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CRUISING: Changing Times

September 13, 1987|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

Even the late Noel Coward, the most urbane, unflappable cruise passenger one can imagine, spokesman for a whole generation of elegant and sophisticated travelers, might have been rendered speechless at what's afloat these days.

On the decks he frequented there would have been no earphone-wearing joggers or aerobics classes, just stately promenaders (the kind who nod only after being properly introduced) or dozing readers wrapped in steamer blankets. Certainly nobody ever requested a nonsmoking table or a low-calorie lunch.

He would definitely have raised an eyebrow at dress codes allowing gentlemen not only to appear at dinner without black tie but without any tie or jacket at all, and he could hardly have imagined shipboard couples stealing away after dinner to screen a video in the cabin instead of dancing cheek to cheek.

But most likely, after humming a chorus of "Why Do the Wrong People Travel, Travel, Travel," he'd admit that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and settle in with delight to sail away toward the 1990s.

Today's new ships are set on delivering the same kind of luxury to all passengers that the great liners of the past could offer only in first-class, if then.

Cabins are expanding to the size of suites, with king-size beds and windows instead of berths and portholes, color TV sets and VCRs, combination safes and minibar refrigerators. Bathrooms are lavishly furnished with terry-cloth robes, built-in hair dryers and designer toiletries.

Lobbies are airy, multilevel spaces that rival hotel atriums, and the modest little shipboard shop has grown into a seagoing duty-free mall.

By blending contemporary comforts with the return of natural materials from marble to wood and introducing fresh concepts such as Windstar's plush, computer-age sailing ships, cruise companies are creating a new romance for today rather than sounding the fading echoes of yesterday.

And it's a fine romance, with the new ships under construction calculated to please today's livelier, younger passengers, many of whom are setting sail for the first time.

"Cruise passengers want to do things at their own pace, when they want to do it," says Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Rich Steck, "and they're tired of the same old entertainment."

So the line's gigantic new Sovereign of the Seas, due in Miami in early January, will offer seven entertaining options after dinner every evening--musical revue, cabaret show, casino, dance band, disco and two feature films.

Dinner Choices

"Not everyone wants to dress for dinner every night," Norwegian Caribbean Lines president Rod McLeod says. Norwegian's 1,534-passenger Seaward, due in June, will offer flexible dinner choices from casual deck buffets to traditional dining rooms to white-glove service in a supper- club atmosphere.

While everything but shorts and T-shirts is acceptable at dinner in The Restaurant, "casual elegance" is the requested evening dress aboard Windstar Sail Cruises, which will introduce its third state-of-the-art motor and sailing ship Wind Spirit next March in the Mediterranean.

Wind Star in the Caribbean and Wind Song in French Polynesia, both less than a year old, are attracting an extremely high percentage of first-time cruisers with their unstructured informality and active water sports program.

"People love to shop," says Royal Cruise Line's Mimi Weisband. "For many, it's another form of entertainment. Ships can sell things duty free and offer terrific prices."

Royal's elegant new 1,000-passenger Crown Odyssey, due to make its inaugural sailing from England next June 21, will not only include an expanded boutique as well as an eight-tiered lounge for "better visibility," another passenger request, but 600-square-foot apartments with terraces, marble bathrooms and whirlpool tubs, as well as staterooms with glass bay windows.

Royal has also ordered a sister ship to the Crown Odyssey for 1989 delivery, and sold its 800-passenger Royal Odyssey to Regency Cruises, which will take delivery in November, 1988, at the conclusion of the ship's Mediterranean season.

At least one new line, Miami-based Sea Venture Cruises, has designed its first ship around the conclusions from a detailed 10-page questionnaire filled out by frequent cruise passengers. Among other things, they found sophisticated cruisers want larger closets, built-in hair dryers and magnifying mirrors in the bathrooms.

Alaska for Summer

The 360-passenger Sea Venture, due in Vancouver in early June for a summer season in Alaska, will also provide all-outside suite-like cabins, more than half of them with private terraces, for an average per diem of around $350 per person, double occupancy, according to sales director Douglas Hamilton.

"Our new ship is a big ship," says Royal Viking Line president Joe Watters, "but we want it to be an intimate ship, so we have planned a lot of nooks and crannies."

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