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Challenges can bedevil even the perfect cruise

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You booked the cruise months ago. You pored over the shore excursion options. You researched shopping and museums in the ports at which you'd call.

And then, once on the ship, the itinerary changed drastically.

You're disappointed, sure. You really wanted to shop in St. Thomas and dive in Cancun. But, as the expression goes, stuff happens and there's little you can do about it except relax and enjoy the cruise.

We knew even before we boarded a recent Caribbean cruise on the Radisson Seven Seas Voyager that Hurricane Wilma had torn up many ports that we were originally scheduled to visit. Cozumel was deemed not ready for visitors, so we were to go to Belize City and Roatan, Honduras instead.

It made no difference to us, as the beautiful Voyager, with its Le Cordon Bleu restaurant and impeccable service, was as much a destination as any of the ports we'd visit.

Magical mystery tour

Leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a Monday afternoon, heading for our first port of call in somewhat lumpy seas, we expected to wake up Tuesday morning on the dock in Key West. We were surprised to open our draperies and see that we were still under way.

Shortly, the captain announced that high winds had closed the port of Key West and we were on our way to Cozumel. A small hurricane was pounding Honduras, so we would not be calling at Belize City and Roatan after all. Cozumel and Grand Cayman were back on the schedule.

The point is that if you book a cruise specifically for the ports, you may not go where you think you're going, and the cruise line has no liability.

Few travelers take the time to read the cruise contract. If they did, they'd find a version of something called "Itinerary/Right to Change/Detention." Its tiny-typeface copy states, among other things, that the cruise line "... reserves the right ... without liability for damages or refund of any kind, to deviate from the vessel's advertised or ordinary itinerary or route."

Reasons for change

Reasons for deviation can range from bad weather to crime, war or terrorist actions. It even could apply if your ship is called on to protect or assist another vessel. Whether it's a mild annoyance or a real problem depends a lot on attitude.

First-time cruiser Alan Seale of Jeffersonville, N.Y., took the news optimistically. "You have to realize you're along for the ride. Look at the ship as the destination, and you won't be disappointed," he suggested. "Not having to make bad-weather decisions, or almost any other decision, is one of the great gifts of cruising."

Crew challenges

When a ship must abruptly change itineraries, how the captain and crew handle the challenges can make an enormous difference.

The first consideration when ports close is to identify other available options. Capt. Knut Hanssen, master of the Seven Seas Voyager, joked that he puts up a chart, dons a blindfold and just tosses a dart.

Andrew Poulton, director of marketing for Radisson, explained that the realities of an itinerary shift are a bit more complicated.

"Some ports don't have facilities to handle a great number of ships, so you can't just show up. In Grand Cayman, for example, which has no docking space, our ship has slot number one [closest anchorage to the pier] as we're the smallest ship and we won't interfere with the tender pattern," he said. Cayman allows only four ships at a time to visit their port.

Executive chef Cornel Ruhland and his staff may face the biggest challenges.

"When it was announced that we could not go in to Key West, we already had food set for that day, and some dishes were partially prepared," he said.

Because a day in port means that many passengers will not have lunch aboard, Ruhland's staff prepares lunch for fewer diners. In minutes, the number of passengers aboard for lunch shifted from 400 to 700. An abrupt last-minute change in the ship's schedule meant that menus had to be shuffled and additional food prepared.

Poulson also pointed out that out of Fort Lauderdale, when a port day became a sea day, ship personnel had to be shifted. The pool area became very busy, so wait staff was moved from the Compass Rose dining room to the pool deck.

"Of course there always is enough food, but getting it prepared quickly enough can sometimes be a challenge," he said.

Where's the beef?

A change of itinerary can affect a voyage in yet another way. Containers stocked with food and supplies are stored at various ports to replenish the ship's stores. If a container fails to arrive, or weather prevents a ship from stopping at a particular port to pick it up, supplies can be depleted.

Replenishing basic tableware and utensils also can be a challenge, which gives the captain yet another reason to change an itinerary to avoid bad weather. We were told that on the cruise just before ours, a large quantity of stemware and china was lost to breakage because of high seas. Quickly washing and getting remaining utensils back into service became a tricky task.

Technical issues and maintenance can be disrupted when a ship misses a port. A new satellite system had been installed for our cruise, and the technician who was to calibrate it was supposed to get on in Key West, a port we skipped. To compensate for intermittent Internet access, Radisson extended free e-mail access to all passengers.

Most amazing to us was that despite all the changes, we never were aware of behind-the-scenes disruptions. The ship's newspaper was quickly reprinted and distributed to reflect the new itinerary, and food was as exquisite as ever at all meals. The staff was unflaggingly cheerful and attentive.

At the cocktail party the final night of the cruise, Capt. Hanssen's lighthearted remarks demonstrated the humor and conviviality with which Radisson greets adversity at sea: "Now that we've finally figured out which way to point the ship, we're on our way home."

It's just one of the many reasons we've already booked next year's voyage on Radisson. It starts in Auckland, New Zealand, goes across the Pacific to Tahiti and the Marquesas, ending in Los Angeles. We can hardly wait.

Source: Judy Wade and Bill Baker, Ahwatukee Foothills News

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Thanks for posting this article. I guess I can live with changed itineraries. I am completely disappointed when cruises are cancelled all together, like my Carnival Jubilee cruise of the Southern Caribbean from Puerto Rico. It almost killed me but it gave me the opportunity to book the Conquest.

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