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Is This Cruising's Golden Age?

| February 6, 2004

What an incredible time it is for cruisers. In virtually every way I can think of, the cruise industry continues to improve the vacation experience it offers. From itineraries and dining to activities and on-board amenities, so many things are happening that this has to be a glorious age of cruising. If you add in that prices are still rebounding from the lows of a couple of years ago, 2003 was a great year -- and that's a great omen for 2004.

Let's take a look at some specifics.

Itineraries

They've never been as diverse as they are scheduled to be in 2004. If you start with the increased number of domestic sailings leaving from an unprecedented number of ports all around the states, drive or flight time to the ship has never been shorter or more convenient. Yes, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral are still the three leading departure ports, but the major lines are leaving year-round from New York, New Orleans and others, and seasonally from Baltimore, Seattle and many more coastal cities. As for ports of call, yes, some have been eliminated for safety precautions. But there's virtually no corner of the globe that's not being reached by a ship marketed out of North America. So think out of the box and consider more than just the usual Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries. Or try one of the mid-range sailings for four or five nights from Royal Caribbean or Carnival. They're a terrific hybrid: longer than a weekend three-nighter, so you get more of the cruise experience; and not as long as a full week. These are great for first-timers or quick hits by experienced cruisers.

Dining

Not so long ago, alternative dining was so limited as to be a non-factor outside of the luxury lines. It was in 1990 that Crystal Cruises reinvented this area with two featured restaurants other than the main dining room. Now, the opportunities are extensive. For example, Oceania Regatta, Radisson Seven Seas Voyager and Mariner, and Princess' Coral Princess all have two featured restaurants beyond the main dining room that, while reservations are needed, offer meals from seafood to steak, Italian to Creole and, in the case of the new Radisson ships, menus created in conjunction with the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. And all these ships have casual evening restaurants as well. For the ultimate in a romantic shipboard epicurean adventure, it's the Olympic Dining Room on Celebrity's Millennium. It's not cheap at $25 extra per person but, oh man, is it special. It's a multi-course spectacular, heavy in French overtones, that's perfect for that special evening.

And these ideas don't even take into account the Freestyle Cruising multiple dining options introduced by Norwegian Cruise Line a couple of years ago, or Carnival's very elegant two-story restaurants that have reintroduced the idea of the ocean-going supper club.

The days of two-seatings with assigned tables as the only way to cruise are long gone, and the industry is much better off for it.

New Things to Do

Of course, there's still bingo, art auctions and the other shipboard standbys. But nowadays there's a whole lot more. As part of Princess' Edu-tainment program, you can custom-make ceramic items from scratch (I know, I have the giraffe plate to prove it). They also have terrific computer, photo and craft classes and much more. Meanwhile, shipboard lectures have never been more widespread or innovative. On a Cunard transatlantic crossing earlier this year, passengers could hear from a best-selling author, world explorers and more. And on a crossing such as Queen Mary 2 will be offering this year (replacing QE2 on this classic itinerary), you'll have the opportunity to enjoy these offerings without worrying about such things as port calls. Everyone should do a crossing at least once.

Crystal Cruises' three ships, highlighted by the facilities on the new Crystal Serenity, have gone to great lengths to offer activities such as computer classes and special Yoga, Health and Fitness Cruises. Seabourn will be offering its second annual Food & Wine Festival in the fall. Its first, last October, was a huge artistic success. Even I learned how to whip up a few items and shop properly for fish.

The Ships Themselves

The cruise industry has virtually redefined the cruise product by offering large ships in all categories � luxury, premium and contemporary. But it goes way beyond that. The ships are so much better than ever before -- and even the refurbished ships are getting with it. It used to be that verandas/balconies were the province of the very rich. As recently as 1990, the 50 percent barrier (i.e., the percentage of rooms having private outside space) was reached by Crystal. Now, when you look at the deck plans of Carnival and Princess, there are balconies galore at very affordable prices. Several ships now feature all-suite, all-outside configurations. The rooms on Radisson Seven Seas' Voyager and Mariner are unbelievably large, even in the standard categories, and they all have balconies. Seabourn's ships have always been all-suite, all-outsides, but now a significant portion of all rooms have been refitted with French Door Balconies, which makes them really special.

And forget about the idea that these large ships cannot deliver a quality product. A cruise on one of the latest ships from Celebrity will dispel that notion instantly. Celebrity, long known for its dining and spas, has certainly developed the ability to deliver a very high premium product on ships of 90,000 tons carrying nearly 2,000 guests. Even when the ship is full, you would never know you're traveling with that many other people.

But as these ships have gotten bigger and bigger, some lines offer ships that virtually defy pigeonholing. Silversea's four ships offer unbelievable luxury while carrying 300-400 guests. The quality of dining and service, not to mention the suites, is at the apex of the industry. The smallest ships in the cruise category, the two from Sea Dream Yacht Club, carry only 100 guests each, so they really are like large yachts, as the company claims. These may be the best ships at sea for couples who want a quiet, relaxing luxury cruise. Oceania's Regatta offers a ship that would have been considered large in the old days (30,400 tons), but by today's standards, she's kind of small, making for a wonderful experience for her 684 guests.

Prices

With all the various advance booking discounts, repositioning cruise savings and other kinds of price incentives being offered (e.g., free or discounted air and hotel packages), cruise prices are still at an astonishing level even if you take into account the rapid increase in on-board charges. When you compare what a cruise has to offer compared with what you'd pay for similar quality in a hotel room � where a room is all you get -- it's hard not to take a cruise. Maybe that's why the industry is continuing to expand and more first-timers than ever before will sail in 2004. Makes sense to me.

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