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The Dominican Republic Cruise Scene - A Cruise with Azamara Club Cruises - Other Cruise News: Saga to Acquire Bleu de France?

by Mark Tre' - "The Cruise Examiner"

As the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association met in Santo Domingo late last month, further details came to light on the Dominican Republic's modern day role in cruising. Meanwhile, as the Azamara Club Cruises product develops, we find that Capt Carl Smith runs a tight but very friendly ship in the Azamara Quest. And will Saga succeed in finally obtaining Hapag-Lloyd's last Europa as a possible Saga Rose II?


The Dominican Republic and Cruising

Along with Cuba, the Bahamas and Jamaica, the Dominican Republic was one of the early participants in the Caribbean cruise market in the last century. And today, it is returning to the forefront once more. For a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the country actually owned a cruise ship, the Nuevo Dominicano, which cruised from Miami. Owned by the Flota Mercante Dominicana, and crewed by the Dominican Navy, management was entrusted to Jamaican banana boat operator called Frank Leslie Fraser, who founded the Eastern Shipping Company to operate the ship. Later known as Eastern Cruise Lines, this company was an early predecessor to today's Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

In the 21st Century, the Dominican Republic has made great strides in the hugely-expanded modern cruise market. Backed by eight international airports, several new five-star resorts, 25 golf courses and three existing cruise terminals in Santo Domingo and La Romana, plus two more planned for Puerto Plata and Samana, the Republic has now developed to the point where it has become a country of embarkation for a number of European cruise lines. Its passenger count in 2009 was 500,000 and estimates for 2010 point to between 525,000 and 540,000 cruise passengers using the Dominican Republic.

Lines now embarking passengers at La Romana, the Republic's third largest city, include Aida Cruises from Germany, with the AIidaluna and Aidavita, Costa Cruises from Italy, with the Costa Atlantica and Costa Mediterranea and Thomson Cruises from the UK with the Thomson Destiny.
Aida, which also calls at Santo Domingo, will add the Aidaaura to the mix in 2012. A typical Aida 14-night itinerary now runs from La Romana to Montego Bay, Cozumel, Belize and Ocho Rios, calls on Santo Domingo and then returns to La Romana via Antigua, St Maarten and Tortola.

For the moment, the lines sailing from La Romana are European-based rather than American, although some Canadian tour operators have tapped into La Romana-based cruises in the past. For example many Canadians cruised on Bleu de France when she was based there two winters ago before she was diverted to the Brazilian market. Other news has Carnival returning to La Romana with calls by its Carnival Miracle in 2011, with calls as well at nearby Catalina Island, which Costa's ships also use.

Last year, La Romana embarkations grew by 35%, from 42,734 in 2008-09 to 57,557 in 2009-10. While transits dropped from 71,440 to 53,474, the overall passenger total rose from 156,837 to 167,225, or 6.6% in one year, and further growth is expected. The usual La Romana season runs from November to April.

In the winter of 2009, one American line, Royal Caribbean did run 7-night cruises with the Vision of the Seas from Santo Domingo, the country's capital and the Caribbean's oldest city, located on the Caribbean coast to the south and once home to Christopher Columbus. These cruises called at St Maarten, Dominica, Margarita and Aruba but as with Bleu de France, the Vision now cruises from Brazil in the winter months. While the Vision has gone, other Royal Caribbean ships make occasional calls, usually when rescheduled because of tropical storm activity.

Yachts of Seabourn and Saga will also be calling on the Dominican Republic this winter but the main cruise departures from Santo Domingo will be a 14-night departure by the Aidaluna on November 29, a Transatlantic departure for Hamburg by the Aidaluna in April 2011 and a couple of Amazon cruises to and from Manaus by Aidavita in 2012.

Other ships calling at Santo Domingo include Holland America's Maasdam, Fred Olsen's Braemar, the Grand Princess from Princess Cruises, Discovery from Voyages of Discovery and Sea Cloud from Germany.
Meanwhile some other lines prefer the newer ports of La Romana, to the east, and Samana, to the northeast, away from the urban setting of Santo Domingo.
Samana is still an anchorage port but there is talk of a new cruise terminal there as well as at Puerto Plata, once a popular port of call on the country's Atlantic coast in the north. In between Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata one can find the highest mountain ranges in the Caribbean, reaching up to 10,000 feet.


A Cruise in the Azamara Quest

Right from joining ship last month in Civitavecchia, things got off to a good start. The first thing we were offered was a tray of drinks and arriving at the cabin, glass of champagne in hand, the television screen greeted all of us by name. After a week on board, one thing you can say about this ship is that Capt Carl Smith, an ever-present and welcoming host, has a great crew under his charge.

Touring the ship, we made ourselves familiar with the various lounges and dining venues as well as the open decks before going to drill and eventually after we sailed at 7 pm to dinner in the main Discoveries restaurant. We never did get to dine in either of the alternative restaurants, Aqualina for Continental fare or Prime C for steak, but most people said with food as good as it was in Discoveries why would one want to? And the staff everywhere were tops, always smiling, always helpful, seeing if more could be done to please us.

From Rome, we sailed overnight to our anchorage in Sorrento, intending to stay there for two days so we could explore Capri, Pompeii, Amalfi and Positano and even Naples if we wanted to. This is the new Azamara Club Cruises, whose tag line,"You'll love where we take you," is now so destination-oriented. This is a line that is not afraid to spend more time in ports of call, rather than sailing in a hurry in order to make money in the casino.

From Sorrento, it was on for calls at the walled city of Kotor in Montenegro and lovely Split, with its palace of the former Roman governor Diocletian. The final port of call, for yet another overnight stay, was Venice. And a bonus port was Naples, which substituted for the second day at Sorrento when the autumn winds built up.

As we cruised, we soon got the feel for the Azamara Quest. Our captain was someone who loves his job and communicates with both his crew and his passengers. And his crew also communicate with the passengers. Crew members answered questions and if they didn't have an answer they took your cabin number and got back to you later. Half-way through the cruise we filled out a brief questionnaire on what was good and what might not be so good and I received two phone calls from two different crew members thanking me for my input.

A few comments on the master. Capt Smith is from the Isle of Man and once sailed with easyCruise. When it came to matters of navigation, he gave us in his announcements all the detail that we might have wanted and more on the planned manoevres for entering or leaving each port, how many lines would be used, what speed and what engines and how we would steer. When we hit a patch of rough weather between the Strait of Messina and the Adriatic he explained how he had changed course to minimise the movement of the ship and changed course again to get back where we wanted to be.

One will find his praises sung on the internet.
To pick just three comments: "The lectures were amazing! He was young, funny, and a wonderful 'people person'." "He was as excited and enthusiastic about everything we saw as we were. I have never sailed with a captain who was as outgoing and approachable as him." "He is the friendliest and most approachable captain I have ever sailed with and his enthusiasm for what he does is infectious."
And he was there every day and at all the functions he could attend.

We mentioned a bridge tour to one officer and the next thing we knew we had invitations through the door to visit the bridge at sea. Despite the rubbish some lines might give you about this no longer being possible because of security, it is. This is of course confirmed by the fact that Princess Cruises now charge $150 a person for a bridge visit, thrown in with a bunch of other places people don't necessarily want to see!

On our final day at sea, we attended the disembarkation briefing, something we didn't intend to do. So why did we attend? Because we ran into Capt Smith and he steered us in to see it. What followed was fascinating. Not your usual cruise director's blather about which colour tags etc. But an introduction to 41 members of the crew representing the 41 nationalities that worked on board.
This was fascinating as each was presented on stage and asked to say a few words. And in addition to Capt Smith, cruise director Tony Markey, hotel manager Ryszard Gusmann and food and beverage manager Rudi Lainer are all top notch and ever present. And this from someone who can't stand cruise directors!

Oh, did we forget to add that wines are now included with lunch and dinner? Sampled on our cruise were some quite very tasty boutique wines from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Chile and South Africa, to name a few. These are all reds and whites, although it might be nice sometimes to have a choice of rosé at lunch. Specialty coffees, bottled water, soft drinks and teas are also now included in the fare, as are gratuities. And there is something many call for on ships, a self-service laundry.

These changes have all occurred since the rebranding from Azamara Cruises to Azamara Club Cruises six months ago, and it is said that while Azamara passenger numbers are down year-on-year after raising some of the fares, revenues are up, which is a result parent company Royal Caribbean will be pleased with.

This turnaround is down not only to the ships' crews but also Azamara ceo Larry Pimentel, who came from SeaDream Yacht Club after his earlier terms as president of both Cunard Line and Seabourn. And there is room for growth. Our shoulder season sailing, for example, had about 450 guests on board out of a maximum of 694. And it was interesting that around 100 guests remained on board to take the next leg from Venice to Athens, many of whom had booked on board. Now that is a good measure by anyone's rule.

This ship is well tied together and we wish Azamara great success in the future.

Is A Saga Rose II In The Works?

The rumour last week was that Pullmantur is about to sell its Bleu de France to the Saga group, with charter back until 2012. If this happens, presumably a larger ship would be slotted into the Croisières de France brand, possibly Horizon or Zenith.

Saga has been after this ship since Hapag-Lloyd sold her over a decade ago, with the introduction of her successor, the new Europa. But Hapag-Lloyd, fearing that some of her regulars might hop the channel to sail with her again, reportedly sold her for the same price as Saga were offering to Star Cruises of Malaysia, where she became the SuperStar Europe, then SuperStar Aries. In 2004, she was bought by Pullmantur Cruises, who renamed her Holiday Dream, and in 2008 she became Bleu de France for the new Paris-based Pullmantur operation Croisières de France.

Speculation has Bleu de France working out her 2011 summer and winter seasons with Croisières de France and then delivering to Saga in early 2012 to join the Saga Ruby in the main Saga fleet.

Whether at this stage, the original plan for the present Saga Pearl II, ex-Astoria, will go forward and she will become the second ship of sister brand Spirit of Adventure is not yet known, but the original idea had been to give the name Quest for Adventure to the Astoria for this very purpose.

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