When the fleet of new ships begins arriving in South Florida this month, it'll put an exclamation point on a year that the cruise industry isn't likely to see again for some time.
Nine new major vessels will be seen in North America this fall and winter, the most for years to come. Three others built in 2010 are staying in Europe year-round.
"These are the last wave of new ships ordered before the recession,'' said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, a respected industry newsletter. The economic downturn that started in 2008 deterred owners from making new orders, he explained, so you'll see fewer new vessels entering service in the next few years.
New ships are always a big draw for passengers. They're not just paint-fresh and rug-spotless, but they usually bring with them new facilities and innovations in cruising that intrigue the public.
This year's crop of new ships offers some of those, but perhaps not as many as in previous years. "For the first time in decades, there aren't any so-called new trends emerging from new builds,'' said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, an independent cruise website.
In part, that is due to the fact that most of the year's new ships are clones of earlier vessels, and that can affect pricing. "The only area where we see pricing still challenging (lower) is in copies of ships that are debuting,'' said Brown. Though it is a new ship, for example, Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam is offering seven-night Caribbean cruises this fall for as little as $499.
"Where you will see higher fares will be for unique ships like Oceania's Marina and the Disney Dream,'' Brown said. Norwegian's Epic will always be a one-of-a-kind ship, she said, "so it also will continue to enjoy unique status, farewise.''
Moreover, the worldwide publicity generated by the naming last month of Cunard's new Queen Elizabeth by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will spark interest in cruising and thereby help keep prices from falling, said Stewart Chiron, CEO of cruiseguy.com. Cruise fares this year are somewhat higher than in the past two difficult years, Chiron noted. He also dismissed the thought that the large number of berths introduced by the new ships might depress prices. That new capacity "is easily absorbed,'' he said.
What really distinguishes new cruise ships are their differences from earlier vessels. The following are brief profiles of the new ships Americans can book this fall and winter, with the new features they will offer. Most will return to Europe in spring.
• Norwegian Epic
Norwegian's huge 4,100-passenger vessel came to America in July with a number of interesting new features. No other cruise ship, for one, offers as many cabins for singles — 128 — and they've become among the first staterooms to be booked. Epic also emphasizes high-powered entertainment, with Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams, Howl at the Moon, Second City, Legends in Concert and Nickelodeon on board.
Building on the line's reputation for "freestyle cruising,'' the ship has 20 restaurants (11 free and nine with a charge) and 20 lounges. Its water park features the Epic Plunge, a tube slide that drops riders through a 200-foot tunnel that ends with a swirling vortex before splashdown.
Epic sails on seven-night Caribbean cruises out of Miami until April, when it will return to Europe.
• Queen Elizabeth
Cunard Line's newest "Queen" is much like sister ship Queen Victoria, but the 2,092-passenger vessel does have several new features. Guests who book deluxe balcony staterooms now have their own stand-alone, single-seating restaurant, Britannia Club.
Also new is the Garden Lounge, which has an angled glass roof inspired by London's Kew Gardens; it will offer supper club-style music and dancing. A new alternative restaurant, the Verandah, named after the Verandah Grill on the original Queen Mary, serves regional French cuisine. Art throughout the ship pays homage to Cunard's earlier "Queens'' — the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, QE2 and Queen Mary 2 — as well as the British royal family.
After its naming ceremony in October by Queen Elizabeth II in Southampton, England, it made several cruises within Europe, then embarked on a world cruise, calling at New York, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles in January. Guests can embark on the world cruise or a segment at all three ports.
Another new ship that will be seen in the United States only during port calls is P&O Cruises' 3,076-passenger Azura, which entered service this year in Europe.
It will stop at Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, Key West and New Orleans during a 28-night Christmas/New Year's cruise out of Barbados, its winter base. Facilities include a three-deck atrium, al fresco adult retreat, dining choice of fixed or open, plus alternative restaurants, among them the first at sea for Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar. P&O caters to British guests, and nearly all of its cruises are sold out.
• Celebrity Eclipse
Though the Eclipse is the third in the trendy and much-lauded Solstice series of Celebrity's ships, it offers two important new elements not on its predecessors. Its new iLounge offers 26 computer stations, a classroom area, retail space and an enrichment center. As an Apple Reseller, the iLounge also is authorized to sell Apple products to guests, and its staff can provide tips on Mac and iPod usage.
Eclipse's other innovation is a new restaurant named Qsine, an alternative restaurant with a modern approach to dining and some unusual dishes. That becomes evident from the start when guests place their orders from a menu that is electronic.
The 2,850-passenger Eclipse, which entered service in Europe this year, will make a series of Caribbean cruises out of Miami this winter, starting Saturday.
• Seabourn Sojourn
Second in a series of three new Seabourn luxury line vessels, Sojourn is following the tradition-breaking path of its 2009 predecessor, the Seabourn Odyssey. That ship not only was much larger than Seabourn's earlier vessels, but was designed to target younger passengers with more active pursuits, additional dining choices and cruises of shorter duration.
Like the Odyssey, Sojourn accommodates 450 guests, more than twice the number on its first three ships. While Sojourn is a clone of the Odyssey in most ways, its biggest difference lies in the 11,400-square-foot spa, which features a new Kneipp pool for water therapy, an herbal bath facility and aroma steam bath.
The new ship, which debuted in Europe this year, will make four cruises out of Fort Lauderdale starting Nov. 19.
• Nieuw Amsterdam
This 2,106-passenger vessel, Holland America's 15th ship, is a clone of 2008's Eurodam with a couple of new features. One is the Master Chef's Table, an alternative dining experience offering seven courses and selected wine pairings.
Another is the ship's decor honoring New York City, which was known as Nieuw Amsterdam by its Dutch founders. Art, crafts and historical artifacts relating to the city are displayed throughout public areas. Nieuw Amsterdam will make seven- to 14-day Caribbean cruises out of Fort Lauderdale starting today and returns to Europe in early April.
• Allure of the Seas
Last year's 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship in the world, wowed Royal Caribbean guests with its seven themed areas, interior open-to-sky promenades and innovative features like an onboard merry-go-round, zip line and high-dive platform. Allure of the Seas, its sister ship, will have those elements and several new ones. Animated film studio DreamWorks, for one, will add its unique characters — stars of Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon — to onboard entertainment programs. Other new features: a 3-D movie screen in the Amber Theater; a Mexican beach bar, Rita's Cantina, and a hot dog/sausage shop, both in the Boardwalk neighborhood; and the first Guess store at sea, in the Royal Promenade neighborhood.
Allure will make weekly Caribbean cruises out of Fort Lauderdale starting Dec. 5.
• Disney Dream
Disney Cruise Line's first new build in years will feature an amazing water park and unique-to-Disney entertainment as well as several other innovations. AquaDuck, a water-flume coaster, will propel guests at high speed through an acrylic tunnel on a four-deck, 765-foot journey that will take them up and down, off the side of the ship, over river rapids and through the forward funnel. It's the first of its kind at sea. To lessen the feeling of being closeted in, all inside rooms will have a new feature, a Virtual Porthole — videos that show real-time feeds by cameras outside the ship. Animated film characters may also appear on those screens.
For adults, the 2,500-passenger ship is introducing a new restaurant, Remy, offering French-inspired cuisine created by two award-winning chefs.
Disney Dream will embark on its maiden voyage Jan. 26 from Port Canaveral, where it will make three- and four-day cruises to the Bahamas. In summer it will shift to four- and five-day itineraries.
This is the first new build for Oceania Cruises, an "upper premium'' line (above premium but below luxury). Accommodating somewhat fewer than twice the number of passengers as its three other ships, the 1,258-passenger Marina will have the industry's largest standard veranda staterooms at 282 square feet, and almost every bathroom will have both a tub and shower. It also will have a unique culinary center with 24 cooktops providing each class member with his own station. Guest chefs will be chosen by Bon Appétit magazine. On board, too, will be famed chef Jacques Pépin's first restaurant, simply named Jacques.
The Marina sails on its maiden voyage from Europe in January, arriving in Miami in February to make three cruises before heading back to Europe in late March.
Jay Clarke is a freelance writer in Coral Gables. He was the longtime travel editor of the Miami Herald.