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Sailing on ScenicOs space ship Scenic Cruises, an Australian tour company, launched its sixth European river vessel, the 170-passenger Scenic Crystal, last month. Through Vancouver-based Global Voyages Group, Scenic Cruises, which has been offering land vacations to its Australian client base for 25 years as Scenic Tours, and European river cruises since 2008, is now out to capture its share of the North American market. On the Scenic CrystalOs inaugural sailing, I was able to experience first-hand what the company calls a OSpace Ship,O because Scenic says it makes the most of the onboard space for its passengers. I stayed in one of the shipOs Balcony Suites, which featured a OSun Lounge,O a weatherproof balcony enclosed with floor-to-ceiling glass, the upper portion of which can be lowered with the touch of a button to create an open-air balcony. The bathroom was spacious, too, with step-in, rectangular showers that actually had enough room to move around in. There was plenty of storage space, thanks to a closet that spanned nearly an entire wall, with drawers, shelves and hanging space, plus a mini-bar and a laptop size safe that could hold my camera, wallet and various other electronic paraphernalia. Another perk was an Apple computer that doubled as a TV with movies and music on demand. I also used it to view ship information and a copy of my passenger invoice. There was also an iPod docking station. Finally, as a Balcony Suite passenger I had access to a butler who performed such tasks as packing and unpacking luggage upon request and pressing up to two garments per day -- all complimentary. I set a pair of slacks with the ironing order form on the bed one morning. When I returned from my shore excursion, the pressed pants were waiting for me. The shipOs public areas also were spacious. They never felt crowded, despite the fact that the vessel was full. Scenic manages to offer six dining venues on the ship with creative use of some of the spaces. For example, the Panorama Lounge, an intimate, glass-enclosed area, each evening becomes Portofino, a specialty Italian restaurant. The adjacent River Caf doubles as the shipOs main bar and lounge, but it also serves nosh throughout the day, including desserts from a pastry case. In the main dining room, Table La Rive, a chefOs table offers multi-course dinners with wine pairings and has a view into the galley. Advance reservations are required to dine at Portofino and Table La Rive, but there is no surcharge. In fact, most of what Scenic offers is included in the cruise price, such as premium wines, beers and soft drinks at lunch and dinner. Also included is a choice of shore excursions at each port; entertainment; airport transfers; and gratuities and baggage handling. Passengers donOt even tip shore excursion guides, who are Scenic Tours land vacation escorts. At the Scenic Crystal christening, Glen Maroney, the companyOs founder and managing director, said that starting next year butler service will be available for all passengers, regardless of the stateroom category. WiFi, which is now available for a fee, will be included in the fare. And all beverages, including well liquor and a choice of premium wines, will be included in the fare (premium liquors will carry a charge). Moreover, Scenic will retrofit its entire fleet, except the Scenic Emerald, for the 2013 season to meet the standards of the Scenic Crystal, including the addition of OSun Lounges.O All of these inclusions, of course, mean that ScenicOs cruise fares are bit higher than those of river cruise lines that charge for these amenities -- about 15 percent more than most other lines, according to Maroney. But when you add it all up, it ends up being less expensive than buying the amenities separately. In addition, Scenic is introducing more choices in land excursions. OBecause weOre a tour operator, we believe that the experience on land is as important as the experience onboard,O Maroney said at the Scenic Crystal christening. On my cruise, for example, I joined a group that went on a private winery tour and tasting in FranceOs Alsace region. Next year, Scenic will launch Scenic Tailormade, a GPS guided tour system with full commentary, allowing more independent-minded passengers (like me) to explore a port at their own pace but have access to information that would normally be provided by a tour escort. Passengers will be able to choose from independent walking or cycling tours (the ships offer electric bicycles for guestsO use), personalizing their tours with recorded commentary on topics like food and wine, history, or architecture. Each of the 10 Tailormade tours features up to 14 points of interest. Scenic will provide hand-held devices with the itineraries, or passengers can download the programs onto their smart phones. On my cruise I spoke with travel agents from Australia, who told me that these all-inclusive features and shore excursion choices are what their clients want from their vacations. Reported by Mimi Kmet at Travelpulse.com. May 1, 2012
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