Learning in the lap of luxury

Cruises are known as relaxing trips, but are they for travelers seeking more than a suntan? Sure. Many cruise lines are now offering trips that provide cultural enrichment and an opportunity to pique your intellectual curiosity while you vacation.

In the next 12 months, you could sail with one of the original seven US astronauts, explore new discoveries in Mayan culture with archaeologists and anthropologists, take part in a jazz or literary festival at sea, or learn from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

That's a far cry from whiling away your on-board time with shuffleboard and bingo.

Here's a sampling of what's available:

Travel with the Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian study tours (877-338-8687 or www.SmithsonianStudyTours.org) is offering about 50 international study voyages in 2003. Each will be accompanied by an expert study leader; these include a naturalist, an authority on marine life, an archaeologist, or a historian – depending on the type of cruise.

Subjects include gardens of the Caribbean (aboard a tall ship), the natural history of the Amazon, art treasures in great Italian cities, and glories of the Moors (Spain and Morocco).

The Smithsonian's 12 North American study voyages will range from music and culture in the Civil War South (aboard the paddle-wheeler Delta Queen) and following the route of Lewis and Clark to a Baja whale watch and a journey into the Canadian Arctic.

QE2 farewell festivals

To highlight the farewell season of the transatlantic voyages of the Queen Elizabeth 2 (800-7CUNARD or www.Cunard.com), each of the 17 crossings next year will have a cultural or entertainment theme. All will be joined by guest lecturers, performers, and artists.

Some choices: world of photography and filmmaking; dance, dance, dance; London and New York musical theater; science fiction or fact.

Among the festivals that will be held aboard the QE2 next year are a British comedy festival, an arts festival, a jazz festival, and a literary festival.

The Maya, rivers, and a solar eclipse

Mayan culture is in the news, so Royal Olympic Cruises (800-872-6400 or www.RoyalOlympicCruises.com) expects great interest in its two Maya-related cruises this year. Both will sail from Houston, accompanied by archaeologists, historians, and educators specializing in the lost civilization.

Another Royal Olympic ship will steam toward South Africa to follow the next total solar eclipse. Among the experts on board will be Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven US astronauts, and Edwin C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

The cruise line also offers a voyage along the great rivers of South America.

Marine exploration

Participate in dolphin research through Oceanic Society Expeditions (415-441-1106 or www.Oceanic-Society.org). Projects are taking place in the Bahamas and Belize, among other locations in Central and South America. The nonprofit organization also offers natural-history cruises, which it calls "educational journeys of discovery." Searcher Natural History Tours (619-226-2403 or www.bajawhale.com) cruise the Pacific coast and the southern Sea of Cortez during the time that whales, dolphins, and many marine mammals migrate to this region.

History and more

Thanks to History America Tours (800-628-8542 or www.HistoryAmerica.com), Civil War buffs can cruise the Intracostal Waterway from Jacksonville, Fla., to Charleston, S.C. On hand to interpret the culture and history of the region will be James McPherson, author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom." Interhostel (800-733-9753 or www.learn.unh.edu/interhostel) will have experts in history, anthropology, marine science, and geology accompanying its Alaska cruise. Odyssey Learning Adventures (613-549-3561 or www.OdysseyLearningAdventures.ca) cruises the St. Lawrence River and Canada's Georgian Bay (the "sixth Great Lake"). Cultural activities and historical seminars are planned for both.

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