N.Y. Firm Launches Gaming Voyages

Reporter Theodore Scull took an overnight gaming cruise offered by New York-based Manhattan Cruises. His report follows:

ABOARD THE EDINBURGH CASTLE -- It was a typical cruise ship welcome at Pier 88 on Manhattan's West Side, with friendly greetings at the gangway and from a steward on board who escorted us to our cabin on the bridge deck. I didn't know what to expect, since this firm had virtually appeared out of nowhere, starting up with overnight cruises in late January, the same day it received provisional authorization from the New York Gambling Control Commission to operate.

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I found my roomy outside cabin was freshly refurbished and contained a queen-size bed with a pleasant seascape mural on the wall behind. The bathroom was from an earlier age, with deep blue mosaic tiles and older fixtures. It was clean and everything worked until the next morning when we discovered the lights would not go on. We had not received an explanation for the power failure by the time we disembarked hours later.

The Edinburgh Castle, formerly the EugenioCosta, can comfortably handle about 1,000 passengers in lower berths. Manhattan Cruises said it will limit its numbers to 900. On our sailing, there were about 275 aboard, which meant that all passengers would get outside rooms, most assigned as they arrived on the pier.

One group of 20-something men said the cabin would not matter since they planned to gamble, enjoy the disco and take in a film. I suspect this will be a somewhat typical response. But for those who consider a cabin important, they may want to reserve early and request a room with a view. The casino department controls 146 top cabins in a separate inventory for high rollers and special guests.

Walking about the Edinburgh Castle, it was clear that the refurbishment had not been entirely completed by the time of our sailing. The decks and areas around the two pools needed work, but in February and March, given East Coast weather, few would likely venture outside for long. "We wanted to beat the competition, so we searched the world and came up with an available vessel," said G. Michael Brown, president and chief executive officer of Manhattan Cruises.

Brown, an attorney, held the same position with Foxwoods Resort Casino in southeastern Connecticut and before that was director of New Jersey's Division of Gaming Enforcement as casinos were taking off in Atlantic City. He, along with three other investors, including two associated with Singapore-based Star Cruises, the largest operator of cruise ships in Asia, own the company.

Star will be supplying a replacement vessel for the Edinburgh Castle in early April, when it returns to its owners, British shipping firm Lowline, to serve British ports. The replacement ship will be the 800-passenger SuperStar Capricorn, the former Royal Viking Star, currently based in Hong Kong. The 28,000-ton ship will be under charter here for a minimum of a full year.

The New York skyline was magical as we sailed down the Hudson, and once past the Statue of Liberty, we headed down to the restaurant where dinner was served from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The buffet was nothing short of outstanding, and a word with the executive chef, Gerhard Wind, indicated that he has been given a generous budget with which to work. The entrees included superb beef tenderloin, carved-to-order pork, chicken breasts and grilled fish plus delicate asparagus spears, smoked salmon, endive and lots of salad greens, with not a shred of iceberg lettuce in sight. The dessert table had choices of cakes, pies, puddings and fancy candies. A card on the table indicated that tips were not included, and when we left our gratuity, the waiter reserved the same spot for our brunch the next morning.

At 9:10 p.m. the casino opened, and the great majority of passengers chose the 35 gaming tables, while the 175 newly installed slot machines were not much in use by this crowd that included young Wall Streeters, middle-aged couples and Chinese-Americans. However, gambling, the most visible activity, is not all that is offered, and more entertainment has been added since our initial cruise.

Ben Vereen appeared in the show lounge in mid-February, and other name entertainers are scheduled for the weekend sailings. An aft bar lounge was the venue for a four-piece band playing listening and dancing music, and a disco came alive at midnight and continued until 5 a.m. There is a two-level cinema, a gymnasium and a shop with a limited selection of clothing and sundries; a range of Manhattan Cruises' logo items is planned.

We missed the midnight buffet and most of the late-night happenings, and our bedtime coincided with the skyline of Asbury Park, N.J., off to starboard. During the night the ship turned around just north of Atlantic City, N.J. With a scheduled docking before noon the next day, gambling ceased at about 10 a.m.

The restaurant was open for brunch from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The inviting brunch choices included made-to-order omelets, eggs Benedict, breakfast steaks, bacon, sausage, smoked salmon, lots of fresh fruit, bagels, bread and pastries. We found only the baked goods disappointing. The chef explained that the Edinburgh Castle's ovens are old, so he now has to buy ashore until the new ship arrives.

In the warmer months the cruise may return at 3 p.m. on weekends.

A short cruise experience is there among all the gaming tables and slots, and the Edinburgh Castle provides a good value, a quick getaway.

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Fact Sheet

Ship: Edinburgh Castle
Tonnage: 32,000
Year built: 1966
Sailings: Daily at 7 p.m., returning at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The vessel returns at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.
In the warmer months, the weekend returns will be at 3 p.m. As an experiment to lure the Wall Street crowd, the Thursday night departure will return Friday at 6:30 a.m.
Future plans include three- and four-night cruises to New Brunswick, Canada, and in discussion stages is an itinerary to Bermuda.
Rates: One-night cruises are $99 per person, double, Sundays through Thursdays; $199, Fridays and Saturdays.
Commission: 10%.
Reservations: (888) 611-CRUISES. Agents should press 1 and identify themselves as retailers.

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