By Kenneth C. Rossignol
BALTIMORE — There will be one less choice for those living on the east coast when it comes to cruising as an upscale cruise line leaves the Port of Baltimore, which continues to still have a record number of cruises set for 2011.
The Celebrity Mercury will end taking vacationers from Baltimore on Valentine’s Day as it heads south for a final round trip cruise, not only from Maryland but with the Celebrity Cruise Line.
Celebrity has sold the Mercury to a German cruise line where it will join another former Celebrity ship, the Galaxy, which has been refurbished and renamed the Mein Schiff. The Mercury, which was launched in 1997 and is considered a mid-size ship, at about 77,000 tons, will become the Mein Schiff II and will sail to both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
With about 1800 passengers and nearly 1,000 crew, the Mercury specializes in pampering its customers which are primarily an average age of 50 to 70. While other cruise lines such as Carnival, offer rock climbing walls and water slides, the Celebrity offers classical music, pianists, martini bar creations and belly dancing instructions to keep its passengers busy on sea days.
Baltimore will not be without cruise service as Carnival and Royal Caribbean both have year round ships making voyages of various lengths from the cruise line terminal on the south side of Baltimore. Located just off of the B-W parkway leading to the harbor tunnel, the port is easy to reach and offers parking for those leaving on ships.
The cruise down the bay in the winter is at night for those who leave at 4 pm but in the summer the voyage on the Chesapeake is a great experience for those travelers who have only passed over the Bay on the twin bridges at Annapolis or the Bay Bridge Tunnel at Norfolk.
Celebrity has introduced three new ships of the Solstice class since 2008; the Solstice, the Equinox and the Eclipse. Joining the fleet in 2011 will be the new Celebrity Silhouette and in 2012 the Reflection will be added to the fleet. These new ships carry about 2800 passengers are loaded with specialty restaurants and amenities that either new travelers or experienced cruisers all praise.
The Solstice class ships sport a lawn club on the top deck, consuming about a third of the area and is actually real grass which is fertilized and cut on a regular basis.
The lawn provides space for lawn games and putting practice with signs asking women in high heels to refrain from walking on the grass.
The specialty restaurants include Italian, French and Asian as well as bistro, coffee café and gelato parlor. The entertainment is constant and varied with the traditional big shows put on in the theatres along with other musicians appearing in a half dozen different lounges.
While the Century class Celebrity ships will be down to only the Century, which began service in 1995 under the original Greek owners, that ship will end sailings in the Caribbean and move to the Australian market in 2011.
Celebrity hasn’t yet announced if a replacement for the Mercury will be ported in Baltimore. The Mercury had been performing a dual coast duty for the past few years with trans-canal trips between San Diego and Baltimore with stops in Central America and the Caribbean along with itineraries in the Caribbean in the winter; as well as cruises to Alaska in the spring and summer.
The new Solstice class ships are about three decks higher than the Century class and like the Millennium class ships also feature dining choices other than the main dining room.
Celebrity is owned by Royal Caribbean but is known for fine dining and great service while RCI aims at the mass market in competition with Carnival. Carnival owns Holland-America, Princess and Cunard while RCI is the second largest operator, also owning Pullmantur in Spain and Azamara luxury cruises.
Maryland’s port in Baltimore, at South Locust Point, is at a disadvantage in that it is about a 9 hour trip up the Bay from the Atlantic, which adds more sea time to trips. But the year-round posting of ships by Norwegian, Carnival and Celebrity in New York and New Jersey has apparently not been affected by the winter weather, nor the extra sea days discouraged passengers. The huge advantage for Baltimore or New York passengers is not to have to fly to Florida and be concerned by TSA groping at security screening as well as airline delays, cramped seats and long lines.
This past Christmas a coastal storm which dumped a blizzard of snow along the east coast didn’t keep the Norwegian Jewel from leaving New York City on time as it headed to the sunny Caribbean. Those holding tickets for flights to the Caribbean never got off the ground as all New York area airports were closed.
Maryland could have opened a new port further south on the Chesapeake and in fact, still could.
A recent proposal to open a new port at Solomon’s Island failed to gain the backing of the former Calvert County Board of Commissioners. Carnival had backers proposing to lease the Navy pier at the Navy rec center, along with parking areas for cruise ships to enter and load and disembark passengers on the Patuxent River, which would have created spending estimated to be about $110 per passenger per day for surrounding businesses and provide a dramatic increase to the dull days of winter for local restaurants and shops.
The U. S. Navy no longer uses the long pier located just north of the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge, which is high enough for cruise ships to pass underneath. While State of Maryland officials grapple with choosing a location and alternative for a second span for the bridge, a bridge high enough to clear large vessels would be imperative for a future port at Solomon’s.
The Navy pier burned in a recent fire but could be easily rebuilt and plenty of land is unused and could be obtained on a lease from the Navy for parking. But the power of Baltimore politicians will likely override any muscle of Congressman Steny Hoyer, newly demoted to minority whip of the House of Representatives. Solomon’s is in Hoyer’s district and any revival of the Solomon’s cruise ship terminal would likely be defeated by back room politics.
Norfolk has invested millions in a new cruise ship terminal but failed to attract the numbers of travelers to maintain the interest of cruise lines, with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian leaving the Norfolk terminal to only 4 cruises scheduled out of Norfolk in 2011, all of them on the Carnival Glory, which was first launched in 2003 and refurbished in 2010.
The Glory is a 110,000 ton ship, making it a large ship packed with family-friendly features that are up to date. The four Glory trips are all just before school lets out and again in October, making the trip fairly tolerable for those traveling without children.
Norfolk won’t be without visiting cruise ships such as the Seabourn Sojourn which will make port calls along the east coast including Norfolk after leaving Quebec in the fall.
Royal Caribbean had positioned a ship, The Enchantment of the Seas, in the spring, summer and fall at Norfolk but moved it to Baltimore two years ago, where it joins the Carnival Pride where both run weekly trips starting at about $600 per person. This year the Maryland port expects to have 113 cruises take place and is building an innovative passenger boarding bridge to accommodate various heights of entrance doors on ships.
The best bargains for a cruise are generally available either well before a sailing or about 50 days before the cruise as the line attempts to fill the ship. Cruise lines can’t make money off of cabins which are empty so they and their travel agent partners who book large blocks of staterooms give big discounts when they have to in order to fill a ship.
Those who have booked early and don’t pay attention to the price drops miss out on some significant on-board credits or upgrades that the cruise lines will give to compensate those who booked at full price. It is commonplace for some travelers to get lucky and get an upgrade to a balcony or suite cabin at the last minute.
Cabins on the Mercury in January of 2011 were available for as little as $500 per person in late November and the ship was sold out within a week, adding plenty of opportunities for the cruise line to make money at the casinos and bars.
Booking through a travel agency or directly with a cruise line? Choose the travel agency where you will have someone fighting for you when it comes to price drops and upgrades.
The best air fare: go with a travel agent and have them book everything with Celebrity and let them arrange the air portion, if any, of your trip. Celebrity has it figured out and they treat you great when it comes to transfers and hotels. But make sure you buy the trip insurance through the travel agency, it’s usually better coverage.
Barbara Nason of Cruises Only points out that there are great deals on trans-Atlantic trips to Europe in May of 2011 on the Celebrity Solstice which ends up in Barcelona, the Eclipse which goes to London and the Equinox which crosses the Atlantic stops in several ports in Spain, France and ends in Rome, all with prices starting at about 1250 per person for a balcony stateroom and ranging from 13 to 15 days. Nason can be reached at 617-587-6025.
While most cruise passengers will admit there is no such thing as a bad cruise, unless of course the rudder falls off as happened on the Century in October while on a Mediterranean trip or the Carnival Splendor fire in November in the Pacific, others are better than some.
Celebrity maintains a fairly high level of satisfaction in many consumer ratings but trips on the mainstream lines are plenty of fun for most folks. But those who have been excited to be able to board Celebrity cruises from Baltimore will have to leave from ships in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Bayonne, New Jersey when choosing Celebrity.
A small ship alternative for cruising American ports is the American Cruise Line which features 7-day round-trip itineraries from Baltimore to Yorktown, Va. With the ship which carries 100 passengers gliding into small ports such as Cambridge, St. Michael’s, Tangier Island and Solomon’s Island, an entirely different experience is available for the seasoned cruise traveler.
American Cruise Line offers 7-day trips from Baltimore to Charleston, S.C. with port visits at Norfolk, and Oriental, Morehead City and Wilmington, N.C. as well as Myrtle Beach. A 14 day trip takes in many of the scenic barrier islands of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia before ending at Amelia Island, Fl. Other cruises include the west coast and Mississippi River.
The remaining Celebrity voyages from Baltimore, as well as the Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruises go to the Bahamas, Mexico and various Caribbean islands with the bulk of the port calls at San Juan, St. Thomas, V.I., St. Martin, St. Kitts and Antiqua. All three lines have ‘private islands’ where the port call is simply a beach day, but can easily be the best day of the trip.
Shore excursions arranged through the ship at ports can be purchased ahead of time or private tours can be arranged by internet and by using such resources as Cruise Critic.