Ocean cruises -- where luxury has meant more business than ever

Pleasure cruises are nothing new -- the late naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison claimed in "The European Discovery of America" that the first one actually occurred in 1536. But the art of embarking on floating pleasure palaces seems to have reached its zenith in the current decade.

Mark Twain wrote "Innocents Abroad" after a pleasure cruise to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 and described it as a "picnic on a grand scale." Today's cruise passenger is no "innocent," but rather a sophisticated and demanding traveler who expects lap pools; a full health spa, 24-hour room service, Las Vegas-style entertainment, and beds as big as 19th-century cabins.

In the late 1970s, there were burely 1 million North American cruise passengers annually, and the fleet was so full that ship-line executives were jumping with joy. Today, there are about 1.5 million or more passengers each year, but enough berths available to satisfy twice that amount. These same ship lines that turned down your request if it was not booked months in advance are now begging for your business. The reason: New vessels that were ordered during the boom era have just been delivered. The good news is that today's passengers are not only embarking on more exciting vessels than existed before, but they are also, because of increased competition, getting more value for that travel dollar.

One misconception about cruises that may prevent many from trying their sea legs is wardrobe. The days of transatlantic travel are not exactly gone forever , but they've been modified to suit today's life style. A cruise vessel is simply a floating resort -- whether you are aboard for a weekend or a few weeks. Whatever you wear on other vacations is just fine at sea. Days are casual -- slacks, bathing suits, coveralls, and comfortable shoes. Depending upon the ship you choose, evenings range from sports clothes to black tie. Certainly, it is more appropriate on the higher-priced and deluxe vessels to "dress" in the evening. This would include first class on the Queen Elizabeth 2 or Sagafjord, the Royal Viking Line fleet, Princess Cruises, the new World Discoverer, and some others. But dress is a personal thing, and ladies who prefer long skirts for dinner may wear them anywhere. There is absolutely no need, however, to invest in a new wardrobe just to take a cruise. This is your vacation, and you should feel comfortable at all times!

What has been happening in the past year in the world of cruises? Everything!After all, it is the fastest-growing segment of the entire travel industry. The ship lines themselves refer to this expansion as the "cruise revolution." I prefer to say that it is a "revelation," as more and more Americans discover the excitement and rewards of being at sea.

There are many new ships, and they boast the latest technology one can imagine. Holland America Line, one of the oldest in the world, inaugurated two sister ships in the past year. They are simply beautiful. The Nieuw Amsterdam arrived in July 1983, and the Noordam was presented this past April. Both carry 1,200 passengers, with Dutch officers and an all-Indonesian crew, for one-week cruises in the Caribbean from Tampa, Fla., or to the Mexican Riviera from San Francisco all winter. Both ships have well-appointed public areas encompassing an entire theme: The Nieuw Amsterdam reflects the role of the Dutch in the New World; the Noordam concentrates on the history of the Dutch East India Company and its trading posts in the Far East. A team of designers from Amsterdam covered the world for two years to collect the several million dollars' worth of artifacts that adorn the interiors.

After much fanfare, Sitmar Cruises christened its new 1,212-passenger vessel in Los Angeles Harbor -- with Mrs. Peter Ueberroth (wife of the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and owner of Ask Mr. Foster travel agencies) doing the honors. At 46,000-tons, the Fairsky is reputed to be the largest ship built exclusively for cruises. The interior design was handled by four international firms, and there is an emphasis on comfort throughout. Unfortunately, there is nothing terribly new or exciting about the Fairsky itinerary, which features 12-day Alaska cruises all summer and varied Mexican Riviera sailings all winter.

Just 1,000 tons less, but at $200 million the most expensive cruise ship ever constructed, the 1,200-passenger Royal Princess is being touted as "state of the art" for its all-outside accommodations, featuring large picture windows, full bathrooms (tub and shower), refrigerators, color TVs, and other amenities. Suites, deluxe cabins, and even some standard cabins have private balconies overlooking the sea. And what a view -- because all accommodations are placed high on the superstructure, with public rooms below. The Royal Princess will be christened in mid-November in Southampton by none other than the Princess of Wales. The ship will then sail leisurely across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal for her home port of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, some local cruise companies have been busy with new ventures. American Canadian Line of Warren, R.I., has added the 80-passenger Caribbean Prince for 12-day cruises around Jamaica all winter and among the spectacular islands of Georgian Bay all summer. American Cruise Lines of Haddam, Conn., has added a fourth vessel, the 132-passenger Savannah for coastline cruising from Baltimore to Savannah, Ga., during the winter and to the New England islands all summer. Still awaiting the arrival of its new 110-passenger steamer-class vessel is Coastwise Cruise Lines of Hyannis, Mass. The Pilgrim Belle, built in Mobile, Ala., is meant to evoke coastwise steamer travel of yesteryear. This all-American vessel will take passengers along the Intracoastal Waterway beginning in November, then move to Hyannis for weekly cruises next summer.

Another new company, with two superelegant, 120-passenger, yachtlike vessels, is Sea Goddess Cruises of Miami. The Sea Goddess I arrived in the Mediterranean on schedule in April and supposedly already caught the attention of the "beautiful people." Beginning in October, this vessel will sail year-round from St. Croix every week, making room for the arrival of the Sea Goddess II in the Mediterranean next May. Of all the cruise ships mentioned above, these are the most expensive -- a staggering tab of $4,000 per person per week, no matter which cabin you are assigned (everyone pays the same). Is such indulgence necessary? Time will undoubtedly tell, especially after the beautiful people get bored.

There are also some interesting new itineraries this season, with so many of the smaller ships offering in-depth cruises along the beautiful American coastline as well as in specific areas of the Caribbean. You can get to know the Bahamas like the back of your hand, spend an entire week circling the island of Jamaica (with American Canadian Lines on the Caribbean Prince), or discover the differences between the US and British version of the Virgin Islands (aboard the Newport Clipper or the Nantucket Clipper, from Clipper Cruise Lines of St. Louis). It's all there for you to enjoy by cruise ship.

There are also plenty of newcomers to itineraries pioneered by others. Following along in the wake of Sun Line, the Ocean Princess offers a partial transit of the Panama Canal, while the Ocean Islander sails up Venezuela's Orinoco River to Ciudad Guyana (with an optional $120 air excursion to Angel Falls and Canaima). Sailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, this winter for the first time, Epirotiki Line's Jason is making 12-day cruises along the Amazon River as far as Manaus, Brazil. Cunard/NACs Vistafjord is offering two 14-day cruises between Port Everglades and Rio de Janeiro: passengers fly one-way, allowing extra time in Brazil.

The African continent is also active with cruise offerings this winter. Epirotiki Line's 180-passenger Neptune sails on three- and four-day Red Sea cruises between Suez and Aqaba, Egypt, from late December through March. The Lindblad Polaris is inaugurating West African cruises from Dakar, and Salen Lindblad has an 18-day Red Sea/Sinai program aboard the chartered Illiria. Now homeported in South Africa is Safmarine's Astor, which cruises along the beautiful coastline between Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban, as well as some of the offshore islands.

As usual, there is just too much from which to choose in the cruise industry and something for everyone under the sun!

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