Norwegian Gem to Traverse Panama Canal for the First Time

Norwegian, Gem, ship

Last week, Norwegian Gem embarked on her first Panama Canal cruise, calling to 10 new ports and debuting on the West Coast when she concludes her itinerary in Los Angeles.

On Jan. 10, Norwegian Gem will be the 10th ship of the modern Norwegian Cruise Line fleet to cross the Panama Canal, visiting 10 new port cities during that sailing.

Among the new ports Norwegian Gem is sailing this season is Oranjestad, Aruba; Kralendijk, Bonaire; Santa Marta and Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Willemstad, Curacao; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Los Angeles; Manzanillo, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and Corinto, Nicaragua.

“We are very excited to showcase another one of our incredible ships on the West Coast, offering guests there a chance to experience our fleet and enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with cruising Norwegian,” said Andy Stuart, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Norwegian Gem is the final ship of the Jewel Class. She welcomes over 2,300 guests each sailing and features one of the largest suites in the fleet, the Garden Villas.

These suites are over 4,000 square feet and sleep up to eight guests. They include three spacious bedrooms, a living room and a private garden with a hot tub. The ship is also home to a kid’s aqua park, a climbing wall, an expansive casino, over 15 dining options and 14 bars and lounges.

AmaWaterways introduces enhanced hiking, biking excursions

AmaWaterways is beefing up its biking and hiking tour options for its 2016 Europe river cruises, in response to customer demand.

“Over the past two seasons, we have seen steadily increasing demand from our passengers for more active excursions,” Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, said in a release. “While we have always maintained a commitment to healthy and active travel, we decided to start the New Year by kicking it up a notch.”

The company introduced an array of new tours that will debut in the upcoming season. AmaWaterways has been carrying a fleet of bicycles onboard its vessels for passengers to use for several years now, but for 2016 it is introducing several new escorted bike tours. They include:

  • A tour of the historic waterfront town of Willemstad, the Netherlands;
  • Cycling along the Sava River and through Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade, Serbia;
  • A ride through the Belgian town of Antwerp;
  • Tours of the Wachau Valley along the Danube;
  • A ride through the historic town of Bamberg, Germany;
  • A tour along the Inn River in Passau, Germany

Additionally, in 2016, there will be new hiking tours in 12 port cities. They include:

  • A hike to the castle ruins in Durnstein, Austria, which includes two wine tasting options;
  • A hike up Fourviere Hill in Lyon, France;
  • A Passau Castle hike in Passau, Germany;
  • A hike up Mount Pipet in Vienna, Austria;
  • A hike to Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys, France;
  • A hike to the Dom Luis Bridge, Old Harbor Quarter and the cathedral in Porto, Portugal

The new guided biking and hiking tours are included in the cruise fare in addition to AmaWaterways’ standard excursions that are often offered at a variety of paces, including gentle, regular and active.

Last year, AmaWaterways developed a partnership with tour operator Backroads to create a series of river cruises that include Backroads-led biking, walking and hiking excursions, which will have their first departures this year. More information about the Backroads Danube river cruise departures can be found on the Backroads website.

Dispatch, Carnival Freedom: Winging it in Curacao

By Tom Stieghorst
TomS-CarnFreedom200x115With 1,600 cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas each year, Carnival Cruise Lines is trying to mix up the lengths and destinations on its itineraries to give loyal guests something new to try. Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst recently sampled one of the more unusual itineraries, an eight-day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale on Carnival Freedom with two port calls, Aruba and Curacao, deep in the southern Caribbean. His first dispatch follows.

CURACAO — By the time we got to Curacao on the fifth day of our cruise, my 15-year-old daughter had made friends aboard, including a boy who persuaded my daughter that organized shore excursions were a waste of money, and that the way to go was to debark, explore and meet the locals on their own ground.

We decided to give it a try.

The first half hour was spent walking into Willemstad, across the pontoon bridge into the old Dutch downtown. It felt pretty touristy, full of clothing stores and watch purveyors. We stopped to buy a batido, a tropical fruit smoothie, from a street cart vendor and talked with her for a while.

We had arrived in Curacao at 1 p.m. and, less than a week after the summer solstice, the glare and heat were relentless. Carnival Cruise Lines is trying to offer some new itineraries, and the late arrival meant we would spend until 11 p.m. docked in the city, with an evening to spend ashore.

But the afternoon stretched ahead. We were on our own and none too sure of what to do next. We pushed on, walking out of the downtown into a new district that turned out to be rather fascinating.

The Pietermaai area of Willemstad is on the rebound from what was a low point in its history. It is full of old Dutch residences and small commercial buildings. Some of the mansions along the shore were obviously showcases in their day. Today, many of them are in shambles.
CristalRestaurant-Pietermaai-WillemstadCuracao-TS
Among the ruins, however, are restored buildings housing a fine dining restaurant or a chic boutique. In contrast to the bleached concrete and faded red roof tile of the abandoned buildings, some of the restored ones sported deep blue or bright red paint jobs.

We scouted several attractive restaurants as potential dinner venues. But we had walked for a good hour in the heat and we were a mile or more from the ship. It was time to think about getting back.

Just then, a jitney pulled up to us. We were obviously tourists in need of transportation to Mambo Beach. We asked the fare and it was $2 each. We didn’t know where Mambo Beach was or if the jitney was safe, but one way or another, our adventure was about to get more interesting.

On the way to the beach, we chatted in Spanish with the driver and passengers about the multiplicity of languages spoken in Curacao. We got to Mambo Beach and it turned out to be where many of our fellow cruise ship passengers had been taken on their excursion.

Later that night, we returned to Pietermaai to dine at the Cristal restaurant, a small home that had a beautifully lit bar, white walls, a cool tile floor and hurricane shutters on the open windows. The Caribbean night had turned magical and my two daughters and I enjoyed a great meal and local hospitality before heading back to the ship for our late departure.

It was a fine ending to an interesting day, made possible because we got out on our own and did a little exploring. Over the course of the eight-day cruise, we also took some fun excursions organized by the ship, but the day and night in Curacao is what I’ll remember most from our trip.