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Cruise Lines, Passengers In A Fog In Texas

 

The current four-letter word for cruise-ship passengers in Texas is F-O-G. Ordinarily, it's a three-letter word that nobody on a cruise ship cares much about…

Until your ship can't leave and consequently that Caribbean port you badly wanted to visit is now off the itinerary.

Until your ship can't return when it's scheduled to return, and by then your plane has left, you have to spend a night in a hotel and you're in danger of missing Sunday dinner at Aunt Clara's.

Until it impacts on safety, and in this era that rarely happens but it could happen in Houston's ship channel (above) where cruise and cargo vessels don't have a lot of elbow room — or margins of error.

At various times this January, ships in Houston-Galveston waters have been on fog lockdown, either stuck in port or out in the bay waiting to get back. Visibility at both Houston airports has ranged between 1/16th and 1/8th of a mile. This is not a new problem. Talented travel writers Harry and Joan Shattuck has lived in Houston for 43 years (and we've been friends almost all of that time) and have become so accustomed to foggy Januarys that Harry can't remember one without fog. 

Also some Februarys, Marchs…

The good news this week is, now that the Pacific Northwest cold front that caused all this has left, Texans expect to have clear skies by the weekend.

Almost three years ago, Carnival President Gerry Cahill told Harry that Galveston was an attractive place to cruise from but its port officials "had to get a handle on fog to make things work long-term."

At that time, there were no ships in Houston. Princess started sailing from Houston this winter and, at last count, the Caribbean Princess had cruises delayed four times. Norwegian will be there next year. When you think of the logistical nightmare that fog can cause for the cruise lines, not to mention its passengers, it begs the question:

How long can they afford to continue running mid-winter cruises from Texas?

Photo by Louis Vest

Carnival Valor
7 nights
May 11, 2014
San Juan (return): St. ThomasBarbadosSt. LuciaSt. KittsSt. Maarten
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $65
www.carnival.com

Perilous Time for Gem of the Gulf

 

GALVESTON — Let's start with mea culpa. Full disclosure. We love Texas. From Houston to Dallas to San Antonio to Austin to College Station to Galveston. Great places to visit that made great memories.

Ah yes, Galveston, a special place that doesn't always look special.

It can be pretty, and it can be pretty sad. Saturday, as the Crown Princess left its shores, was not one of Galveston's happy days. A mardi gras in the streets but no sunshine. A storm brewing and the ship had to, as they say in this part of the country, "get outta Dodge" before the "weather" arrived. The ceiling so low it seemed to be caressing the funnels of the ship.

Galveston has it tough.

Like a boxer with his hands down, it can be defenseless, sometimes looking into the eye of a hurricane as if to say "bring it on" and when Mother Nature's knockout is over "is that your best shot?" Hurricane Ike roared through the Gulf of Mexico five years ago and the devastation it left behind included an empty cruise ship terminal.

The cruise lines come and go. They can be as skittish as the forecast. Each time the Disney Magic leaves port, as it did again Saturday afternoon, Galvestonians wonder how many times she'll return. There are rumors the Magic is headed for Fort Lauderdale next winter. The Crown Princess, which just arrived in November, will definitely relocate to Florida and be replaced in Texas by the Caribbean Princess…but to Houston, not Galveston.

Yet it's Galveston that is the Gateway to the Gulf, the tip of the funnel for cruisers from America's heartland wanting to sample the Caribbean from a ship. Whether they fly in or not, it almost always means a 60-minute drive from Houston to a port that is, well, a port. Upon entry, industrial and colorless, especially on an overcast day. First-time visitors, like one boarding the Crown Princess, may see it as a once-in-a-lifetime visit…vowing never to come back, searching for charm you will never find in an industrial area — anywhere.

However, near the port is a funky and fun area where you can breakfast at The Original Mexican Cafe, dine at Fisherman's Wharf, lounge on 32 miles of beaches or visit The Strand, a district that focuses on the area's historical connection to the sea. Unless you're overnighting, you're unlikely to see much of it, and that makes staying an extra night or two in this seaside resort worthwhile.

There are currently five cruise ships based in Galveston. Next year there will be four…maybe three. As recently as a year ago, the only major cruise port in Texas seemed to have a bright future. Galveston deserves better, but the people here know so well not to get complacent because they also know their lives can change in a hurry…cane.

Too often, they have.


Celebrity Eclipse
13 nights
April 20, 2013
Fort Lauderdale, Nassau, San Juan, St. Maarten, Southampton
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $46
www.celebritycruises.com

Houston: Return of the Ships

A white elephant turned green last week. The much-maligned, little-used cruise port terminal in Houston is going to get busy. More importantly, it's going to get cruise ships that will make it busy.

For three years, the state-of-the-art terminal has been empty. When something costs more than a $100 million and it's empty, this is not good business. Nor is it good for the public coffers that paid for it. Why this has suddenly happened with not just one but two cruise lines is a mystery…did Houston sweeten the pot for them?

The first cruise line to sail under the new arrangement will be Princess. The inaugural sailing from the Bayport Terminal in nearby Pasadena will take place in 2013…the Caribbean Princess on November 5. This first "cruise for a cause" by Princess, a fund-raiser for veterans, was originally reported to be departing from Galveston. Instead, it will be the first of 27 Princess departures from Houston in the 2013-14 season.

Then Norwegian steps up to the plate.

Beginning late in 2014, Norwegian is committed to 75 departures over three years. The cruise line also has an option to extend the agreement for two  years beyond the contract.

Coincidentally or not, the port celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2014.

According to Norwegian, the 96,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility "combines visual appeal, passenger convenience, accessibility and innovative security systems. Passenger access from parking and drop-off areas is immediately adjacent to the front of the terminal. Covered walkways connect the building to bus and private passenger drop-offs and taxi stands. Once inside the terminal, passengers’ first-class experience continues in the expansive area. The cruise terminal’s proximity to fine restaurants and hotels make it an ideal point of disembarkation."

The ship based from Houston will be the Jewel, the first Norwegian ship based there since the Norwegian Dream in 2007. The Jewel will sail 7-day trips to the Western Caribbean.

The financial facts being reported included the creation of 100 new jobs, economic benefits of $50 million and state and local taxes of $941,000.

Considering this is a $108.5 million nut, it's a good start.

Meanwhile, down the freeway, the cruise honeymoon is over. Galveston has company again.


Sapphire Princess
7 nights
January 12, 2013
Los Angeles (return): Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.princesscruises.com

Growth of Galveston Magical

 

We happened to have coffee with a nice young woman from Princess Cruises on Thursday and, in the course of conversation, the subject of the cruise line's return to Galveston came up because next winter the Crown Princess will make the Texas port its winter home.

A couple of days later, it occurred  to us that Princess is missing the boat…so to speak.

The ship that should be despatched to Galveston is the Princess Magic. If you're familiar with cruise ship names, you will know there is no Princess Magic.

Maybe they can build one quickly…or change a name.

On the weekend, the Disney Magic sailed from Galveston for the first time. That's the first time for Disney, but not the first time for the Magic. Since last November, the Carnival Magic has been cruising from Galveston. Shouldn't it be a logical extension that Double Magic become Triple Magic?

What's happening in Galveston can only be described as Magic-al.

The tourism people on the Texas coast don't care what the cruise ships are called…only that there are cruise ships coming. And clearly they are, in increasing numbers. Three months to the day from the (Disney) Magic's arrival, the Crown Princess will begin its string of 19 Western Caribbean cruises. That will make five ships based in the re-built and greatly upgraded port — Carnival Triumph and Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas were already there.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike (2008), cruise traffic in Galveston dropped. In recovering, port and city officials realized its tourism life was on the line of the terminal wasn't upgraded and, about $12 million later, the port now boasts of having "the largest single berth cruise facility in the world." Since 2000, Galveston has spent $65 million on its cruise facilities and it's easy to understand why.

Last year, estimates were that passengers and crew spent $45 million while visiting Galveston and, since the (Carnival) Magic didn't arrive until November, it's logical to assume that number will more than double by the time the Crown Princess completes the fleet of five in December.

The only major cruise port in Texas, the largest state in the lower 48, opens cruising up for passengers who find it too costly to fly east or west to the coasts. Mid-westerners can drive there and the population growth in the central part of the sun belt amplifies demand now that the supply of cruise ships are on the southern coast.

Even if only two of the five are called Magic.


Ocean Princess
11 nights
December 28, 2012
Papeet, Moorea, Bora Bora, Hilo, Lahaina, Nawiliwili, Honolulu
Oceanview: $1,299
Cost per day: $118
www.princess.com

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