -- though this was only the Balmoral's second cruise under the Fred. Olsen banner, so I didn't necessarily expect all the rough edges to be smoothed.

One fellow American onboard requested ice the first night of the cruise -- and after that, it appeared in her cabin regularly every day. My guess is that ice (whether in cabins or cocktails) will become a regular feature on Fred. Olsen cruises leaving out of Miami, especially if their North American passenger base grows as they hope.

Overall, I give the Fred. Olsen line high marks, and the shipboard ambiance and top-quality cuisine alone would draw me back in a moment.

Now, on to St. Bart's. Because we had to skip the scheduled port stop in the Dominican Republic due to high winds, we spent a full day at sea before reaching St. Bart's early on the morning of March 7. The port of Gustavia requires being tendered in from larger ships, so we dropped anchor away from the inner harbor and were crammed into smallish boats each seating 90 passengers or so to make the 15-minute trip into town.

I was on the second tender (leaving right after those taking scheduled tours), which started filling around 8:40 in the morning and arrived at the pier around 9 a.m., with instructions to return on or before the last tender at 1:15 p.m. (Originally we had been scheduled to arrive in St. Bart's in mid-afternoon and to leave around 11 p.m.)

With just a few hours in port, I decided not to try to explore the island beyond the town of Gustavia, though a few passengers were renting cars or scooters to do just that.

My purpose was two-fold: to see the town and then find the town beach.

Set against a backdrop of lush green hills, with curving roads leading up provocatively to other regions of this small French island, Gustavia would have felt at home on the Riviera. The main streets along the harbor were lined with sidewalk cafes and bistros and residents carried bagfuls of baguettes brought fresh from the bakeries.

Prices, listed in Euros, were daunting, especially with the brutal exchange rate currently depressing the value of U.S. dollars. If one were inclined to sip a cafe creme at a sidewalk bistro overlooking the lovely harbor -- and many brave or foolhardy passengers were -- you would have to pay $6 per cup or so for the experience. My advice: sip slowly.

I kept walking, past enormous yachts tied up in the harbor, a variety of boutiques and other shops, a church or two, and some schools where uniformed children marched hand in hand on their way to class. Eventually I made my way to Shell Beach, tucked a bit out of view just beyond a pre-school on the south side of town. It was small, gorgeously situated against cacti- and shrub-lined hills, and led to water of an alluring shade of blue as it lapped the sands that were strewn with tiny shells.

And for the next two hours, I swam, sunned, and watched the beach slowly fill with ever-more cruise-ship passengers and a smattering of locals. An open-air restaurant beckoned at one end, until the 25-Euro ($38) plates of fish convinced me I should return to the ship for lunch.

But, as it turns out, I was in for a long wait. At noon, the line for the tenders was half a city block long, 45 minutes in the hot sun. Because of windy conditions, it turned out, the ship could only offload passengers onto one side of the ship, thus cutting the number of tender runs in half. The tenders had to keep running till well after 2 p.m. and the ship's departure was delayed for an hour and a half or so.

Those weather-related things happen on cruises; it comes with the territory. And I was soothed by one of the best lunches of the week when I did get back to the ship: lamb skewers, blue mussel soup, chicken tikka, and pannacotta with raspberry sauce. I ordered off the menu in the smallish 10th-deck Spey restaurant, with its huge windows overlooking the sea, but could have also hit the buffet there for more mussels, shrimp, you name it -- what a feast.

Instead, in the interests of staying awake, I headed for a deck chair and watched the remaining tenders come in until we finally were able to sail off for St. Maarten, already visible in the distance.

While I had previously been to St. Martin -- the French side of that divided island -- I had never been to the Dutch side, St. Maarten. Since I was scheduled to go for an early dinner with several other cruise writers, I waited until then (about 6:30 p.m.) to venture into the port of Phillipsburg. Altogether, we were docked from about 5 p.m. until 11 that night.

Like so many Caribbean ports, the end of the cruise ship pier here leads to a newish and somewhat garish shopping complex, which I skipped entirely en route to the small bus that was taking us into town. It was just a few minutes until we reached the neon-light casinos that Phillipsburg is known for, and a few minutes beyond that when we were left off in front of a noisy, crowded area near the waterfront that was hopping with activity.

It turned out that this was the weekend of the big Heineken Regatta, and all kinds of special tents had been erected along the waterfront where musicians played, young women in "Fun Crew" T-shirts sold Heineken, and restaurants buzzed with activity. We headed into one with outdoor seating that was packed with mostly young people chugging away at beers and margaritas and downing large plates of baby back ribs.

I suspect the ribs weren't the most authentic in local cuisine, but they looked good and just about everyone at our table ordered them, along with some conch fritters and fried calamari to start. The beer flowed, the music blared in the background, the Friday-night partiers streamed by, and everyone had a blast. Or at least I think they did, because I could barely hear a word anyone was saying.

And I have no idea what Phillipsburg is actually like under normal circumstances, assuming these weren't it. After dinner we all piled back into our small bus and returned to the ship, where a young Filipina singer was belting out modern classics on the Lido deck, aft. Knowing I had to leave the ship the next morning, I lingered outside for hours.

Next up: Antigua.

Balmoral and St. Bart's photos by Peter Knego.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Aboard the Fred. Olsen cruise ship Balmoral, port stop: Grand Turk

In yesterday's blog post, I talked about the new Fred. Olsen cruise ship, Balmoral, which carried me and some 1,300 other passengers to the Eastern Caribbean out of Miami last week, the first U.S. embarkation port for this well-respected British cruise line.

It was a nice itinerary, even though high winds forced us to skip over a planned stop in Samana, Dominican Republic, which to my mind is the most beautiful (yet often overlooked) corner of that country. (To buy one of my co-authored guidebooks to the DR, the Dominican Republic Adventure Guide or Dominican Republic Pocket Adventures, both from Hunter Publishing, click here.)

After a full day at sea out of Miami, our first port stop was Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, just south of The Bahamas.

Since Carnival built a shiny new cruise center at the end of the pier there two years ago, Grand Turk has become an increasingly hot cruise destination and tourism has taken over as the top industry. The Turks and Caicos are surrounded by an extensive coral reef system and are known for fine diving, snorkeling, and swimming at some 230 miles of beaches across the chain.

Grand Turk is one of 40 islands in the Turks and Caicos, part of the British West Indies. (Incidentally, the name "Turks" comes from a local type of cactus whose tops resemble old-style Turkish headdresses -- a bit of trivia I learned on this trip.) Eight of the islands are inhabited, with a total population of about 36,000 people.

We were cleared to go ashore around 11 a.m., a bit late due to the aforementioned high winds. I was signed up for an early afternoon island tour, but first wandered around the new Grand Turk Cruise Center, a neat-as-a-pin complex of shops with a stretch of sandy beach (and free beach chairs!), a big resort-style swimming pool area, and the obligatory Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffett-themed bar/restaurant chain. Antiseptic places like this shopping complex bore me to tears, but I realize I'm probably a minority on that score. The beach filled up fast with fellow passengers, as did the shops and Margaritaville, and Jimmy's canned voice ("wasting away again in...") blasted over a loudspeaker.

I was more anxious to see something of the island since it was my first visit here, which made it all the more frustrating when my "safari" tour was postponed for more than an hour -- one reason why I usually avoid group tours of this sort. But in this case, the wait was worth it.

With a dozen people packed into the back of an open-air four-wheel-drive vehicle painted with zebra stripes ("safari," remember?), Vic, our Chukka Caribbean Adventures driver headed off toward Cockburn Town, the Turks and Caicos' administrative capital. (If you aren't on a tour, you can catch a taxi there -- U.S. dollars accepted -- or walk from the pier in around a half hour.)

While I had overheard someone on the ship counseling "Don't bother to go into town," I found it quite charming. It's true that it is small, quiet, low-key, and mostly devoid of shops and commercialism, but it had colorful Bermuda-style houses and a few inviting-looking inns, and the main street overlooked the sea and a sandy ribbon of beach. Columbus famously landed here and the seafront is a national park.

We passed the only fast food place on the island, a joint called "Nookie Pookie Pizza," rumored to serve some of the worst pizza south of Florida -- or anywhere else for that matter.

Our one stop in town was to tour the historic Her Majesty's Prison, dating from 1830, when there were just three cell blocks. Since there wasn't much crime, the cells were often taken up with minor offenders, such as heavy drinkers and -- this is true -- annoying kite flyers. Shut down in 1994, it's now a tourist attraction, complete with gift shop filled with cell-bar-themed T-shirts.

By the way, as our guide Vic pointed out, there still isn't much crime on the islands. For instance, no one steals cars because there's no place to go once you steal them. (But watch out for those dastardly kite-flyers!) However, they have built a brand-new prison just in case.

Then it was off to the "bush," or whatever they call the hinterlands on Grand Turk. (I'm trying to keep to the safari theme here.) Perhaps the most interesting sight of the entire tour was the parade of wild horses, donkeys, and cows sauntering up to the island's one fresh-water pond for a drink. The animals all technically belong to the government but roam freely. Vic pointed out the "zebra without stripes" (donkey), a joke that fell as flat as the local landscape.

As a whole, Grand Turk is, well, flat as a flounder and lacks the kind of lush scenery and greenery you find on many other Caribbean islands (though it's not as desert-like as, say, Curacao). In fact, no crops of any kind grow here -- the soil is too salty. So all island food has to be imported. And you know what that means -- prices go up at Nookie Pookie Pizza. Even salt must be imported because they've given up on farming the local salt ponds, which look somewhat forlorn.

To justify the use of the four-wheel-drive vehicle, we took off over some dunes at one point along an incredibly rutted path that had everyone wishing they hadn't drunk so much bottled water. And to fully justify calling this an adventure tour, Vic drove backwards for what seemed like a quarter mile, before stopping at the foot of a place called Gun Hill. The second highest point on the island -- it must have been all of 30 feet above sea level -- it was a one-time lookout where the British watched intently for the invading French, who never arrived (perhaps put off by the prospect of Nookie Pookie Pizza for dinner). Or maybe the French did invade and the Brits were at tea. Whatever.

The last stop was Governor's Beach, said to be the most beautiful stretch of sand on the island. While it doesn't rank with the best in the Caribbean by any means, the water was crystal clear, aquamarine, and refreshing for a quick dip, all I could ask after our "adventurous" safari tour. Vic ladeled out some rum punch and before we knew it, we were back at the Cruise Center, ready to shop -- or, in my case, for tea on the ship.

In sum, I'd say Grand Turk is low-key, safe, clean, and perhaps more interesting underwater than above, but still mostly untouched and unspoiled by mass tourism. And for that, I'd gladly go back.

Next up: Gustavia, St. Bart's; and Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.

Balmoral photos courtesy of Peter Knego.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cruising the Caribbean aboard the Fred. Olsen Balmoral

I've just returned from a Caribbean cruise on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' newest ship, the 1340-passenger Balmoral.

Sailing roundtrip from Miami on March 3, the cruise was the first Fred. Olsen voyage from an American port. For those of you who aren't familiar with this British-based cruise line, I strongly recommend you check out their website and future offerings.

The Balmoral -- previously the Norwegian Crown when it was owned by NCL, and recently lengthened and refurbished after joining the Fred. Olsen fleet -- is a beautiful ship, dating from 1988. I was especially impressed by the five-tier aft deck space and the wraparound promenade deck that calls out to daytime power-walkers and moonlight strollers.

Forget stereotypes about British food: the Balmoral's shipboard cuisine is first rate, with inventive dishes spanning the Continent and the Caribbean, and outstanding ambiance in its three dining rooms (one grand and two more intimate, and none requiring a special supplement). How about a four-course meal of Jamaican aubergine (eggplant) fritters, mussel soup, chicken tikka with coriander-yogurt dressing, and pannacotta in raspberry sauce? (and that's just for lunch).

There's also a casual cafe that features buffets, as well as a number of bars and lounges. My favorite was the Observatory Lounge on Deck 11, great for sunset cocktails and munchies including my new favorite: Twiglets, a British pretzel-like snack that is something of an acquired taste. I acquired it so rapidly the bar ran out.

I also liked the low-key atmosphere: loudspeaker announcements were limited to a couple a day by the captain and one or two by the cruise director to let passengers know when we had been cleared to enter port. Entertainment was provided mainly by the Music of your Life at Sea crew, featuring Buddy Morrow and The Dorsey Seven (descendants of the Tommy Dorsey orchestra) and a variety of musicians and vocalists performing longtime standards.

Cabins were comfortable with plenty of storage space, flat-screen TVs (BBC and a free movie channel) and little British touches like trays stocked with tea bags, cups, and water heaters. A nice feature is that the Balmoral has about 70 single cabins, so if you are traveling solo, ask about landing one of those.

Because it sailed from Miami, this Fred. Olsen cruise drew a larger American clientele than typical for the line: about 170 out of 1,340 or so aboard -- nearly all the rest were British, though an occasional smattering of French, German, Spanish, and Swedish could be heard in the dining rooms. I found it a great way to get to know people from across the pond, and several English couples told me they enjoyed getting to know some of the "colonists."

For formal night, I almost felt underdressed in my dark suit and tie; virtually all the British men onboard were decked out in tuxes or white dinner jackets, and a Scotsman or two were resplendent in kilts (watch out for that breeze on deck!). While most passengers were of an age to appreciate the brand of music being featured in the lounges and show rooms, there were enough younger people on board to make a nice mix. (Virtually no children, though: families tend to take Fred. Olsen cruises only during school holidays.)

Starting tomorrow, I'll chronicle our day-to-day itinerary that took us to an interesting variety of ports: Grand Turk; Gustavia, St. Bart's; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; and St. John's, Antigua. (I had to leave the ship in Antigua, but most of the rest of the lucky passengers got to continue to St. Kitts and Tortola before returning to Miami.) St. Maarten was a last-minute addition to the itinerary, since we weren't able to safely stop in Samana, Dominican Republic (due to high winds; it's a tender port).

The Balmoral has three more departures from Miami this month and next: a 10-night Caribbean cruise embarking March 24 (with prices starting at $840 per passenger, double occupancy); an 11-night Caribbean cruise departing April 3 (with prices starting at $720); and a 17-night repositioning cruise to Rome departing April 14, with prices starting at $1145.

The ship won't be returning to Miami next season, but another ship in the Fred. Olsen fleet will. I'll talk more about that in a later post.

Balmoral photos courtesy of Peter Knego. Click here to read about Peter's experience aboard the Balmoral.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book a Carnival cruise this month, win another free one

For the entire month of March, Carnival Cruise Lines is enticing prospective passengers to book a cruise during the line's "Funtennial Celebration" with a chance to win a free cruise for two.

And not in an inside cabin, either -- the winners will get to cruise in the Owner's Suite aboard either the Carnival Inspiration or Carnival Imagination.

All you have to do is book a Carnival cruise and you'll automatically be entered in the contest. Or, click here to go to the Carnival website -- and to enter the contest without booking a cruise (you do have to fill out a questionnaire).

Also during the March "Funtennial," Carnival is offering weekly specials. This week, you can save from $100 to $300 per stateroom on select three- to seven-day sailings between June and August 2008, depending on length of cruise and number of passengers in a cabin. The offer expires at midnight EST on Friday March 14.

To book or get more information on this week's specials, call Carnival at 888/CARNIVAL or go to the Carnival website and request fare code CPF2 or CP43 depending on the number of passengers.

There will be new specials each of the last two weeks of March.

Photo from Carnival Cruise Lines.

Barge through Alsace-Lorraine this summer with 30 percent discount

French Country Waterways is offering 30 percent savings on its nine luxury barge tours in Alsace-Lorraine during the months of July and August, 2008.

Normal per-passengers fares of $6,095 to $6,795 have been reduced to special rates of $4,500 to $4,700 for that time period.

The leisurely six-day barge cruises aboard the barge Princess travel the Canal de la Marne au Rhin between Nancy and Hochfelden in Alsace-Lorraine, with a stop in the city of Strasbourg and views of medieval villages, forests, fields, pasturelands, and vineyards along the way.

The barge carries only eight passengers maximum in four suites.

For more information or bookings, visit the French Country Waterways website or call 800/222-1236 or 781/934-2454 (in Massachusetts) or e-mail

Photo of the Princess from French Country Waterways.