VOYAGES WITH A DIFFERENCE

Luxury cruises come in all shapes and sizes. Here, to guide you through the maze, is a selection of some of the more unusual seabound voyages around the world
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The 6,767-tonne RMS St Helena is the last of the long distance mail ships which exist to service the British dependency of St Helena in the south Atlantic. Carrying 128 passengers and 2,000 tons of cargo and mail, she's the only regular physical link for the 5,500 inhabitants in the 101/2 by six mile island.

The island of St Helena was first discovered by the Portuguese on 21 May 1502, and became a sort of spa for sick sailors dropped off when they were suffering from scurvy to benefit from the citrus fruits on the island. It became a British colony in 1659.

The ship St Helena is operated by the Cornish-based Curnow Shipping; she makes four round voyages between Cardiff, St Helena and Cape Town on an itinerary that includes Tenerife, Ascension, Banjul and, once every January, Tristan da Cunha.

A two-week Cardiff to St Helena trip costs pounds 722 each way; a three to three-and-a-half week voyage, that includes a week on St Helena and then continues on to Cape Town, costs pounds 1,890.

Curnow Shipping: 01326 563434.

WORK YOUR PASSAGE

You can take the helm, shin up the 99ft mast, climb the rigging and bone up on navigation on board the Soren Larsen, the original 19th-century brigantine and star of numerous television shows, and films including The Onedin Line and The French Lieutenant's Woman.

On 5 January 1997, with her crew and 24 guests, she'll set sail for Auckland to explore the northern coast of New Zealand for three months. She'll then set a 14-day course across the Pacific ocean heading for Tonga while following the migratory path of the humpback whale, and dropping off mail at the Kermadec Islands.

Passengers can join the good ship at any one of 18 sections on the route - signing up as a voyage crew member for an eight-day sector costs pounds 477 which includes all your meals, use of snorkelling gear and dinghies. The voyage to Tonga costs pounds l,295. Flights from the UK can also be arranged.

Explore Worldwide: 01252 319448.

EXPEDITION CRUISING

Once a deep-sea trawler, MS Caledon-ian Star wins friends and influences people for her friendly, relaxed atmosphere, comfortable interior (she carries just 110 passengers), and flexible itineraries - if whales are spotted on the starboard bow, for example, she will follow them; if passengers want to explore the unspoilt bay, she will drop anchor.

In the summer she sails mainly in northern waters, from Britain and Scandinavia all the way up to the Arctic, heading south to the Indian Ocean - including visits to the Seychelles - and on to South Africa during the winter months. Guest experts lecture passengers on history, wildlife, ecology and zoology. "Exploring an Arctic Wilderness", a 17-day cruise setting sail next July, costs pounds 3,495 including flights. And a 12-night birdwatching "Round Britain" voyage, starting in May, will cost you from pounds 2,295.

Noble Caledonian: 0171 409 0376.

BANANA BOATS

A 35-day round trip between Portsmouth and Surinam, costing pounds 1,980, is available from banana trader Fyffes, listed in Cargo Ship Voyages. Ships take seven passengers who live with the British officers on the voyage from Portsmouth, heading first to Flushing in Holland to take on freight, then across the Atlantic to Surinam.

Among the 200 other cargo ship voyages to stir the imagination are: a round voyage to East Africa through the Suez Canal, then back to Felixstowe, costing pounds 3,470. A traditional slow boat to China voyage (70 days for the round trip) costs pounds 67 a day.

Cargo Ship Voyages: 01473 736265.

COASTAL VOYAGES

Since 1893, coastal steamers have left Bergen every evening on 11-day round trips covering 2,500 miles and calling at 34 ports, towns and fishing villages: you head north from Bergen to North Cape and Kirkenes on the Russian border, and back. The 11 vessels that ply the route are working ships, carrying locals, cargo and passengers on a journey described as the world's most beautiful voyage.

Highlights include the island of Rundoy, Norway's largest bird rock which is home to over half a million seabirds, Trondheim, the first Viking capital and the Lofoten Islands.

Prices for the Norwegian Coastal Voyage round trip range from pounds 980 in winter, and from pounds 1,195 in summer, which includes flights to Bergen and back, full board on the ship and a night's bed and breakfast accommodation in a hotel in Bergen.

Scandinavian Travel Service: 0171 930 6666.

TOP DOLLAR

Top persons' cruise line Seabourn Cruises has "a world of special interest personalities" on its books. Such personalities include Patricia Neal on films, astronauts Walter Cunning-ham and Wally Schirra, command pilot on Apollo 7, Bill Garrett, editor of the National Geographic magazine for 10 years, and Joel Brinkley, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. Special cruises focus on jazz, opera and golf.

Visits ashore take in privately owned vineyards and chateaux, private receptions at the Guggenheim Museum or the Vatican Museum, attending courses at Roger Verger's cookery school in Provence. The ships Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Spirit and Seabourn Legend, each carry about 200 passengers and are some of the most luxurious afloat, with fold-out marinas for watersports.

An "African Safari" and a "Blue Water" cruise from 14 November to 20 December 1997 cost $21,500. A 12-day "Iberian Experience" next April costs from $7,950 (both excluding air fares).

Seabourn Cruise Line: 0171 930 4447.

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