Ice-skating or rock-climbing, anyone?

Scale a rock-climbing wall. Ice-skate with a friend. Shop in a glittery indoor mall.

They're all things you might do on a typical vacation. But you probably never imagined you could do them all on a cruise ship.

When Royal Caribbean International's Voyager of the Seas sets sail this November, it will offer all these activities. It will also be the largest passenger vessel ever built, at 142,000 gross registered tons (GRT). It will carry some 3,840 passengers on week-long cruises of the Caribbean.

Voyager is part of an unprecedented boom in marine construction. More than 50 new cruise ships, costing more than $14 billion, are scheduled to set sail during the next four years. For prospective travelers, those numbers portend better facilities, more choices, and greater value than ever.

"There's an incredible capacity increase under way," reports Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, a newsletter geared to travel agents. "It started last July with the launch of Carnival Cruise Lines's Carnival Triumph."

The Triumph, which carries 3,500 people, is comparable in size to the Carnival Destiny, which began sailing three years ago. The two ships have proven so successful, according to company president Bob Dickinson, that the line has ordered three similar vessels, as well as two slightly smaller ships.

By 2004, Princess Cruises will have launched seven new ships, all between 88,000 and 110,000 GRT; Royal Caribbean has ordered two more even-larger ships. And American Classic Voyages Co. has announced the building of two 72,000-GRT ships to cruise the Hawaiian Islands.

"With the coming of the new ships, the biggest trend is the pricing we might see in the next six months," Mr. Driscoll adds. New York-based Cruise Lines International Association estimates that the average price for a cruise is $180 to $250 per person per day, typically including meals, activities, and entertainment. "The lines are not going to let these cabins go empty."

These anticipated and recently launched vessels offer an ever-expanding range of amenities.

"Today's new ships have raised the bar," says Wendy Determan, executive editor of Leisure Travel News, an industry publication. "The shipboard experience is of increasingly higher quality. Today, it's tough to have a bad experience on a cruise ship."

On Princess Cruises's Grand Princess, which debuted last year, for instance, passengers can ride a moving walkway to reach a space-age-style dance club 150 feet above the ocean. The saunas in the Carnival Destiny's two-story fitness center have windows looking out to sea, and Holland America Line's Volendam, scheduled to set sail in November, will display a museum-quality collection of nautical antiques and contemporary art.

"I love the variety on these new ships," says Chris Bailey, a Bedford, England, travel agent who was aboard the Grand Princess's inaugural voyage in the Mediterranean. "You can do so many different things. There's never a dull moment."

But to Ken Wong, a retired businessman from Vancouver, the ship was "too big, with too many people." Lovers of small ships needn't despair. In September, Radisson Seven Seas launched the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator, and next year the Delta Queen Steamboat Company will inaugurate the Columbia Queen, a 161-passenger riverboat that will ply the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

"Small ships are a niche market that will remain," Ms. Determan says. "But most of the growth is in large ships. And today there's less delineation between what's offered on small and large ships. Food and service have improved across the board; even lines not traditionally known for fine dining have vastly improved the quality of their food."

Some of the new features:

*Verandas. Most new ships have a high percentage of cabins that include them. "You can't build a ship today without balconies," says Mark Conroy, president of Radisson Seven Seas. "People love to be able to sit on their own private veranda and watch the passing scene." All the cabins on the Seven Seas Navigator's cabins have verandas. Nearly 50 percent of Voyager's cabins will have them.

*Alternative dining rooms. They are increasingly popular and require no extra charge. On any of Carnival's ships, you can opt for dinner in the casual restaurant instead of the dining room, and all of Princess's new ships have 24-hour eateries. "It was wonderful to be able to get something to eat any hour of the day or night," says Bonnie Buchanan, an executive from Oregon who has sailed on the Sun Princess. "You never had to worry about coming back late from a shore excursion and missing afternoon tea."

*Nonsmoking rooms. Most of today's ships have non-smoking areas in dining rooms and lounges, and Renaissance Cruises has a smoke-free ship. On the Paradise, part of Carnival Cruise Lines, even the crew members are forbidden to smoke, and any passenger caught lighting up must disembark at the next port and receives a $250 fine.

*Electronic access. The Norwegian Sky, which debuted in August, has an Internet caf where passengers can e-mail from the ship. On a trial basis, Holland America offered free e-mail access on the Rotterdam's world cruise this year, and since 1997 Crystal Cruises has offered e-mail as part of its Computer University @ Sea.

Today's ships are expanding boundaries in other ways as well. "In the past, lines would send only their older vessels to exotic ports such as the Far East or the South Pacific," Determan says. "Now they're sending gorgeous new ships farther afield. So people can visit these places in great comfort. The cruise industry is breaking open doors to destinations such as Vietnam. People will go places by ship they might not venture to in another way. You may see more Americans traveling abroad as a result."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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