You Take the Big Boat, I'll Take the Small One

Cruise lines offer an array of choices from luxury 'mega' ships to specialized tours in smaller vessels

When Princess Cruises' Grand Princess sets sail next spring, it will be the largest passenger vessel ever built.

It will be taller than Niagara Falls, longer than three football fields, and too wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal. With a capacity of 2,600 passengers, it will have three theaters, six dining rooms, five swimming pools, a disco accessed by means of a glass-enclosed "sky-walk," and a wedding chapel.

According to figures released at Seatrade, a cruise-shipping convention in Miami last March, it is part of a $10 billion investment the cruise industry is making in the construction of more than 20 new vessels between now and the year 2000.

This wave of new construction is just one of the current trends that is luring even confirmed landlubbers to sea in ever-increasing numbers. "Our research indicates that cruising has grown, on average, 7.6 percent a year since 1970," says James Godsman, president of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a New York-based industry marketing organization. "By the year 2000, we predict that as many as 7 million passengers will cruise each year."

To entice travelers away from land-based vacations, cruise lines are beefing up food service, jazzing up fitness programs, and broadening itineraries. Many lines have programs for families, and some are bucking the megaship trend by offering specialized cruises aboard small vessels. Today, cruise passengers have more choices than ever, and often at very affordable prices.

For new construction, most of the ships will be large. In November, Celebrity Cruises will introduce the 1,750-passenger Mercury, and in 1998, Carnival Cruises will debut the Elation and Paradise, two 2,040-passenger ships. In 1999, Royal Caribbean International will launch the first of two ships, each of which will carry some 3,100 passengers.

And these megaships will be lavish, featuring world-class art collections and multideck atriums. The Mercury will be a floating gallery of contemporary art, and Holland America Line's new Rotterdam VI, to begin sailing later this year, will feature museum-quality antiques and specially commissioned art works.

"Cruising already provides good value," says Richard Kaplan, president of CruiseMasters, a cruise-oriented travel agency in Culver City, Calif. "You pay one price that includes accommodations, meals, activities, and entertainment. With the increased capacity of the new ships, cruising will continue to be the best bargain in travel."

In a recent study conducted by CLIA, 50 percent of those surveyed spent less than $1,000 per person on their most recent cruise. Fares for the newer, larger vessels are generally no higher - and are frequently lower - than fares on older, smaller ships.

"There are some economies of scale," explains Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships. "But while big ships may be good for first-time cruisers, I believe that repeat passengers, after doing a couple of cruises, will want to downsize to something smaller and more exclusive." This feeling is shared by Wendy Morris, who works at Boston's Children's Museum and sailed on the Carnival Destiny last year. "The design was very innovative," she recalls. "But it felt more like a giant shopping mall than a ship."

One thing the big ships can offer is variety. Princess Cruises' Sun Princess, for instance, has two main show lounges and a casual restaurant open 24 hours.

"It's great to be able to have something to eat any time of the day or night," says Bonnie Buchanan, a Bend, Ore., marketing executive who sailed the ship in the Caribbean in 1995. "And with all the different lounges and theaters, we could do whatever we wanted when we wanted to."

Cruise-ship food which has traditionally been longer on quantity than quality, is also changing. Celebrity Cruises, recently purchased by Royal Caribbean, has been a leader in a trend to improved dining. The line's consulting chef, Michel Roux, of the famed Waterside Inn near London, plans menus and visits each ship regularly. Similarly, Joachim Splichal, owner and chef of Los Angeles' Patina restaurant, is consulting chef for Windstar Cruises.

And menus tend to be lighter and healthier than in the past with vegetarian options. Cruisers have plenty of opportunity to work off the calories. Ships offer fully equipped gyms and huge spas. In another trend, Carnival has announced that the Paradise will be a nonsmoking ship, and Renaissance Cruises has announced a similar policy for its new ships.

The emphasis on health and fitness is part of the industry's effort to attract younger passengers. According to CLIA, the fastest growing segment of the cruise population is the 25-to-39 age group, and lines continually try to counter the outdated image of the sedentary cruiser. While many lines still offer big band music, most also feature rock bands and dance clubs.

In an effort to draw young families, many lines offer children's programs that might include scavenger hunts, computer games, and talent shows. Disney Cruise Line is introducing the 1,800-passenger Disney Magic next March. A three- or four-day vacation at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., will be paired with a three- or four-day cruise out of Port Canaveral to the Bahamas.

While the Caribbean remains the busiest cruise destination year-round, and Alaska is still a draw in the summer, lines are looking farther afield. Cruises to Europe have become so popular they're often sold out far in advance. Business is so good that the Grand Princess is scheduled to debut in the Mediterranean rather than in the more traditional Caribbean. South America promises to be one of the hot new destinations; several lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line and Crystal Cruises are sailing there in 1998. And Princess, Crystal, and Royal Caribbean, among others, offer cruises to Asia and the South Pacific.

Next spring, the new Paul Gauguin, will begin cruises of French Polynesia out of Tahiti. Operated by Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, the 320-passenger vessel represents another segment of the industry - small, luxury ships that carry 100 to 400 passengers and offer exceptional food and service.

Silversea, Cunard Sea Goddess, Seabourn, and Windstar all offer similar experiences. But, whatever the ship, cruising ranks high in customer satisfaction, according to Mr. Godsman. "In a recent market profile study, 75 percent of cruisers interviewed said that cruising exceeded their expectations," he says. "And 84 percent said they would cruise again." Perhaps on Royal Caribbean's first Eagle-class ship, scheduled to debut in 1999. It's rumored to have an ice- skating rink.

Keep In Mind

* Use the services of a cruise-experienced travel agent to steer you to the right ship.

* Except on sold-out cruises, most agencies can get you a discounted rate.

* Find out what may not be included in rates: tipping, shore excursions, sports equipment rental, beverages, port charges.

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