Crazy world of extravagant hotels sailing the high seas confectionary and Mad trade that wants to put 8,600 on one boat

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The Independent Online
WILL WE never learn? Although the movie Titanic - a three-hour lesson in the folly of human conceit and the treachery of iced sea water - was seen by the entire movie-going world last year, people keep booking onto cruise ships.

The ocean-liner business, far from nose-diving, has seen a sharp rise in business over the past four years. According to the Passenger Shipping Association - a trade association of 35 members, all selling cruises to UK passengers - 630,000 British vacationers took either a river or ocean cruise last year, an increase of 22 per cent on 1998.

That percentage increase has remained steady since 1995. Somehow, the attraction of quoits deck, ship's-rail romance and captain's-table banter eclipses other, more urgent considerations, such as the iceberg, the force-nine gale and the watery grave.

And ludicrous as it has always seemed, to launch a floating hotel onto the most inimical of the elements - water, it's going to happen more often. Ten billion pounds is the projected investment figure for the cruising industry over the next five years.

The fate of the Titanic, which went down in the early hours of 15 April 1912, put an understandable damper on the cruise business early this century. After it sank, the only major-league ocean liners built for two decades were German ones, until the great French liner Normandie, launched 1935, lifted the curtain on a new Aquarian Age.

The Queen Mary, at 80,700 tonnes nearly twice the size of the Titanic (and just as stagily luxurious), went down the slipway in 1936; the Queen Elizabeth, until recently the largest liner ever built, followed two years later. "What is it about being on a boat," asked Julia Flyte, mid-ocean, in Brideshead Revisited, "that makes everyone behave like a film star?"

By the time Cunard launched the Queen Elizabeth II in 1969, the sea voyage was as redundant as the mule train, except in its value as a floating viceroy's palace bearing well-heeled pensioners, retired publicans and their lady wives across theworld. Today the average age of the cruiser is 55 and the average ticket price is pounds 1,236.

For 30 years the Cunard flagship became a byword in over-the-top luxury - the penthouse cabins with butlers, the five restaurants, the legendary food-and-drink (73,000 bottles of champagne a year, and two-and-a-half tonnes of black caviar - a third of the world's total consumption). Still plying between Southampton and New York, it celebrates its 30th birthday with a pounds 19m refit this November.

The cruise industry, once dominated by Cunard and the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), has moved into a new gear. Massive expansion is the plan.

The grey pound is the most lucrative sector of the travel market. Twelve new ships are due in the second half of this year, destined for the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Cunard is now a division of Carnival Corporation. Its less posh ocean-trip division, Carnival Cruise Lines, sails 13 cruise ships and has five to launch.

At P&O, gigantism has broken out. The world's biggest cruise ship - the Grand Princess, carrying 2,600 passengers - was launched last year, and two sister ships were ordered at a cool pounds 425m apiece.

The cruise ship of the future will hardly resemble a ship at all - more a floating Copacabana hotel, or a gigantic meringue.

The biggest ship of all, America World City, the pride of the Westin corporation, weighing 250,000 tonnes and carrying (deep breath) 8,600 passengers, will be looming on the horizon in the early 2000s. One shudders at the prospect of it lying at the bottom of the Pacific, seaworms gliding across its fancy mirrors.