A big year gets under way for cruise ships

This year, more than a dozen new cruise vessels will venture to sea, most of them behemoths built by lines such as Carnival, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Princess. Some other lines, though, perhaps less well known to U.S. passengers, will launch small vessels on routes as far-flung as China.

The five biggest ships exceed 100,000 gross registered tons. Most notable is Cunard's 150,000-ton Queen Mary 2, the largest ship ever built, which made its debut last week. And in the wings is Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America, the first new American-flagged cruise ship in 50 years. It will launch -- when else? -- July 4.


It's still too early to share much in the way of specifics for some ships, including, in a few cases, a firm inaugural date (and bear in mind that inaugurals can be iffy anyway). But here's a blueprint of new ship arrivals through year's end to help you plan your cruise calendar. Unless otherwise noted, contact a travel agent for rates and information.



Cunard's flagship Queen Mary 2 made its debut Jan. 12 in Southampton, England, on its maiden crossing, to Fort Lauderdale. Subsequently, the 2,620-passenger vessel -- which boasts a Canyon Ranch SpaClub, a Todd English restaurant and an Oxford University enrichment series -- will offer trans-Atlantic voyages between Southampton and New York.

One travel operator, Washington-based Grandtravel, wants to help grandparents introduce the QM2 to their grandchildren. According to the 20-year-old company, which specializes in multigenerational travel, it is rare for younger generations, who are growing up in the age of fast planes, to experience the graceful elegance of crossing the Atlantic on the great "Ships of State."

So as an option of the tour operator's London and Paris land packages this summer, grandparents traveling with their grandkids can add on a QM2 cruise. For more information, call Grandtravel at 800-247-7651, or visit the Web site


Carnival Cruise Lines' 2,124-passenger Carnival Miracle is set to debut Feb. 27 in Jacksonville, Fla., embarking on the first of a dozen three- to six-day voyages from the northeast Florida port, a first for the cruise line. The 86,000-ton Miracle -- which has an upscale supper club and lots of balconied staterooms -- subsequently will ply seven-day round-trip cruises from Baltimore, New York and Tampa.


* The 113,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess will debut March 13 on a Mexican Riviera itinerary from Los Angeles, and will spend the summer in Alaska. The Diamond, the first of three ships Princess plans to introduce this year, also will herald a revamped dining program that includes more intimate surroundings.

Instead of the pair of huge main dining rooms found on most megaships nowadays, Diamond's design divides two regular dining rooms in half, creating four themed restaurants that seat 230 passengers each. A fifth, traditional dining room accommodates about 500 passengers.


* Two new vessels will begin plying the Yangtze River (also known as the Chang) in China: Victoria Cruises' 266-passenger Victoria Katarina sets sail March 21, and Viking River Cruises christens the 186-passenger Century Star March 27.


Chaucer called April the cruelest month, but this year cruise lines could dub it the busiest. Nearly half the industry's new ships take a bow, with five major debuts.

* Princess' largest ship, the 116,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Caribbean Princess, will launch April 3. It features poolside movies, the industry's first in-house spa and, to reflect its name and itinerary, a shipwide Caribbean theme. Love Boat fans, take note: actress Jill Whelan, who played Captain Stubing's TV daughter Vicki, will wed Michael Chaykowsky aboard the ship April 2; the newlyweds will honeymoon aboard the ship during its maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale. If you can't attend the nuptials, you can follow the festivities on Princess' Web site,

* Holland America Line's 1,848-passenger Westerdam, to debut in Europe April 25, is the line's third Vista-class ship. It boasts more than 600 cabins with balconies. As a plus, the recently introduced early boarding program on all Holland America ships will let passengers board and relax before their "official" embarkation times, hopping on as early as 11:30 a.m. Passengers who take advantage of the program will be able to get a leg up on spa appointments and shore excursion reservations and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Lido.

The Westerdam also benefits from the line's newest enhancements, which reflect a $225 million fleetwide investment in maintaining Holland America's status as a premium line. To all its ships, Holland America is adding such niceties as fancy bedding in every cabin. "It's like the Ritz-Carlton," cooed one travel agent who has seen the plans.


Holland America's bevy of new amenities are scheduled to be implemented within 24 months. They include enhanced Lido dining with made-to-order dinner entrees and tableside waiter service; an expanded kids' program and lecture series; and, on the line's private Caribbean island, Half Moon Cay, options such as horseback riding and an Aqua Park for kids.

One unwelcome change upends Holland America's long-standing guilt-free no-tipping-required policy: The line now adds gratuities to passengers' shipboard bills. It calls the change "convenient," but for passengers, it means that it's up to them to muster the moxie to ask that tips be adjusted or removed.

* Royal Caribbean International's 2,100-passenger, 90,090-ton Jewel of the Seas will debut April 28 in London. In addition to offering the highest percentage of balcony cabins in the line's fleet, the ship has a rock-climbing wall, a coffeehouse featuring Seattle's Best coffee, an Italian restaurant and steakhouse, an indoor solarium and expansive kids' facilities.

* Among the roster of "lighter fare" vessels entering service this month: MSC Italian Cruises' 1,760-passenger Opera, a 60,000-ton sister ship to Lirica, which debuted last year; and Oceania Cruises' second ship, the 30,200-ton, 684-passenger Insignia.


The 113,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess, twin to the Diamond, will debut June 13 to join its sister ship on Alaska itineraries.



On July 4 in Hawaii, Norwegian Cruise Line's new brand, NCL America, will inaugurate the first oceangoing passenger ship in half a century to fly the American flag. The 81,000-ton, 2,146-passenger Pride of America, staffed with only U.S. officers and crew, will offer seven-night inter-island Hawaii cruises. It boasts eight dining venues, more than 660 balcony cabins and the largest dedicated meeting facilities at sea. In advance of its inaugural, the line will preview the ship in 15 North American ports.

"We want to stop in every mainland port we can get to," says Colin Veitch, Norwegian's president and CEO, "because after that, it's gone -- nobody will see the ship for another 30 years unless they travel to Hawaii."


Along with its twin, the Fortuna, which debuted in 2003, Costa Cruises' new 105,000-ton 2,720-passenger Costa Magica becomes the largest passenger ship in Italian history. The ship, which will sail from Genoa, has 11 bars, four restaurants, a three-deck-high theater, and 458 of its 1,359 cabins will have verandas.



Carnival introduces the 2,974-passenger Carnival Valor, the third ship in the line's 110,000-ton Conquest class. This far out, even the line is hard put to describe how unique it might be from its predecessors. "This is a tough one. I haven't heard anything about the Valor's decor, and we haven't even released the ship's itinerary," says a Carnival spokesman. What's it got? A whopping 22 bars and lounges, three restaurants, four swimming pools, a 214-foot-long water slide and a 14,500-square-foot spa.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.