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ON A BUDGET

On the High Seas, Sometimes Smaller Is Better

November 08, 1998|ARTHUR FROMMER

Princess Cruises' recently launched Grand Princess (109,000 tons and more than 2,600 passengers) has had many cruise enthusiasts and industry insiders all atwitter of late. The biggest, most extravagantly priced leisure liner in history joins the second biggest, Carnival's Destiny, and a flotilla of other current and soon-to-be-inaugurated cruise ships in a trend toward huge passenger capacities, tons of amenities, more bars and restaurants than a lot of small towns, and gobs of glitz.

But do these flashy behemoths always guarantee the best vacation possible? In our experience, not necessarily. In fact, sometimes smaller is truly better, and you can combine a more intimate and laid-back cruise vacation with significant savings by turning to ships that have been plying the Caribbean and elsewhere since well before the giant type-A tubs came to the fore.

Blasts from the past like the 45-year-old Regal Empress from Regal Cruises, telephone (800) 270-7245, offer plenty of comfort and expected standard Love Boat amenities such as swimming pools, activities, eateries, nightspots and food that's good and plentiful. But at less than half the size of the Grand Princess, passengers say the Regal Empress can offer a much less intimidating and impersonal experience--in fact, it has such a loyal following that usually 35% of passengers are repeats.

Sailing from ports such as Tampa Bay, Fla., and New York City, the Regal Empress offers itineraries such as four nights along the Mexican coast for as little as $487 (inside berth, excluding air fare); six nights in the Caribbean for $487 to $1,365 (depending on the cabin); or a 10-night Caribbean/Panama Canal combo for $1,097 to $2,497.

You can also get discounts for early booking, groups and additional passengers in the same cabin. (At this time of year you can fly from L.A. to Tampa Bay on various airlines, starting at $276 round trip; to New York City for $324 round trip.)

You can go even smaller. Probably the most intimate of the older ships is the Enchanted Isle, which sails for Commodore Cruise Line, tel. (800) 545-5609, out of New Orleans. (Round-trip flights from L.A. to New Orleans start at $228.) Catering particularly to Southerners, it carries just 729 passengers; this makes it much easier to get to know your fellow passengers (assuming you like that sort of thing, of course). At the same time, the service is more personalized, and even the nightly shows have a more immediate feel.

Seven-nighters to the Caribbean are priced by discount cruise brokers at $699, for an inside upper/lower berth from August through December, to about $1,500 (again from the discount cruise brokers only) for a deluxe outside suite with balcony (demonstrating that deluxe, balcony-equipped suites are available on ships such as this at prices comparable to windowless inside cabins on the newer, more upscale boats).

Perhaps the foremost company specializing in "classic" ships is Premier Cruises, tel. (800) 373-2654, which in 1997 merged with Dolphin and Seawind lines and now floats six nicely revamped vessels. The smallest of these (the OceanBreeze) carries just 776 passengers, and the larger ones only slightly more. Prices start at $339 for a three-to-four-night sail on the Big Red Boat from its base near Orlando, Fla., to the Bahamas.

Another remarkable Premier deal is a seven-night sailing from Aruba to Curacao to St. Lucia to Barbados to the island of Margarita and back to Aruba for $628 per person, double occupancy. For more complete information on upcoming itineraries, call the cruise lines above or try a broker such as The Cruise Line, Inc., tel. (800) 777-0707.

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