A new generation--almost a new creature--sails upon the world's seas. Like small, ocean-going inns designed for comfort and style, they are hotels that are going places.
Case in point: the Seabourn Pride was christened in San Francisco on Dec. 19, 1988. I boarded her in Venice the other day.
Sleek and slim as a model, she parades from place to place in regal fashion, with 100 suites (don't call them cabins), six super-suites and an ambience of well-being.
The Pride is a new breed of luxury liner, cousins of the great transatlantic luxury liners--the Queens Mary and Elizabeth, the United States, the Ile de France, the Leonardo da Vinci--which lumbered through the 1950s only to be killed off by the jet age.
Ships-as-transportation had seen their day, but like many beasts, they evolved into something new: Leisure cruise ships, as we know them today, were born.
Leisure and luxury are what ships like the Pride are about. You could live in her suites. Of generous size, they include a bedroom and a seating area equipped with such contemporary necessities as radio, TV, VCR, stocked refrigerator-bar, coffee table that converts to dining table, bookcase, comfortable couch and chairs, vanity table-writing desk, built-in converter plug, walk-in closet with self-programmed safe. And the windows are five feet wide.
Bathrooms are spacious by sea-going standards, faced, as they are, in marble with oversize shower or combo tub-shower, twin basins, hair dryers and hotel-like amenities, which are replaced as used.
Shipboard dining: Everybody talks about it, but the Pride has done something new about it. The restaurant is called The Restaurant because it behaves like one. No seating is assigned. Passengers dine where, when and with whom they wish.
The first night, you tend to sup with the one who brought you. As you meet fellow travelers on deck, in the lounge or the fitness center, you make reservations for a table for four, or six, or a party.
The menu sounds a bit like haute California: grilled Verona radicchio with squab breast and Sherry walnut vinaigrette or sauteed fillet of salmon with basil butter sauce . Chef Stefan Hamrin will prepare steak and baked potatoes at the drop of a peppercorn. If you want pasta with every meal, just say, "please."
The best word for the wine list is eye-popping. The prices are half what they'd be in a landlocked spot. Try a 1983 Chateau Prieure Lichine for $15; a 1986 Meursault, Jaboulet Vercherre, $21; a 1985 Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Spatlese for only $9, or a 1984 Jordan (Alexander Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon for $25.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner may be served 24 hours a day from the in-suite menu. One night, weary from sites and sights, we selected prosciutto e melone, followed by hot dogs and ice cream, complemented by a stand-up-to-anything California zinfandel.
During dining hours, passengers can select anything from the evening's menu to be served in the suite, course by course. How about: venison pate en croute with creamed lingonberries, say, to be followed by asparagus bisque, veal scaloppine with artichokes and Sacher torte? Whew!
I particularly enjoyed other aspects of the Pride. Among them: Two outdoor whirlpools on Leif Ericsson deck, where I lazed after dinner at night, watching the Mediterranean stars swim by; a library that stocks books worth reading and videotapes worth watching; the computerized wall map in the Constellation Lounge where, by pushing buttons, you can chart your own cruise or those of Magellan or Capt. James Cook; calm, non-frenetic entertainment, and the absence of intrusive, in-suite announcements.
Ah, yes. One day we anchored in mid-sea, the marina "deck" was lowered and we were invited to swim, water-ski or go boating. The Mediterranean became our swimming pool.
The ports of call were, in general, irresistible: Venice, Ravenna, Corfu (Greece), Valletta (Malta), Catania (Sicily), Sorrento, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Livorno (for Florence), Cagliari (Sardinia) and Nice.
Was nothing wrong on my cruise? Was it all caviar and champagne? As a matter of fact, my roommate remarked that for the first time in her life she had consumed a sufficiency of caviar. And the service was exceptional.
On the down side, there were a few imperfections. The automatic window washers (a wonderful idea) didn't work, and the shore excursions need, in some cases, to be reorganized.
Some of what a friend calls "executive toys"--the underwater as well as the star observatories--didn't function properly or were not suited to the waters in which we floated.
But those complaints, as they say in The Restaurant, were pretty small potatoes.
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The 212-passenger Seabourn Pride (displacing 10,000 tons) cruises the Mediterranean, Europe-Scandinavia and the Americas (Caribbean, Panama Canal, Mexico).
Suite prices average about $600 to $650 per person per day. She is registered in Norway, and features Norwegian officers, European hotel staff and American-European cruise staff. The Pride's sister ship, the Seabourn Spirit, will make her maiden voyage out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean Nov. 28.