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Cruises: Tops of the Liners

Think Sea Cruises Are Strictly Cattle Cars? Check Out These Ocean-Going Limousines
Heidi Sarna
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

The pampering begins immediately. A white-gloved waiter offers a chilled glass of Champagne from a silver tray. A smiling steward leads the way to an ocean-view suite with a bay window, plush couch and chairs, writing desk, walk-in closet and, most likely, a private veranda big enough for a pair of chaise lounges and a small table. Elegantly dressed in rich Italian marble, buttery leather and soft pastel fabrics, the suite provides a bottle of welcome bubbly chilling on ice, a television, a VCR, bathrobes, slippers, personalized stationery, a whirlpool bathtub, 24-hour complimentary room service, and a doting room steward ready to stock the minibar with personal favorites for the week. Subtler refinements include silky smooth Italian Frette bed linens, goose-down pillows, lace doilies lining the waste cans, generous-sized Bulgari or Neutrogena shampoos and soaps in the bathroom, heavy crystal Scotch glasses and Champagne flutes above the bar, and an arrangement of fresh flowers on the marble-topped desk.  

It may sound like the welcome at a five-star hotel, but this is the typical beginning to a one- to three-week sail on a high-end cruise liner that caters to a very well-heeled clientele. No two-bit party tub carting 2,000 passengers to a string of Caribbean islands already saturated with tourists is this. You'll not find the flip-flop and muscle-shirt crowd slamming back cans of beer by the pool or rushing the shrimp platter at the midnight buffet.

Just as there are fine wines, expensive cars and five-star hotels, there is a slice of the cruise market that's top-of-the line, fetching $500-plus per person per day. Stylish and sophisticated, these ships are bound for the world's most intriguing locales, from Rio to Portofino, Ho Chi Minh City to Haifa. Typical itineraries include visits to the western coast of Turkey and the Greek isles, the French Riviera, Egypt and Israel, Patagonia and southern Chile, the Seychelles islands, Australia's Gold Coast, the Indonesia archipelago, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even remote and forlorn Easter Island, 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.  

And when these limousines of cruise ships do venture into the Caribbean, they do it right, visiting off-the-beaten-track islands, such as St. Barths, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Barbados and St. Lucia, some of which are accessible only to small ships. Instead of the cliché herds of thousands invading unsuspecting ports, intimate groups of well-mannered guests make landfall to have a discreet look around. They can explore on their own or sign up for the ship's organized sightseeing excursions: walking and bus tours, even golf outings, are available at most ports.  

Low-key and elegant, like private yachts, these ships don't sport flickering neon or three-story statues spouting waterfalls, but instead a couple of comfortable lounges with floor-to-ceiling windows, comfy chairs and banquettes, low lighting, and a stash of cigars. Some have clubby, wood-paneled cigar lounges with prominent humidors and bars stocked with the best brandies, while others invite smokers to light up outside on deck. Whether there's a dedicated cigar bar or not, nearly all the best ships sell smokes on board--oftentimes Cubans (one of the dividends of sailing in international waters).  

These globe-trotters trace their ancestry to the opulent first-class Titanic-era steamers that once ruled the high seas and retain vestiges of what defined luxury ocean travel decades ago. The difference is one of scale. Today's ships are much smaller than the redoubtable liners of cruising's heyday. But many of the traditional trappings remain. Officers in epaulettes still walk the deck, a weekly cocktail party is hosted by the captain, and formal five-course dining sets a traditional tone, even amidst modern amenities and a more casual ambience.  

Formal dining rooms are gilded and gracious affairs with chunky silver and crystal settings twinkling on candlelit tables as waistcoated waiters, maître d's in tuxedos and experienced sommeliers make their rounds. Cuisine and service rival that of some of New York's finest restaurants. Choices such as grilled tournedos of beef with foie gras, roast game hen with porcini stuffing, and breaded monkfish with crayfish sauce are offered on menus that give at least three options for each of five courses. Extensive wine lists offer bottles from the world's best vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, South Africa, Australia and California.  

Guests dress for dinner during the two formal nights on most weeklong cruises, with tuxedos for men and sparkling gowns and little black dresses for women the standard. On the other nights, designated informal or casual, sports jackets or collared shirts, dresses and pantsuits are expected. Instead of being assigned a table and dinner companions as you would be aboard a big ship, you can stroll in whenever you please between about 7 and 10 p.m. and be seated alone or with friends. If you'd rather skip the formal dining room one night, many ships have recently opened alternative restaurants--they're smaller, require reservations and offer a bistro-like intimacy. Of course, room service will also bring dinner to cabins--course by course.  

After-dinner entertainment on the smallest high-end ships means a choice between a mellow piano bar, a lounge for dancing featuring a live quartet and maybe a late-night DJ, and a casino. A quiet stroll on deck under the canopy of stars and black sky is an appealing option as well. By day, activities may include a lecture or class by a noted author, scholar or celebrity, as well as a wine-tasting seminar, bridge tour, golf putting and driving practice, movies, and trivia games.

The library is often stocked with best-sellers as well as travel guides, history books, periodicals and videos for passengers who tend to be well traveled and well read. While the fitness rooms vary in size and scope, at the very least they will have a couple of treadmills, stationary bikes and step machines, along with free weights. Beauty salons with masseuses offer everything from seaweed wraps to reflexology. The outside top decks have a pool and at least one hot tub, and plenty of space to laze on a deck chair.  

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