Once the epitome of elegant travel, cruising nearly vanished with the dawning of the jet age in the 1960's. But just as martinis and cigars are making a comeback, so too is cruising— albeit with a more youthful, adventurous spirit. In the course of a day you might find yourself venturing up the Amazon by Zodiac, soaking in a thalassotherapy pool in the ship's spa, and dining on ahi tuna seared by a world-class chef. Here are the most exciting trends, and our picks for the cruise lines that do them best.
SERVICE AT SEA
On ultra-luxury ships, cruise staff will go to almost any length to pamper passengers.
Seabourn Cruise Line, for example, prepares suites for its guests by collecting their requests before they sail. That has entailed stocking Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink for a guest in Scandinavia and hand-delivering an orthopedic pillow to a guest docked in Singapore.
When Radisson Seven Seas' Song of Flower guests journeyed to India to see the Taj Mahal, they were greeted at the 19th-century palace where they stayed by men on horseback, clad in turbans and silk tunics. Young women on elephants tossed rose petals over the guests as they approached the entrance. Inside, they dined on tandoori lamb and rice flecked with flakes of real silver.
On Crystal Cruises' penthouse decks, guests are assigned a European-trained butler, who will pack and unpack their luggage, give a last-minute pressing to an evening dress, or coordinate an intimate dinner on their private penthouse veranda.
- Consult a travel agent who is accredited by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)— meaning that they have completed a cruise training program and have sailed on or visited many ships. To find one in your area, visit CLIA's Web site.
- Most lines offer early-booking discounts, ranging from 5 to 40 percent, if you book at least 90 days before the sailing.
- Ask your prospective cruise line whether they'll reduce your fare if they lower rates after you book. Many lines will.
- When you buy a fly/cruise package, sometimes cruise lines book you on inconvenient airline routings or are unable to make advance seat assignments. Ask your travel agent whether the line has a deviation desk, which can customize your airline arrangements for a moderate surcharge.
- If you're sailing with children, inquire about the availability of counselors. Some ships' programs are in full swing only during peak family vacation seasons.
- To prevent seasickness, avoid heavy foods and alcohol a few days before departure. You can also ask your physician to prescribe a Reliefband, a new product thought to control nausea by modulating nerve activity through a mild electric charge.
BRAVE NEW PORTS OF CALL
Cruise lines are reaching new latitudes and longitudes, going where few big ships have dared to go.
Costa Rica When the Wind Song first skims Costa Rica's Gold Coast in December, Windstar (800/258-7245) will be the only major line with weekly cruises here. Onshore, slip into a harness attached to a pulley and cable and go "zip-lining" among the treetops to get a sloth's-eye view of the rain forest. Or venture into Rincón de la Vieja National Park and give yourself a facial mask using mud from the Miravalles Volcanic Area.
Croatia After several war-torn years, the picturesque walled town of Dubrovnik is back on Seabourn Cruise Line's schedule (800/929-9595). Sail into the medieval city's harbor and spend the day roaming Dubrovnik's main thoroughfare, the Placa, one of the world's most beautiful streets.
Namibia and South Africa As the sun sets on the dunes of the Namibian desert, chefs grill fresh seafood over open flames for Silversea passengers (800/722-9955). After dinner, the polyrhythms of African music fill this natural amphitheater. The journey continues down the Skeleton Coast, which teems with wildlife, and on to South Africa.
South America Crystal Cruises (800/437-3111) makes its first expedition here this month, departing from Valparaiso, Chile, and stopping in Ecuador and Peru. Hike the Andes with an archaeologist on the two-night trek to Machu Picchu.
Tahiti Radisson Seven Seas' newest vessel, the Paul Gauguin, may well be the most luxurious ship plying the waters of French Polynesia when it sets sail in January (800/333-3333). Designed to capitalize on Tahiti's natural splendor, the vessel has private verandas off half its cabins— the better to experience the brilliantly clear lagoons, dramatic volcanic vistas, and lush foliage. A variety of experts on French Polynesia will be on board to enrich the seven-night journey from Papeete to Rangiroa (in the remote Tuamotu Archipelago), Raiatea, Bora-Bora, and Moorea.
United Arab Emirates Cunard's Sea Goddess II will take you from the oil-rich deserts of Muscat to Kuwait City, beginning next October (800/528-6273). In Oman, explore mosques, palaces, and spice markets.
THE FLOATING GOURMET
Say good-bye to baked Alaska and beef Wellington. These cruise lines have moved on to West Indian lamb curry and salmon in green peppercorn sauce.
Crystal Cruises 800/446-6620. Some of the world's preeminent chefs whip up special dinners and share recipes at cooking demonstrations on select sailings. Sommeliers assist in wine selection from the most extensive cellar at sea.
In addition to its elegant main dining rooms, the Crystal Harmony has a Japanese restaurant that dishes out tempura and fresh salmon with shiitake mushrooms, and an Italian restaurant that serves specialties from seven different regions.
Seabourn Cruise Line 800/929-9595. From seared sea scallops on a bed of spinach and potatoes with saffron sauce to pheasant breast with lingonberry cakes and champagne cabbage, this line specializes in adventurous updates on classic dishes, with an emphasis on local, seasonal fare. They'll even deliver dinner to your suite, course by course, with white-glove service.
Silversea 800/722-9955. Master chefs from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy join Silversea's expert chefs and sommeliers on six 1998 sailings to host cooking presentations and wine tastings. Chefs design special menus adapting classical techniques to the cuisine of the port the ship is calling at, be it in Bombay, Haifa, the Maldives, or Phuket. Silversea also has the dangerous distinction of offering unlimited champagne and caviar.
Next year's shore excursions are more intriguing than ever.
Cunard 800/528-6273. In 1998, Sea Goddess II adds two Southeast Asia day trips. In Indonesia's Spice Islands, guests tour museums and forts, dine on the veranda of a villa, then wander the grounds of a 300-year-old nutmeg plantation. On the ship's junket from Singapore to Phuket, they board longboats to Dusit Rayawadee, one of Thailand's nicest resorts, to snorkel, swim, and lunch in a beachside cave.
Marine Expeditions 800/628-8747. This line vows to make the ends of the earth affordable and accessible. Voyage to Russia's Kuril Islands, where few outsiders have set foot. Hike active volcanoes and hot springs and meet villagers in the Pacific's "ring of fire." Or take a Zodiac excursion down the tributaries of the Amazon.
Royal Caribbean International 800/327-6700. Sample some of the best golf courses in the Pacific Rim on RCI's new golf trip to Hawaii. Back on board, golfers can practice their swings on the ships' 18-hole miniature courses, complete with traps and water hazards.
Special Expeditions 800/762-0003. You might find yourself stepping over sea lions and iguanas, albatrosses and red-footed boobies, as you explore Ecuador's Galá pagos Islands, led by experts on the area's wildlife and ecology. On Special Expeditions' summer journey to Sweden, founder Sven-Olof Lindblad employs locals to give insider tours of villages in the Stockholm Archipelago.
Zegrahm Expeditions 800/628-8747. Zegrahm prides itself on guides who are leaders in their fields: your trip might be accompanied by the world's foremost authority on seabirds or the first woman to ski the more than 800 miles from Patriot Hills to the South Pole. Examine Aboriginal cave paintings with an archaeologist in the Kimberley, the remote northwest region of Australia; or explore the far reaches of the Antarctic by Zodiac.