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CRUISE VIEWS

A Renaissance in Travel Convenience From Los Angeles to the Caribbean

February 02, 1992|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH

For many Californians, the lure of a Caribbean cruise is offset by the ordeal of getting there, especially for those cruises that set out from an island port, requiring a long flight to Miami or San Juan, Puerto Rico, and one or more change of planes before arriving.

But now there's an appealing alternative that will be available through April 5--a nine-day package that includes a seven-day cruise aboard the 100-passenger Renaissance III, two nights at the St. James Club in Antigua, and a round-trip, nonstop flight in first-class from Los Angeles to Antigua aboard MGM Grand Air.

The package cost begins at $2,990 per person, double occupancy, which works out to $332 a day, about what you'd expect to pay for the suite-like cabins without air fare included.

Passengers booking before March 1 will also receive a certificate good for one free ticket for a companion traveling with a full-fare ticket holder on MGM Grand's scheduled service between Los Angeles and New York, with travel any time before Sept. 15.

Who is Renaissance Cruises and why are they offering this package?

The 2-year-old line, which will have eight small ships in operation when the Renaissance VIII is delivered in late May, went through some tough times in 1991. Its parent company, the Norwegian shipping firm of Fearnley & Eger, declared bankruptcy in May, and while Renaissance itself never filed for bankruptcy protection, two of its vessels were arrested briefly last spring under maritime liens in Antigua and the Mediterranean.

Some cruises were canceled, others consolidated, and reports filtering back from passengers spoke of uneven service and poor food quality during the interim period.

In August, the cruise line was purchased by a partnership between an Italian shipping company, the Cameli Group, and Luxury Liners, Ltd., a holding company controlled by Edward B. Rudner, president of Certified Tours, which operates Delta Dream Vacations. Rudner became chairman of the board and chief executive officer, and set to work to restore the sagging reputation of Renaissance.

So the cruise line chartered one of the lavishly fitted, 75-passenger MGM Grand DC-8s for the winter season, offering nonstop service to Antigua from both Los Angeles and New York. The plane carries 35 passengers in "Grand Class first" seats, of which there are three types--some that can slide forward to fit under a table/desk, some that can swivel to face other seats, and some that are in a private compartment.

The remaining 40 seats are designated "Grand Class coach," but are the equivalent of first-class seats on other airlines, complete with a video monitor set in the armrests between every pair of seats. (Passengers vote on the movies they want to see.) Service from the tuxedo-clad flight attendants borders on doting, and shortly before landing, the aroma of freshly baked oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies fills the aircraft.

Passengers who book standard ($2,990) or superior ($3,490) suites on the ship are seated in "Grand Class coach," while those in the deluxe ($3,990) or Renaissance ($4,490) suites sit in "Grand Class first." All prices are per person, double occupancy, for the nine-day package.

When we sailed aboard the Renaissance III in mid-January, we found the housekeeping, food and service quite good, better than when we took the line's first sailing in January of 1990. On that earlier sailing aboard Renaissance I, the cuisine was uneven at first (it got better midway through) and deck service and maintenance was disorganized. Two lecturers booked to tell passengers about Indonesia had not been to Indonesia, and the cruise director, who lasted only two sailings, spent most of her time avoiding the passengers.

This season, consulting chef Tom Fyfe has introduced a series of low-calorie alternatives that can be ordered as part of an 800-calorie meal or as individual courses with the regular menu. All dinners offer five main dish choices plus broiled steak, with baked potato and broiled chicken nightly. Breakfasts and lunches consist of generous buffet spreads of fresh fruits, salads and cold seafoods plus a full a la carte menu of hot dishes ordered from the kitchen.

Once during each cruise at teatime, an elegant spread with champagne, caviar and vodka supplement the usual sandwiches and pastries. A trio of musicians is on hand at teatime, during the cocktail hour and after dinner, and a cabaret performer presents two or three shows a week. A tiny casino with one blackjack table, three slot machines and a poker machine got only desultory action during our cruise, but the video and book libraries were busy.

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