The recently launched Mercury aims for a new horizon in cruising.


Question: What do Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, and John Waters have to do with cruise ships?

Answer: Absolutely nothing. Until now, that is—works by these artists and many more have found a home aboard the new M.V. Mercury, where art and design befriend shuffleboard and baked alaska.

Back in the good old days, a Broadway revue and a few sexy ports of call were enough to satisfy most cruise passengers. Now the industry is in a mad race to produce the biggest ship, the most extravagant spa, the jauntiest onboard activity. There's even a condo ship called the World of ResidenSea set to launch, with floating apartments going for more than $1 million a pop.

The Mercury enters the regatta in the category marked style. Celebrity Cruises enlisted a cadre of prestigious architects to give the ship an identity that recalls the glamorous era of cruising, and a curator splashed on several galleries' worth of SoHo art for a modern effect. And while there are still the requisite mixology contests ("My Bahama Mama is more potent than your rum swizzle") and midnight buffets (a rabbit carved out of a cantaloupe, anyone?), the Mercury succeeds in waters where no ship has previously dared to swim. Other ships have dabbled in the art world, but there's never been an S.S. Guggenheim.

At every turn, the Mercury tickles your senses. After ordering a wide-brimmed Cosmopolitan at the sleek Martini Bar, you amble across a blue carpet patterned with silver and white bubbles. A rainbow of bright colors undulates over a two-story wall in front of you, courtesy of artist Sol LeWitt, who designed the work specifically for the space. On either side of the room are even more bubbles, this time sandblasted onto glowing glass panels. The effect is effervescent and dizzying. Hold onto your Cosmo, you're about to emerge into a sprawling dining room that's a modern version of Titanic luxury. Instead of rococo balustrades and baroque statues, this space has angular steel railings, gently curved steel and wood beams, riveted cherry walls. During the day, the 18-foot aft window onto the water looks like a movie screen with a blue seascape projected on it. At night a black-and-white photo of Manhattan's Flatiron Building drops in front of it, and at once you're transported to New York on a great ocean liner, whether you're sailing the Caribbean in winter or Alaska in summer.

"We wanted people to really feel the experience of being on a ship, not in Paris or at a mall or a Ramada Inn," says Lee Mindel, whose architectural firm, Shelton, Mindel & Associates, devised many of the ship's public areas. No wonder the dining room comes off as a retro snapshot: one of the firm's inspirations was El Morocco, the glam Manhattan nightclub populated by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and that swingin' showbiz crowd.

For its menu, Mercury turned to Michel Roux, whose Waterside Inn near London is a gastronomic mecca. Like the dining room itself, the meals are subtle but pack dramatic overtones. One night's picks include roasted-tomato bisque with cognac and cream, and grilled sea scallops and shrimp over jasmine rice. "I chose food that looks good but isn't precious," says Roux. "It's what I would eat every day."

The pool areas and the Palm Springs Café were designed by Keith Hobbs, of Dublin's Clarence hotel and London's Modernist temple, the Metropolitan hotel. Hobbs went for visual tricks in the café (a seemingly endless row of windows) and an abundance of turquoise tile and brushed aluminum in the Sky Bar, above the main pool.

New York-based Birch Coffey Design Associates took their cues from Milan's Cova Patisserie when they created Tastings, the wine, coffee, and pastry bar. Here, the grand café has been given a modern ship update; background music is generated by a compact-disc player piano next to the more traditional brass-and-wood bar. Birch Coffey also styled the Royal and Penthouse suites, where a personal butler will unpack your luggage, shine your shoes, even sew on a button. The suites have a masculine air, with hardwood floors, dark velvet 1930's-style couches, and original art.

Of course, the collection is the ship's coup. Working with New York's Marlborough Galleries, Christina Chandris has filled the Mercury with current works from the well loved (Robert Rauschenberg) to the oft reviled (Damien Hirst). The Mercury is the third in a series of art ships that Chandris has curated for Celebrity. "These names—Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein—get batted around all the time," she says. "I wanted to introduce their art to the public in a way that's more personal than being in a museum."

What a jolt it is to round a corner in the spa and stumble across Helmut Newton's black-and-white photos of a nude on a terrace in Monte Carlo. Or to settle into a leather chair in the Navigator Club and notice that Lawrence Weiner has painted the words wood thrust into brine on the sloping, silver-leaf ceiling. Or to emerge from the casino and confront Gilbert & George's loud panels of an upside-down skate-punk kid, his red-and-black sneakers practically kicking you in the stomach.

BUT HERE'S THE QUESTION: ARE THE PASSENGERS attuned to the multimillion-dollar effort surrounding them?Hungry hordes line up at the buffet, eager to feast on sole and prime rib. Many of them lean against Allan McCollum's Collection of Thirty Drawings, framed abstracts on the wall in the Palm Springs Café. In the Card Room, a group of T-shirted cruisers are engaged in a hand of bridge, barely aware that next to them is Tony Cragg's Envelope, a huge bronze biomorphic sculpture. "What art?" says 74-year-old Sally Ackerman, from Miami. "I'm here because the price was right and I've always wanted to go to Cozumel."

There are more appreciative passengers, however. Take Charles and Jeremy Copley, teenagers from Crystal Lake, Illinois, who have come aboard with their parents. As the ship sets sail from Key West, the brothers wander the decks in baggy raver outfits, checking out the collection. Naturally, their favorite piece is the Gilbert & George skate punk. Says Charles: "I think the art is cool."

Rates on the Mercury start at $1,555 per person, double, for a seven-night cruise. Through April 26, the ship sails the Caribbean, from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman. Summer cruises sail from Vancouver to Alaska. Call 800/437-3111.