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
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
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
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
MIAMI -- The Empress of the Seas is now a true member of the
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
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
Carlann Scala, a manager for Majors Travel in Staten Island,
N.Y., praised the ship's two-tiered dining room and the big windows
"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
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
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
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).