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Cruising '89/90

September 10, 1989|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers

Recalling a 1929 voyage he made from Egypt to Malta aboard a P&0 liner, Evelyn Waugh once observed: "I rather wish that I had gone first-class."

Now, 60 years later, passenger ships are almost a thing of the past. The great heyday of liners such as the United States and the Ile de France, the Queen Mary and the Southern Cross are a fond but fading memory.

Sea travel, however, remains very much alive. The difference now is that it is done for pleasure. The passenger liners of yesterday have been replaced by the cruise ships of today.

And their numbers appear to be on the increase. Each season sees new ships docking at the vacation ports of the world, and 1989-90 will be no exception. Then, too, more people than ever are discovering the pleasures of cruising, whether it is just a short trip down the Mexican Riviera, an extended cruise through the Caribbean or Mediterranean or an adventurous voyage to Alaska or the Antarctic.

Choosing which cruise to take can be an enjoyable exercise. Choosing which ship to take requires a little homework so that, unlike Waugh, you later will not be forced to wish you had gone first-class.

As author-lecturer John Maxtone-Graham wrote a few years ago, "There are ships for tourist-class passengers and there are ships for first-class passengers." This is not to imply that some ships are better than others, only different. Planning a cruise, therefore, needs some forethought.

Passengers who want to recapture the sense of first-class travel by sea should look for ships that offer single meal sittings, longer cruises, a variety of itineraries, more spacious public areas, larger staterooms and a crew-to-passenger ratio of at least two-to-one. You can expect to pay higher per-person, per-day prices--$250 and up--on ships that provide these luxuries, such as those of the Royal Viking Line and Cunard's Sagafjord, Vistafjord and the Queen Elizabeth 2.

These days you will find the light-hearted fun and informality that used to characterize tourist-class passenger crossings on, for example, ships of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Lines. You'll find two meal sittings, more self-service buffets, smaller cabins, shorter cruises, a lower ratio of service personnel to passengers, more sunbathers and more late-night activity. Prices are a bit lower, ranging from $150 to $250 per person a day.

At the very top of the line, above even the first-class ships, are the small, deluxe vessels of Seabourn and Sea Goddess that make you feel as if you're aboard a private yacht with a select group of guests. You can expect suites in lieu of cabins, restaurant-style food and service, and the freedom to dine where, when and with whom you wish rather than at an assigned table.

All tips are included and, on the Sea Goddess ships, bar drinks and wines are, too. Fellow passengers are generally younger than those aboard the larger first-class vessels. Not surprisingly, the costs for such cruises run from $300 to $600 a day.

Be wary of cruise lines that purport to be all things to all people. Specialization has come to the cruise industry. Some companies--for example, Royal Cruise Line--concentrate on keeping their over-50 clientele happy by having male hosts on board to dance with single women; health-conscious, low-fat, low-cholesterol dishes as a menu alternative at all meals and a New Beginnings program that counsels middle-aged couples, as well as the recently divorced or widowed, on fitness, life-style options and mental and physical health.

Aiming at a different but equally specific market--families with children--Premier Cruise Lines began in 1984 with one ship and year-round, seven-day family packages that combined a cruise to the Bahamas from Port Canaveral, Fla., with a stay at Disney World. The price was right and the package included hotel room, rental car and unlimited admission to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Now Premier has three ships, one offering alternative Bahamas destinations in the Abaco Islands, and all providing the Disney World package.

Other companies are following suit. Royal Caribbean, for example, will add optional Orlando/Disney World pre- and post-cruise packages starting Jan. 3, while Carnival has announced plans to position its Carnivale in Port Canaveral for three- and four-day Bahamas cruises, with Disney World packages and air fare included, beginning Feb. 11.

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The parade of new ships that began about five years ago shows no sign of decreasing. Between now and the end of 1990, more than a dozen new vessels will come into service, while several others undergo major renovation.

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