Tidewatr Traveler - June 2007

Pulse of the Empress


George W. Sellers

     Behind me is the outdoor activity deck. The pool is netted over, the deck chairs are stacked, and the area is mostly vacant of activity. With both forearms on the teak rail, I lean forward to survey the activity on the concrete dock ten decks below. A queue of tractor trailers and straight trucks wait to nudge the loading dock and have their commodities transferred into the cavernous belly of the Empress. Pallets and skids filled with fresh and frozen staples and delicacies stream from the trucks into a gaping hole in the ship’s hull.
      Before the ship returns to this port, about 2,000 passengers and a crew of nearly 700 will have devoured more than 56,000 meals, not counting snacks and beverages. Feeding time for the sailing vessel herself is limited to just the few hours the ship is in port, so timing is essential. This ship docked at 7 a.m. as it returned its passengers from a seven-night Bermuda cruise. It will sail at 4 p.m. to return to Bermuda. So the window of opportunity to fill the ship with its needs for a week is very brief. Also, when a ship arrives at a port, transfer of goods cannot begin immediately. First, the officials representing the Departments of Customs, Immigration, Homeland Security and Agriculture need to be satisfied that everything is in order and safe. Even after the lines go out to secure the ship, the Empress’s belly groans with hunger until “all is clear.” More than food is loaded into the ship. I try to imagine what the list of provisions includes – office supplies, light bulbs, cleaning supplies, paint, repair parts, medical supplies, mail – the list goes on!
      And then I realize - the movement of materials on the dock is not unidirectional. The Empress is like a giant living organism, because from another hole in the hull flows waste. Other trucks are lined up to receive the waste material and transfer it to a point of disposal. Yes, even an Empress produces waste!
      Observing the intercourse of activity on the dock below I come to realize the potential value of such activity to the local economy. When a cruise line chooses a home port for one (or more) of its ships, it would seem that such a choice would bring significant economic opportunity. With some research I am sure I could discover actual numbers that would effectively communicate the value of goods purchased and transported to a ship in dock. Even if all the goods are not produced or purchased locally to the port city, it would appear that the local economy would benefit from an active passenger cruise terminal. Anyone who has been a cruise passenger knows that a portion of the cost of booking a cruise is referred to as port charges and taxes. Undoubtedly, some of those taxes and fees make it into the local government and business coffers.
      From the bow of the ship, a few yards to my right, cheers are heard; people on deck are waving to a small crowd gathered on the dock below; the ship’s horn sounds a long celebratory blast. No, the ship is not about to cast off. I’m just visiting this time – not cruising. The cheering is not a Bon Voyage celebration. Instead, the City of Norfolk, Virginia, is celebrating the dedication of a beautiful new passenger cruise terminal. Half-Moone Cruise and Celebration Center is one of the most passenger-friendly cruise terminals I have encountered. In the new facility (not a warmed-over warehouse) guests arriving for a cruise find a comfortable environment where they will pass though security checkpoints and wait for check-in and boarding. A large, bright reception hall; windows to the Norfolk Harbor; cushioned chairs; art on display; clean restrooms; and numerous check-in stations promise smooth sailing from sidewalk to ship. The building is designed in such a manner that it can also be used as a venue for meetings, presentations, concerts, receptions and festivals when it is not in use as a cruise passenger terminal.
      Now I wonder – do you suppose the politicians and business community of The City of Norfolk sought to complete such a project at One Waterside Drive just to have one more attractive building on the waterfront? Or do they perhaps anticipate that there is some economic advantage to offering a convenient home berth for cruise ships? I suspect the latter. And the group of local politicians and business people on the dock below seem to be happy about what they have accomplished.
      For several years now, Norfolk has been one of five mid-Atlantic cruise ports offering what I call “no-fly cruises” convenient to folks on DelMarVa. The other ports are Baltimore, Philadelphia, Port Liberty and New York City, all near enough to be reached without an airplane flight. The Half-Moone Cruise & Celebration Center is easy to reach, just a few blocks from Interstate 264. From mid-Delmarva one can drive to the cruise terminal in less than four hours. Nearby are hotels and parking facilities.
      As wonderful as all of this sounds, there is a bit of sadness for Marylanders. The one and only major cruise ship now sailing from the Port of Baltimore, Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas, will make Norfolk her home port for half of the 2008 cruise season. With a facility like the Half-Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, and a responsive Norfolk business and civic community, the future of cruising from Norfolk looks bright. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Port of Norfolk is almost a half a day of sailing time closer to the open Atlantic than is the Port of Baltimore.
      The Empress of the Seas, featured in this article, will retire from the Royal Caribbean fleet at the end of the 2007 cruise season. Her ownership will transfer to a small Europe-based cruise company that will deploy her for European cruises. The Empress is a nice ship, but she is neither awesom, nor grand. In my opinion she is no longer symbolizes the quality of most Royal Caribbean ships, and so perhaps it is time for her to go.
      Generally, cruises from Baltimore, Norfolk and Philadelphia still sell out months in advance, so if you have any notion of taking a “no-fly cruise,” I encourage you to book it early. People often delay booking a cruise because they think the rate may go down later. Booking early is much wiser because there is greater choice of cabin category and location on the ship, and ask your travel planner about this, if the cruise line reduces the fare for your cabin category after you have booked it and before your final payment, you can get the lower fare! It’s not too early to book your cruise for 2008.
      May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel Web site www.sellerstravel.com