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Lunch with a view and exceptionally good values on luxury cruises

The photo above was snapped yesterday from the balcony of stateroom 720 on Seabourn Sojourn during a transit of Norway's UNESCO World Heritage Geirangerfjord. Small ships such as Seabourn Sojourn, carrying a maximum of 450 passengers, can easily navigate the Norwegian fjords and dock or drop anchor in small ports of call where the big ships can't.

Small ships offer several other advantages, such as fewer lines for activities ranging from dining to disembarking, and greater space ratio, meaning fewer guest per square foot. Small ships generally feel more intimate and less crowded than larger ships as well.

Small ships typically also represent the upper-end of the product line, the luxury segment. While luxury cruise fares are sometimes three times more than fares on cruises of a similar length on large ships, luxury cruises are more inclusive. For example, alcohol is served free of charge as are specialty coffees and soft drinks. Gratuities, which are added to passengers' final bills on larger ships, are also included on luxury cruises.

Luxury cruise fares are also at - or near - historic lows. Today, for example, Seabourn announced cruises beginning at less $200 per day per person during a special One Week Sale (the lowest fare, $2499, is for a 13-day transatlantic from Monte Carlo to Fort Lauderdale on December 6).

More typically, cruises can be found for around $300 per day per person, not bad when you consider the fare includes wining and dining in Seabourn's gourmet restaurants - or on your balcony as you sail by some of the world's most attractive sites.

Other luxury players, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club, offer similar savings in the ever-competitive luxury cruise segment.

World's largest cruise ship to feature Samba Grill

The Allure of the Seas will debut a new specialty restaurant for Royal Caribbean International, the Samba Grill, a South America-style churrascaria.

The grill is one of the few unique features that will distinguish the 5,400-passenger Allure from its sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas, when she debuts in November The Solarium Bistro, situated in the ship's adults-only Solarium, will be transformed into Samba Grill by night, with waiters will wear gaucho costumes and serve grilled meat from skewers. By day it will serve healthy fare for breakfast and lunch.

On the Oasis, the Solarium Bistro serves healthy fare for all three meals, adding a dinner and dancing under the stars ambience at night for a $20 surcharge. Samba Grill will carry a $25 cover charge for the entire menu. It will also offer a $15 vegetarian option offering an extensive salad bar.

Norwegian Cruise Line also introduced a churrascaria on its newest ship earlier this summer; the Norwegian Epic debuted the Moderno Churrascaria.

Adios Mexico, Hello Pacific Northwest, Crystal Cruises adds two new itineraries

Crystal Cruises has added two Pacific Coast itineraries to its 2011 calendar. The new cruises replace two Mexican Riviera itineraries. Cruises along the west coast of Mexico have been soft for the last couple years, with several cruise ships that were to be based there heading to Europe and other far-flung parts of the world.

Departing April 10 and 17, the Crystal Symphony will sail between Los Angeles and Vancouver, visiting Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Astoria, Oregon; and Victoria, British Columbia.

"The West Coast and Northwest itineraries add dimension and scope to the worldwide destinations we're offering in 2011," says Bill Smith, Crystal's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Very few cruises visit the ports of the U.S. West Coast, unless they are repositioning to or from Alaska. Smith says that the itineraries will appeal not only to international guests, but also to North American travelers looking for value, convenient ports of departure and sailing a region not often sailed.

Celebrity Cruises taps iPads for art tours on its ships

Celebrity Cruises debuted self-guided art tours using iPads on its Solstice-class ships, continuing its adoption of Apple products for shipboard activities.

The iPads will flag select works of art on every deck, allowing the guest to touch the screen to learn more about those pieces, such as the artist's name and the medium used.

Celebrity said its three Solstice-class ships have more than 14,000 works of original, contemporary art with a vast range of mediums represented, including glass, acrylics, oils, photography, digital prints, video, etchings, sculptures and collages.

The cruise line already uses the iPad for its menus and wine list in its Qsine specialty restaurant, which debuted this year on the Equinox, and its ships are home to "Celebrity iLounges," equipped with MacBook workstations. Guests on board can take courses and get tips on Mac and iPod use.

"We knew our guests would relish yet another opportunity to capitalize on the latest technology in an entertaining, enriching way," says Celebrity's senior vice president of Hotel Operations, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo.

Cucina del Capitano to celebrate Carnival's deep ties to Italy

Get ready to "chow bella" when Carnival Magic debuts next May with the line's first family-style Italian restaurant -- called Cucina del Capitano, or "The Captain's Kitchen."

Carnival Cruise Lines has deep ties to Italy - its captains, deck and engine officers are Italian. More than half the current fleet was built in Genoa, including the Carnival Magic, which is currently under construction at Monfalcone. And when the ship launches next year it will call at popular Italian destinations during its inaugural Mediterranean season.

The new Cucina del Capitano specialty restaurant will be located above the poolside Lido Marketplace restaurant. At lunch, complimentary pasta will be served and the space will function as part of the casual eatery. At dinner, a full-service menu will be offered for an extra charge.

The Cucina will be a classic Italian-American restaurant that delivers a very different dining experience from the main dining room. Carnival ship captains were consulted on some of the menu selections.

The restaurant's interior is designed to feel like a ship captain's Italian home. Photographs of captains and officers on board Carnival ships through the years will be hung around the room, along with captains' personal family photos, images of Italian ports, and pictures of milestones in Carnival history.

Other features include a show kitchen where guests can see pasta being made, a 12-top captain's table and a Kitchen Counter - a 10-seat high-top table near the waiting area.

The menu has not been finalized yet, but expect a diverse array of pastas and other Italian favorites. If you want to do your part by naming an entree, Carnival is starting a Name the Dish online contest Sept. 20. Check it out at

G'day mate: Cruise lines head Down Under

Why would anyone choose to cruise Australia when there is so much to see in the interior? Two reasons: 1) Australia's coast is spectacular, and some of the continent's best-known cities -- Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane Darwin and Perth -- dot the coastline; and 2) cruise packages are designed to put passengers off the ship and into the Outback.

The latter packages feature so-called cruisetours, which are nothing more than a cruise and a tour combined. Cruise lines create these seamless excursions to allow passengers to have a full experience beyond the shoreline.

Both Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line have developed a number of cruisetours to tie in with the deployment of their ships in the region next year.

Celebrity's guests can select from four packages ranging from four to five nights. On the list of attractions: Ayers Rock, the world-famous giant red monolith, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Holland America Line also has Alice Springs as an alternative, the remote town in Australia's Northern Territory. Among the experiences I had while in Alice Springs was ingesting witchetty grub, pictured above (for the delectable details, see Australian Outback Buffet: Garnish The Grubs, Pass The Maggots Please).

Carnival to feature brew pub on new Carnival Magic

Long known for its piano bars, wine bars, sports bars and wildly themed lounges, Carnival Cruise Lines will feature its first pub at sea on Carnival Magic, which is set to debut in May 2011.

In addition to a bunch of Caribbean beers, the Caribbean-themed RedFrog Pub will have its own micro-brewed draft beer, Thirsty Frog Red, and a menu that includes conch salad, spicy chicken wings and other bar food favorites as well as an array of the region's finest rums for those whose taste runs more toward spirits than brews.

To, er, gin up interest in RedFrog Pub, Carnival is holding an online contest where barstool poets can enter their own creative slogan for the pub's coasters. Running through Sept. 7, the contest is for those 21 and older.

Ten finalists will be chosen - nine by Carnival and one wild card entry selected by votes - and visitors to the site will vote to determine three winning slogans. The winners will receive a commemorative version of their winning slogan, a digital camera, RedFrog bar paraphernalia and, of course, eternal bar bragging rights.

For details or to enter your own clever coaster catchphrase, visit the Carnival Magic contest website.

Cruising Greenland: An inconvenient, but worthwhile trip

In 2007, it was possible to board a flight in Baltimore and set foot fewer than five hours later in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland's largest commercial airport.

From Kangerlussuaq, it was a short hop to board Hurtigruten's (a Norwegian cruise company) Fram to cruise Greenland's dramatic coastline. But in 2008, Air Greenland ceased operations from North America, and today, a trip to Greenland is indeed an inconvenient one.

Getting there from the U.S. requires connecting through Reykjavik or points beyond in Europe, primarily Copenhagen, so that you board a plane in the U.S., fly over Greenland, disembark, board another plane, and fly back in the direction from which you came. Returning home requires the same travel in the wrong direction and flying once again over Greenland.

Despite the inconvenience, Greenland is well worth a visit, and one of the best ways to see the world's largest island is by ship. While Fram operates the most extensive Greenland itineraries (ranging from 11 days to 14 days), other cruise lines typically include Greenland on repositioning cruises from Europe, across the North Atlantic, to North America. The Faroe Islands, Iceland and Newfoundland are often included on these itineraries as well. Among the cruise lines that call on Greenland: Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Silversea Cruises.

Size matters when it comes to cruise ship spas

Spas are becoming increasingly important to both cruise lines and cruise line passengers who want to pamper themselves.

For their part, cruise lines not only are engaging in the battle of the biggest but also are working to heighten anticipation among cruise passengers.

This year, two new cruise ships laid claim to having the largest spas at sea.

First out was the German operator AIDA Cruises. In February, the line boasted that the brand new AIDAblu's 28,000-square-feet Body & Soul Spa took the prize for the biggest sea-going spa. Then in June, Norwegian Cruise Line took the lead with the 31,000-square-foot Mandara Spa (pictured) on Norwegian Epic.

To give its passengers a taste of what they might experience on board, one of Italy's major cruise lines has put its offerings online. Costa Cruises has developed a mini-site that allows visitors to browse the line's Samsara Spa menu.

The site,, features videos and more from the Samsara Spas found on five of Costa's ships. Costa's Samsara site offers detailed descriptions of the varied treatments and spa stateroom alternatives in the Samsara Spa area on Costa's ships.

Hey Superstar, Get rockin' on a Carnival karaoke cruise

Get ready for the spotlight cruisers. Carnival Cruise Lines has introduced Superstar Live Karaoke, where Carnival cruisers can live out their rock-star fantasies on stage.

This isn't a one-time cruise but rather a new program on board Carnival ships. Combining live music with vocal accompaniment by backup singers, Superstar Live Karaoke encourages cruise passengers to channel their inner rock stars, pop idols, Motown legends and country crooners.

While nearly all cruise ships offer karaoke of some sort - or at least, the opportunity to perform in front of your audience - Carnival has amped up its version of Superstar karaoke by including the band and the backup singers.

Choose from more than 100 song tiles, ranging from ABBA to the Zac Brown Band. The program, which recently debuted aboard Carnival Conquest and Carnival Valor, premieres on the Carnival Pride this week.

By year's end, Superstar Live Karaoke will be rolled out to Carnival's 12 "Fun Ships" that operate itineraries of seven days or longer.

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