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One-way ticket to relaxation

If port hopping runs you ragged, a crossing, rather than a cruise, might be for you. The price is right and the atmosphere calm.

January 20, 2008|Karl Zimmermann | Special to The Times

MIAMI — "No, we're making a crossing," I answered, perhaps a tad testily, when friends asked whe- ther my wife, Laurel, and I were taking a cruise.

Our ship, Oceania Cruises' Regatta, would be sailing from Miami to Barcelona, Spain, a 12-night "line voyage" to reposition from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and Baltic seas for the summer.

I like the distinction between a crossing and a cruise. A crossing is a true sea voyage: Instead of traveling in a circle, the ship is actually going somewhere, which I feel legitimizes travel. Besides, repositioning crossings are usually significantly less expensive than other cruises.

"What will you do all that time you're at sea, with no ports?" was the next question. Actually, we would have one port call, a morning in Funchal, on the Portuguese island of Madeira. But mostly we would be at sea traveling, not exploring ports.

"Won't you be bored?" people asked.

"No, I don't think so," I answered.

And, indeed, we were not. There was much to do, much to see and much time to devote to a quality that's often missing in our lives today: relaxation.

But we did get off to a bad start. The transfer from the airport to the pier was a slow-motion shambles, and seeing our stateroom didn't make us feel much better. In spite of an entire wall of mirrors, the room felt cramped, and the modular bathroom seemed smaller than any we'd experienced at sea. Closets were shallow, and the unadorned dark-wood decor was bleak. But when we peeked out the window, we saw a dolphin breaching in the harbor, and that seemed a good omen.

Only a handful of us were on deck for the 8 p.m. sailing. From the poolside stage, the ship's orchestra played big-band tunes and, on the deck above, we danced a few steps. The Miami skyline glittered. Leaving the pier, the Regatta slid by endless rows of containers and the huge cranes whose powerful electromagnets snatched up those metal boxes as if they were toys.

Before sailing, I had pored over deck plans looking for spots where we could sit and gaze at the sea. As I'd guessed, Sun Deck (Deck 11) was one option, but even better was Deck 5 -- much closer to the water. It held only eight blue-cushioned wooden deck chairs on each side, and I worried they'd fill up. By mid-cruise, a small group of regulars did provide competition, but somehow we always found spots.

There, on what is traditionally called "boat deck," because it's where the lifeboats hang on their davits, I sat every day of our crossing, book in hand. Sometimes the sea was wind-streaked and white-capped, sometimes brilliant blue and flecked with sunbeams, sometimes shrouded in mist. Occasionally, dolphins frolicked, or a lone freighter would pass. Always I would hear the rush and surge of water brushed aside the hull, as rhythmic as surf. Shoreside cares drained away.

The Regatta, at 593 feet, is considered a midsized ship. It holds 684 passengers, but only 345 were aboard for this cruise, and we were well served by a crew of 397.

"We are outnumbering you," said Jahn Rye, our Norwegian captain, at his welcome-aboard cocktail party. This passenger count is typical for Oceania's repositioning voyages, which makes for a particularly pampered, uncrowded ambience -- quite different than a mega-ship cruise liner, where thousands of passengers vie for attention.

The ship, originally commissioned for the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises in 1998, was refurbished in 2003 when it was acquired by Oceania. Without the diversions found on many other mega-ships, how did we spend our days?

Besides reading on boat deck or in the library, we walked around the circular track (13 laps to the nautical mile, a little longer than a land mile). Laurel attended exercise classes in the well-equipped fitness center and tried her hand at watercolors during a daily afternoon art class. On a rainy day, when she couldn't walk or swim outdoors, she spent $18 for a day pass to the Thalasso pool in the spa, an oversized, heated whirlpool, big enough to accommodate water aerobics.

I was taken on a virtual diving expedition in one of a series of slide lectures by Robert Marx, an archaeologist, treasure-hunter, mariner and adventurer of prodigious credentials, and, choosing from an extensive menu of computer-related classes, I learned Photoshop techniques (fee $20) from a patient instructor.

Best of all, though, was being outdoors. One morning mid-cruise, after a few days of clouds, the ship opened like a flower in the bright, early sunshine. The azure swimming pool sparkled. The teak chairs around it, some of which had slumped into folded disuse, were again aligned expectantly, cushioned and covered with terry wraps. Suddenly passengers appeared to fill them. Though only one rainy day had driven us below decks, we shared the invigoration of the full sun.

We dined most often in the grand dining room, where we were given an aft table for two on that first night as we left Miami.

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