In the wake of 'Titanic' cruises are more popular than ever. Louise Jury steps aboard the Grand Princess, the biggest holiday liner in the world
CRASHING chandeliers, flooded cabins and freezing waters: you'd think the final scenes of the Oscar-winning movie, Titanic, showing in terrifying, water-gushing excess the final moments of the world's most famous liner, would be enough to deter any would-be boat passenger. Instead there's a boom in the number of holidaymakers booking cruises.

The film's popularity has added momentum to an already marked increase in people wanting to take a cruise. The number of Britons ocean cruising has doubled since 1993 and grown by more than 20 per cent every year for the last five years. Last year more than half a million Britons took a sea cruise, joining 5 million Americans, and the numbers are expected to rise to 900,000 by 2000. Cruising is the fastest growing sector of the British travel industry.

Those figures make men like Captain Mike Moulin very happy indeed. His new ship, the Grand Princess, will be the world's largest cruise ship when she is launched from Southampton in May. She is about the same length as the Titanic at 951 feet and has designs on being as grand. But the comparison ends there. She is taller - more than 200 feet - and bigger - at 109,000 tons. Most significantly, Captain Moulin is adamant she is safer.

"If you ask would I feel more comfortable in a smaller ship the answer is no. She's way ahead on navigation," he says. "The power management and safety management are about as far ahead as you can go. I think we've gone for overkill." And indeed they have. For the passenger wanting the holiday of a lifetime, there is a different bar - including one dedicated to caviar - for every day of a two-week trip. If they fancy a swirl in a Jacuzzi, they can pick from one of nine, and when bored with that, they can enjoy a virtual reality game as part of the hi-tech entertainment on board.

It's that sort of variety and the sense of luxury which makes cruising so appealing to people. The cruise companies want to retain some sense of exclusivity too, despite the rising numbers of people taking these holidays, so they find other means to emphasise it: cruise lines are buying their own private beaches for passengers to visit and even whole islands on the strength of the interest. And the kind of people who go on cruises is changing as well. Although the increasing numbers of retired people are contributing to the success, the average age of travellers is dropping. It is now 54.

This popularity means that Grand Princess is sold out for her maiden voyage, and the whole of the maiden season to the Mediterranean has been snapped up. It is a pattern echoed across the industry. Bill Gibbons, director of the Passenger Shipping Association, the umbrella organisation for the cruise lines, says the comparative strength of the economy means there is a "lot of disposable income floating around looking for a home".

"We certainly expect we'll see more than 600,000 ocean cruise passengers this year," he says.

As well as the The Grand Princess, P&O's $2.5 billion (pounds 1.5 billion) investment programme includes seven new ships, with two already launched. Carnival Cruise Lines is launching Elation and Paradise this year and Disney Cruise Line will unveil its first ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder. Each of these will carry more than 2,000 people. The Norwegian Cruise Line added two new ships, Norwegian Majesty and Norwegian Dynasty, to its fleet last year, with 800 and 1,000 berths apiece. But it is not only the giant ships, with their economies of scale, which are prospering. Bill Spiers, of the Cunard Line, which prides itself on greater exclusivity, says its much smaller ships are "performing very strongly" too.

"The enormous ships present a very different cruise experience from what we offer. Three thousand people descending on a tiny Caribbean island creates challenges," he says. "We're in the luxury business."

Its five-strong fleet includes the QEII, where a three-month cruise might cost pounds 300,000, and two super yachts, the Sea Goddess I and II, which have a maximum of 116 guests paying around pounds 3,000 a person a week. They are the highest rated cruise ships in Berlitz's guide to cruising and the captain doesn't ask you to his table - he dines with you only if you ask. "They're very small and able to get to inaccessible places," Mr Spiers says.

Captain Moulin has an encouraging thought for those nervous at the thought of watery disaster. The Titanic probably would never have sunk if they hadn't attempted to avoid the iceberg, thereby gashing her along the side. "Ships are designed to take an impact full-on," he says. It's what the bow is for.