A Bit Of Bliss . . . NCL Style

A couple of weekends ago I was invited, along with 4000 or so of my closest competitors, to fly from DFW to LAX to experience a tiny, tantalizing taste (just under 40 hours to be precise) of NCL’s newest floating masterpiece, The Bliss.   It probably tells you everything you need to know about travel agents that they will blissfully (pun intended) get up at 3:30 am, fly three hours and Uber another half hour to board an inaugural cruise on a brand new ship and sail gleefully off . . . to nowhere.   Such is our devotion to new experiences, expanding our already vast library of knowledge and OK, I admit, complimentary libations.

The Aqua Park

I was permitted a guest and I brought along my grandson, Samuel Denton Walls (take note of his awesome middle name), a very recent high school graduate.  The only thing better than experiencing a beautiful new cruise ship by yourself is the delight of viewing it through the eyes of someone who has never set foot on one of these floating destinations.  Plus, Sam proved exceedingly helpful once I offered him a small stipend to be my official photographer and videographer.  The photos and video you see here are his handiwork.

So what does the NCL Bliss have to offer?  Honestly, there are way too many features to recount them all in this post but click here and then “highlights” for a full recounting of the many venues and activities.  I will focus our remaining moments on just a few of my own impressions.  Before I do, those of you who are looking at the picture above and are imagining me plummeting through one of those blue tubes extending over the side of the ship like some bulbous human torpedo, you are cursed with hyperactive imaginations.

The A-List Bar

On the other hand, should you picture me lingering in this venue instead, you would be very near the mark if not on it.  This was one of my favorite watering holes due to the fact that it is conveniently wedged between Cagney’s Steakhouse (my personal favorite specialty dining venue) and Los Lobos, in their words, “a premium Mexican restaurant celebrating traditional flavors with a modern twist.”  Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to visit “The WDSC03957olves” (English translation) but I tried my best to offset that omission by behaving rather like a ravenous wolf myself at Cagney’s.  Don’t be misled by my restrained demeanor in this picture to the left.  Before the flash even had time to dissipate, I was up to my elbows in Australian lamb.  Pray, what other fare would you expect from a wolf?  We don’t do tofu.

I am hardly a connoisseur of fine art (unless watching every episode so far of Genius on the life of Pablo Picasso and attendance at two recent “wine and paint” parties qualifies) but I was very impressed by the magnificent works of art liberally sprinkled around the Bliss.  That feature, among others, is treated in the video below.

One of the most unique features on the ship is the Grand Prix race track with Formula One style cars racing around the largest competitive racetrack at sea.  On one of Sam’s few respites from filming the next great Indie film to take Cannes by storm (see below), he managed to take a spin.  Not wanting to embarrass him with my own racing prowess honed over years of driving the DFW metroplex, I refrained.

I invite you to take ten minutes . . . I promise it will seem like less than half an hour . . . and watch this riveting video.  I apologize in advance for the sound quality.  No matter how rudely I shouted at the other 4000 invited guests to stop having such a boisterous good time, they treated my efforts to create a video masterpiece with what can only be charitably called disdain.  These six little vignettes will give you a flavor of additional features on the Bliss that time and space fail me to mention here.

NCL Bliss video

If you are longing for the perfect ship to sail you from the shores of your mundane daily rut and into a sparkling sea of fine dining, stimulating entertainment and/or soothing relaxation (as you prefer), the NCL Bliss is the obvious choice.  Visit our website tltravelagents.com to find one of our experienced vacation travel advisors who will be only to happy to make this happen.

The Unconventional World of Un-Cruise Adventures

Have you ever been on a cruise?  Ah, mon ami, but have you ever been on an un-cruise?

About the only thing these two experiences have in common is H2O and a vessel that floats.  My goal today is to introduce you to a travel company that has taken the commonplace and familiar and transformed it into something almost unrecognizable.  In a good way, of course!

Un-Cruise Adventures I say introduce because their product offering is so fascinating and diverse that it is going to take me several posts to do it justice.  In fact, what do you say we create ourselves a brand new category called Un-Cruising.  (I haven’t created a new category on this blog in a couple of weeks and regular readers know that normally brings on an outbreak of unsightly hives.)  That way, when I have whetted your appetite with this initial tantalizing post, you can can easily sate your hunger for more insights with future posts all nicely grouped together.  You could, I suppose, just go to their excellent website, but that would deprive you of my inimitable wit and charm, now wouldn’t it?

So what is unique about Un-Cruise Adventures?  As already suggested, it will take several posts to filet that particular topic like a twenty pound Columbia River spring Chinook but I can give you a few broad hints here.

Intimacy Versus Anonymity

Speaking in generalities, the major cruises lines believe bigger is better.  I suppose that’s true if, in your mind, no cruise is complete without a rock climbing experience . . . on board the ship!  I personally love the big ships too but with 6000 passengers and a couple of thousand crew, I feel lucky if I can remember my own name much less expect to be greeted by name in the bar.  Take a look at the Un-Cruise Adventures fleet.  You can add up the total passenger count from all eight ships and it might not equal one deck on the Oasis of the Seas.

Un-Cruise Adventures Chat with the CaptainBy the end of the cruise all the staff won’t just know your name, you will know all their names and their children in birth order!  You will have spent so much time on the bridge, you will know how the Captain takes his coffee and where he got that tattoo of a Geisha girl on his right forearm.

The size of the ships provides intimacy of another sort that may have never occurred to you.  I am referring to intimacy with the destination.  Their shallow draft and smaller size permits access to Un-Cruise Adventures hot tubplaces the larger ships could never dream of going.   See how close the ship is to the glacier!  Stop staring at the foreground, Mister.  We are not talking about that kind of intimacy.   Try to stay focused, OK?

If your dream vacation doesn’t include standing in long lines but does include feeling like Norm walking into Cheers where everybody knows your name, this is the travel experience for you.  I know a little about the travel business and trust me, with so few passengers on board to pay the freight, it is a certainty that not only will you be treated like a VIP, you will be a VIP!

Goodness!  There is so much more I wanted to tell you.  One of the neatest things is how they have organized their product into four adventure styles: active, luxury, heritage and charter, each with a very distinct focus and personality.  If you promise to come back soon, I will explain not just that but why they serve only five destinations* (and which ones) plus a whole lot more.

Un-Cruise Yoga ClassesIn the meantime, the picture above shows just how unique this experience really is.  This is their non-traditional emergency drill.  The instructor is saying, “Should anyone fall overboard, you should give your most believable impression of a dolphin!”

By now you should be salivating to know more about the Un-Cruise Adventure experience.  Wipe the corner of your mouth and come back soon!  I’m just as keen to tell you!

* One of those five destinations is Mexico’s Sea of Cortes. Click here to watch a great video!

Travel Industry Proposes, Royal Caribbean Disposes

One of my favorite quotes comes from “The Imitation of Christ” by the German-born Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471): “For man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands.”  We in the travel agency community are a little like that.  We propose all sorts of brilliant ideas, at least in our own humble estimation, yet we face the reality that in most cases we have zero power to dispose.

Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the SeasI recently interviewed Vicki Freed,  the Senior Vice President of Sales and Trade Support & Services for Royal Caribbean International, right here on this incomparable little blog and one of my queries was, for her at least, this very familiar and possibly tiresome question:  “When will Royal Caribbean start sailing year round out of the port of Galveston?”

For a little context, travel agents throughout Texas and surrounding states have for a few years now  been clamoring, cajoling, carping (and various other exertions too embarrassing to mention in print) for Royal Caribbean to position a ship in Galveston year round.  We travel types are nothing if not annoyingly persistent.

I have big news!  Let me share a brief excerpt from a press release issued today.  “Royal Caribbean International, the cruise line known for first at-sea innovations, announced today that it is basing 3,114-guest Navigator of the Seas year-round from the Texas port city of Galveston.”   Unlike when mighty Casey struck out, there was great joy in Mudville today. More than one of our travel agents was observed doing the happy dance on their desks!

Navigator of the Seas cabin

Since by design, these “Hear It Here First” posts are intended to be short and sweet, you can click here to read all the details.One exciting aspect of the news is that not only will Navigator of the Seas begin sailing year round from Galveston beginning this November but also will be emerging from an extensive drydock revitalization in February of 2014.  

This is absolutely going to be a very popular ship and departure port so start making your plans now.   Click here if you would like a full schedule of departure dates and itineraries and reach out to me for prices and to secure space.

Remember, you heard it here first.  And, if you didn’t, then clearly you aren’t as devoted a follower of this blog as you should be!  Come on, let’s muster a little fanatical devotion here.

Vicki Freed: One Of Royal Caribbean’s Leading Ladies

There are achievers and then there are over-achievers.  (You may have noticed,  I intentionally omitted under-achievers since that strikes a little too close to home for some of us.)  Vicki Freed, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Trade Support & Services for Royal Caribbean International, certainly belongs to the over-achiever category.

Vicki Freed of Royal Caribbean

One of the few times you will catch Vicki just hanging around!

She has set an incredible record of accomplishment.  Should I attempt to catalog her rather daunting list of achievements here, it would only serve to make Vicki blush and, more importantly, take time away from hearing her valuable insights.  I suggest instead you read her full bio here.

What is even more remarkable though is how she has managed to reach the pinnacle of the cruise industry while retaining such warm affection and high esteem among so many of her colleagues and travel industry constituents.  I refrained from saying all because surely there must be someone out there for whom Vicki is not the flavor of the month but lacking an electron microscope and a research sabbatical, so far I have not been able to detect one.

Royal Caribbean Oasis of the SeasWhat you will discover for yourself when you listen to the recorded interview below is that Vicki combines a keen intellect with an ebullient charm.  This happy confluence of gifts has served her well in her career.  She embodies the brand she represents:  contemporary style and timeless grace.  Cream rises inexorably to the top and Vicki is the executive equivalent of crème de la crème.  Hey, I would be right there too if I hadn’t somehow become a little curdled along the way!

Before you listen to the interview, you might be amused (not that I was at the time) by this quick aside.  In preparing for the interview I alerted my co-workers not to come calling, put my phone on Do Not Disturb, turned off my cell phone and securely shut my door, all to insure that the recorded call would be as clear as possible.  Notwithstanding all my precautions, sixty seconds into the interview a window washer started spraying what sounded,  to my ears at least, like a 3″ fire hose on to my exterior windows rattling the window panes and shattering my nerves.  By some miracle, you will not be able to detect the clatter on the recording!

I seem to have been assigned a guardian angel who requires both morning and afternoon naps.  Granted looking after me has to be particularly exhausting but why can’t I have someone shepherding me around with a little more energy or perhaps, more importantly, a less perverse sense of humor!

OK, let’s get to the good stuff!  In our conversation, Vicki, among other things:

1)  Offers some excellent advice to first-time cruisers

2)  Gives us just a peek into the new Quantum class of ships on the near horizon

3)  Nimbly explains how “Every Ship Can Be The Best Ship”

Click here or on Vicki’s picture to see probing questions magically transformed into perceptive answers right before your very eyes . . .  or ears, I suppose, in this case.

Interview with Royal Caribbean's Vicky FreedDo you have a favorite travel industry executive that you would like to see subjected to the unquestionable prestige of appearing on Backroom Banter?  Vicki has set a very high bar but if you do have someone in mind, send me their name and I will see if can’t appeal to their charitable spirit as I did with Vicki.