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Cruise Ship Information

MS Empress is a cruise ship operated by Pullmantur Cruises. She was formerly operated by Royal Caribbean International as Nordic Empress and Empress of the Seas. The ship was ordered by Admiral Cruise Lines and was intended to be called the Future Seas and join the other Admiral ships, the Azure Seas and the Emerald Seas. However, when Royal Caribbean merged with Admiral in 1987, the Admiral brand was dissolved and the newbuild (still under construction) was incorporated into the Royal Caribbean fleet. A few signature Royal Caribbean brand elements were added, including the Viking Crown and Windjammer Cafe.

Atmosphere on board

This paddle wheeler is the line’s homage to the Pacific Northwest, where it sails eight-day trips from Vancouver, Washington (just outside of Portland, Oregon) to Clarkston, Oregon, from April to November. Days are structured with the option of a complimentary hop-on, hop-off bus tour in port each morning — which runs continuous loops between breakfast and lunch — and passengers can get a ride to everything from small museums to wineries and shopping districts.

These bus tours are an enormously convenient way to see the towns efficiently, and in many cases, the cruise line has covered the admission fees to the sights included on the tours. On some days, guides offer insightful commentary on the history and economy of the local region, adding context. In Astoria, Oregon, for example, we learned all about the Finnish settlers to the area, the colorful history of “Shanghai” kidnappings, and how fishing has impacted the economy. In other towns, such as The Dalles, Oregon, the “insights” — including the fact that the flagpole of the local schoolhouse is in the back of the building, and a talk on Google moving computer servers to the area (with painfully inaccurate descriptions of what servers actually do) — could use some fine-tuning.

After lunch, which just about everyone returns to the ship for, there’s an optional shore excursion for a nominal fee. On some days, such as in Richland, Washington (the port for the Walla Walla region), the focus is wineries; on others, such as in Stevenson, Washington, the emphasis is food. There, you can travel through the orchard district, known as the Fruit Loop, and taste pies made from the seasonal produce. Other tours focus on history, particularly the Native American culture and the westward expansion led by Lewis and Clark.

In Stevenson, we highly recommend the nature-focused shore excursion, which drives through the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge area, stopping at the Crown Point lookout and Multnomah Falls. The scenery is the real star of this trip, with gorgeous pine-covered mountains around every bend of the river. The captain announced a sea lion spotting on our sailing, and passengers flocked to their balconies and the rocking chair-topped decks to keep an eye out for wildlife.

In addition to the bus tours and guided excursion, it’s a pleasure to explore these small fishing and logging villages, especially Astoria, where the popular ’80s film “The Goonies” was shot. (Yes, we geeked out a little bit when we recognized the scenery from the movie, as well as when we were shown the house on Scenic Byway the day before, where “Twilight’s” prom scene was filmed.) Astoria is also home to several microbreweries, including the Fort George Brewery, where you can order a Taster Tray of 2.5-ounce pours in the pub. On a rainy day — and this area has many — there may be no better way to spend an afternoon.

Family with Kids/Teens

Children's facilities vary according to the time of year, with activity clubs stepped up considerably in the peak school holiday months. At peak times, three age ranges –- three to seven, eight to 11 and 12 to 17 -- are catered for, with younger children welcomed in Palmy's Kids Club on Deck 8, and an "Action Zone" video games arcade available on the same deck for older children.

At off-peak times, only three to six year olds and seven to 11-year-olds are accommodated and since Palmy's Kids Club is fairly small, activities take place not only there but in venues throughout the ship.

Activities range from mini-Olympics and drama workshops to treasure hunts, "Funky Feet" dance classes, mask making and quizzes.

The action starts at 8:30 a.m. with a Breakfast Club in the Island restaurant, and generally finishes around 9 p.m. off-peak, 10 p.m. at peak times (and at midnight for teens). All kids club activities are free, but no individual babysitting is available.

Past Passenger Programs

The ship's main -- and attractively presented -- public areas are concentrated on Deck 7 (Palm) and Deck 8 (Fantasy), with Palm Deck the key area for dining and entertainment. At the prow end is the lower level of the two-deck-high Ocean Theatre, and behind this lie a cocktail bar and a lively pub, with honey coloured wooden walls, a fair sized stage and plenty of cosy nooks and crannies.

On this level you'll also find shops selling travel essentials, paperbacks and logoed goods, and the Island and Oasis restaurants, as well as The Steak House. One level up, Fantasy Deck holds the balcony area of the ship's theatre and is home to the children's play areas -- Palmy's Kids' Club and The Action Zone games arcade.

This deck also holds the ship's casino, the Harbour Cafe (a pretty alfresco-style area which sells speciality coffees) and more shops along the Harbour Walk which -- with cream frontages and flooring and plants in tubs –- has a pleasant, almost "seaside" feel. The shop sell everything from cheap and cheerful tops (for less than £8) to Murano glass necklaces and fine jewellery, and are affordably priced and worth a browse.

At the stern end of this deck is a really lovely, wood-panelled library and a country house-style lounge known as The Captain's Club, as well as a card room-cum-conference centre.

Deck 8 also holds The Bounty Club, a large-windowed, substantial lounge where comedians from the Jongleurs organisation -- with which Island has an arrangement -– perform stand-up comedy.

The Reception and Shore Excursion desks are to be found on Deck 5 (Coral) and there are two Cyber Hub Internet cafes on Decks 7 and 8 (packages range from £4.50 for 30 minutes, £7.50 an hour to £23.50 for 240 minutes -– much better value than pay-as-you-go, which costs 30 pence a minute).

The alfresco bar with the best all-round-views –- aptly known as The Sailaway –- is perched right at the top of the ship, opposite the spa on Deck 12 (Sun Deck).

Fitness And Spa

The Island Spa is up on Sun Deck (12) and features a gym and his and hers sauna rooms. The spa offers free aerobics, legs bums and tums and abdominal blitz classes alongside £5-a-time sessions in yoga, Pilates, Dyna-band, Body Combat and Boot Camp Circuit (presumably aimed at those whose fitness obsession has strayed into masochism).

Treatments –- offered by the Onboard Spa Company, an offshoot of Harding Brothers -– are innovative. The usual facials and massages (from £33 for 30 minutes, £55 - £66 for an hour) are supplemented by more unusual options like Aromaveda massages combining aromatherapy with Ayurvedic techniques (£44 for 45 minutes), facials for men (same price) and teen spa facials (£44 for 50 minutes).

One deck below the spa, there is a substantial swimming pool with two whirlpools, and a smaller pool for the use of children. Keen walkers and joggers will be disappointed to find there is no wraparound promenade, though there is a walkway running three quarters of the way around Palm Deck (8) and it is possible to walk a mile up on Deck 12, though you may have to weave around sunbeds as you go.

The elegance so noticeable in the design of Island Star's public rooms also applies to her outside spaces; the outdoor cafe seating area -- which overlooks the stern on Deck 11 -- has potted palms and green and tan furniture, and even though this is plastic and could well do with an update, the overall effect is still quite stylish.

And the pool area of Deck 11 -– painted in cheerful blues and yellows –- achieves a jolly seaside feel, though the dark grey carpet surrounding the pool desperately needs replacing as not only is it shredding in parts, it also has a velcro-like capacity to retain every scrap of dust and debris and this makes it look very grubby indeed.

Food & Dining

A casual, eat-when-you-like approach to dining is very important to travellers in the family budget sector of the British market, and Island Star meets the challenge with five venues.

The Island Restaurant is open at set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and with its large windows, white cloths and linen napkins, makes eating a fairly classy experience even though the food is served buffet-style. Buffets are also available at the indoor/outdoor Beachcomber Cafe on Deck 1, which is open 24 hours and offers some themed evenings. Breakfasts here are excellent, piping hot and featuring the kind of goodies -- like fried bread and black pudding -- that make cardiologists blanch but, have red-blooded Britons licking their lips.

And while on my trip some vegetable dishes were a little watery and flaccid, lunch and dinner buffets were perfectly respectable -- salads were crisp and varied, soups creamy and there was always something tasty to eat. At the aft end of the Beachcomber, The Grill offers freshly cooked self-service burgers (including chicken burgers) and hot dogs.

The ship also has two pay-per-use restaurants. The dark wood-walled, red-tableclothed Steak House offers decent cuts of steak (and also, despite its name, fish and vegetarian dishes) for a per-person service charge of £15, while the Oasis charges £12.95 for a more varied menu. Personally, I found the Oasis the better of the two; dark red lightshades made the Steakhouse a bit gloomy, tables were set too close together and though waiters served mains, puddings and coffee, the substantial range of starters and cheeses available to top and tail the meal were rather inconveniently served buffet-style, which to my mind defeated the object of a "special occasion" restaurant.

The Oasis, on the other hand, was better lit and entirely waiter serviced, and the menus -- which included filet mignon, tempura prawns and scallops served as Coquilles St. Jacques -- were varied and interesting.

Wine in all restaurants is affordable, though -- with a daily "bargain" offered at less than U.K. £11 and a very decent Rioja available for £12.95. If you're dining alone (or are not big drinkers), what's left of your wine can be reserved for you at the end of the meal and served at the restaurant of your choice the next night, if you quote your cabin number.

Room service is available 24 hours a day (though alcohol is delivered only between 8 a.m. and 2 a.m.). However, there is a per-item charge, ranging from £1.95 for soup and rolls or a cheese plate to £2.95 for a salad and £3.65 for sandwiches. Hot drinks cost £1.95.

Entertainment

Thanks to a two-year (2008 and 2009) link-up with the Jongleurs chain of U.K. comedy clubs, Island Cruises now features stand-up comics twice a week in The Bounty Club and a weekly comedy show in the Ocean Theatre. Other "turns" in the theatre, pub and lounges when I was onboard included decent male and female vocalists and the usual song and dancefests.

In between shows, the Jongleurs comedians host £5 a head comedy master classes, teaching passengers how to write and perform stand-up –- and the most promising students get a chance to perform on stage before the cruise is over.

Other onboard activities range from quizzes, pottery painting sessions (at £3 a head charge), carpet bowls and darts competitions to dancing and cookery classes, cheese and wine tastings, lessons in napkin folding and Bingo sessions.

Fellow Passengers

Island Star caters almost entirely to the British in the summer months, with a more international/ U.S. clientele mixing in on winter Caribbean runs.

Tipping

If you have the cruise planner from Royal Caribbean, it gives you the suggested tipping in the back - waiter and housekeeper $3.50 per day, assistant waiter $2 per day, headwaiter at your discretion. You will be given envelopes the day before disembarkation, we usually personally hand them to the people the last night of the cruise.

Our recommendation

Excellent from first impression to check out.

Ok its not without fault but where is!

Our room had no view, the doors do slam a bit and the buffet menu in the Aroma restaurant is repetetive but for a short stay it was comfortable, clean, warm and friendly.

The Piano Bar of an evening was very relaxing with attentive bar staff & comfortable seating.They also have a lovely conservatory where u can sit with a morning coffee, look out to Douglas Bay and watch the world go by at horse drawn tram pace!

It was our first visit to the Isle of Man and we would definitely book the Empress again.