he Empress of the Seas, formerly the Nordic Empress, returned to its Northeast home -- but to a port in Bayonne, N.J., instead of in New York -- to start its annual season of Bermuda cruises.

So instead of driving to Manhattan's Cruise Terminal for a preview of the ship, we went over the Bayonne Bridge and up the road to Royal Caribbean Cruises' new home base, Cape Liberty Cruise Port, which is within sight of the Statue of Liberty and 15 minutes from Newark Liberty Airport.

New signage directed us to the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor complex, formerly the Bayonne Military Ocean Terminal, where security police greeted us with a "Howyoudoin'?"

"They need to put some flowers in here," my driver noted as we passed the checkpoint and drove up a bumpy, tree-lined road and then by a warren of warehouses before arriving at Cape Liberty pier.

What a difference a month makes: Last time Travel Weekly visited Cape Liberty it was cold and damp; the warehouse that would house the check-in facilities was empty except for some construction equipment.

This time, the sun was out, and the place was buzzing with activity. The terminal now houses security X-ray machines, funky blue plastic chairs and rows of check-in desks.

Bright-red buses ferried passengers from the terminal to the Empress, berthed about a half-mile away. Smiling pier employees directed us at every turn.

The port officially opened May 14 with a ceremony and a visit to the port's flagship, the 139,000-ton Voyager of the Seas, which had arrived for the first time that morning.

Cape Liberty will be home base this summer for the Voyager of the Seas' trips to Canada/New England and the Caribbean.

This day, however, the Empress of the Seas was the royal guest. The ship was full of travel agents who overwhelmingly praised Bayonne's quick accessibility by car and the easy driving directions (exit 14A off the New Jersey Turnpike to Route 440 south), while taking note of its less-than-picturesque surroundings (industrial area and the nearby Port of New York and New Jersey).

Off in the distance was a clear view of the Statue of Liberty, the downtown Manhattan skyline and the residential communities of Staten Island. Closer, however, were stacks of shipping containers and empty warehouses.

"It's not a pretty place," Mina DiSora, an agent with Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., said of the Bayonne peninsula. "But I think it'll be amazing. This is a smart choice."

Not everyone on board agreed. One guest said that summer traffic would slow down the drive time. "It's not going to work," she said. "You're competing with everyone going down the Jersey Shore."

But her companion disagreed, saying, "I think the Manhattan pier is way too congested." Bayonne, she said, "is very easy."

If plans from the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority go through as conceived, agents should see major changes at the Peninsula in a few years, including restaurants and shops.

One drawback to Bayonne: Passengers miss the dramatic sailaway down the Hudson River past such landmarks as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

On our cruise, the Empress zipped bow-first out of the Bayonne slip and cruised out of the harbor. There are city views from the ship, but they're just not as close.

A very forward spot on the Empress' lower deck promenade, meanwhile, practically puts you in the ship's bow. It's a great spot to watch the ship pass under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn, N.Y. (A prime viewing spot on the Voyager would be near the top of the tall ship).

Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean's CEO, later said that Bayonne was "a home run for us."

At a lot of ports, he said, "you're constrained by infrastructure. Here, you have ... a spectacular property where the space hasn't been defined."

RCCL is continuing to define its piece of the Peninsula.

Its terminal, for example, has been called a temporary structure, although that in itself isn't a comment on the current sturdy brick building.

What's also temporary, executives said, is a five-story metal staircase that the port uses in lieu of a gangway.

A service entrance on the Empress' lower decks lets passengers with wheelchairs roll onto the ship; passengers on the Voyager of the Seas will be able to walk onboard.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

Refitted, renamed, ship's a full-fledged Royal

MIAMI -- The Empress of the Seas is now a true member of the family.

The vessel, which was christened the Nordic Empress 14 years ago, was Royal Caribbean International's lone holdout, the only ship without an "of the Seas" affixed to its name.

But that's been changed following a three-week dry-dock and name-change that aims to bring the Empress of the Seas in line with Royal Caribbean's fleet.

The ship now has a Boleros, the Latin-themed lounge that's been a big hit on the recent Voyager-class ships. It has a Ben & Jerry's and gourmet Seattle's Best coffee shop. It now has a Schooner Bar, which has been lifted from other ships. It has a Portofino's Italian alternative restaurant, which premiered on the Voyager of the Seas.

In keeping with passenger demand, the ship's ShipShape spa and fitness center has been expanded. And, of course, the vessel has a rock-climbing wall.

The ship was only a few days out of dry-dock when it was shown off to travel agents, and several said they were disappointed that the Empress wasn't quite finished. The pool deck, for example, was still a construction zone.

"You go with your first impressions," said one agent.

Agents said some clients prefer the Empress' 1,600-passenger size -- relatively small compared with the other New Jersey-based ship, the Voyager of the Seas, which carries nearly double that number.

Carlann Scala, a manager for Majors Travel in Staten Island, N.Y., praised the ship's two-tiered dining room and the big windows throughout.

"I think it's going to do well on the six- and eight-days [Bermuda cruises]," she said. "Now that it's redone, it'll be an easier sell."

The refit didn't touch all areas of the ship, and a practiced eye still can see the Empress' age in the amount of gold and chrome accents on the staircases and in some of the colors in the atrium and public rest rooms.

The line installed new bathrooms in the cabins, and the up-per-tier cabins, like the superior oceanview staterooms and the junior suites, got new decor.

The owner's suites in the Empress' aft area were redesigned completely.

But the newly done public rooms seemed to be popular with retailers. The Schooner Bar and Boleros were crowded with agents. Bigger groups tended to favor the Schooner Bar with its moveable chairs, while smaller clusters dotted Boleros, where bartenders were keeping busy mixing drinks and cracking jokes with the clientele.

Another hit, at least on our overnight cruise, was the Ben & Jerry's ice-cream shop. The small-size cup of ice cream I got (yummy Phish Food) would retail for about $2.25, I was told.

One of the more interesting decisions during the refit was to expand the spa and fitness area by placing the exercise equipment on the second floor of the Viking Crown Lounge, Royal Caribbean's signature lounge and late-night disco.

Cool glass stairs and faux grass tiers lead people from the spa upstairs to the exercise room. But several people seemed a bit taken aback to find themselves in the Viking Crown instead of a dedicated exercise room.

The exercise area is closed off at night (which would prevent nightclub patrons from lifting a few weights after a few drinks). -- R.T.

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