From enormous Caribbean floating pleasure palaces with an endless supply of food to more intimate journeys through Norwegian fjords and French canals, there is a ship to suit your needs. By Guy Mansell
Cruising is no longer for people who have too much leisure time and even more money. Today there is an overwhelming number of companies offering all manner of cruises from near-Arctic adventure tours to floating palaces in the Mediterranean. The market is more than buoyant, it's booming, and prices are becoming competitive. Last week the new ship Disney Wonder docked at Southampton for the first time, and is just one of an increasing number of ships to ride the lucrative tide of cruise holidays.

If you want to join this mad rush to the water, where do you start? Pick the wrong ship and, unlike a regular holiday, you are stuck with it. Flexibility at sea is limited. The average age of cruisers is said to be falling; however, those looking for a floating knees-up will be disappointed in the atmosphere of a long world cruise, with its older, affluent clientele. Party seekers would be better suited to a cruise on the Caribbean circuit with a company such as Carnival or Royal Caribbean Lines, where the ports of call are irrelevant and the destination is the boat itself.

And it seems that size really does matter. Huge vessels, housing more than 1,000 people, are becoming the norm. Though they offer a choice of restaurants, gyms, spas, cinemas, pools and the like, the larger ships can be somewhat disorientating and prone to holiday-hampering queues. The smaller ships, those that carry fewer than 500 passengers, are more intimate but offer fewer facilities.

Check for extras. Many ships now include everything, including gratuities, in the cost, but do not assume that all-inclusive means just that. This ambiguous definition can mean that you have to pay for your alcohol, excursions and port taxes on top.

Cruises offer the opportunity to visit some of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet, not to mention the chance to eat yourself silly. Non-stop eating is very much a part of cruise life. However, if you feel too sick to eat, it could be that your cabin is in the wrong location. Those who suffer from motion sickness should select a cabin in the centre, where the ship is most stable.

If stretching your legs ashore is important you should check the itinerary carefully to see how many ports of call there are and how long you have in each. In real terms this is often less than you'd imagine, as there isn't an easy way to instantly put 1,000 people ashore. However, if surveying the sea and watching the wildlife is an essential part of your holiday, then check sailing times to make sure that you are not moving from port to port under the cover of darkness.

Whether you want a floating deck chair in the Aegean or a cruise through the Canadian icebergs, the following suggestions offer a little advance cruise control.

Canada's coast and rivers

Nunavut, the newly created Inuit governed territory made up of the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, is the size of Europe with a population of only 28,000. There is a 10-day, 1,000-mile, summer voyage between Yellowknife and Inuvik, sailing from heart of the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean on the Mackenzie river and across the Great Slave Lake.

En route stops are made at small communities that were formerly fur trading stations. If you are expecting plush cabins and ritzy dining, then you will be disappointed. This is "adventure style" cruising and the 20-berth Norweta is home to crew and passengers who mix and share the voyage and dining room.

You can expect to be amazed by wildlife as you float through towering rock canyons, tundra plateau or beneath the cliffs at Smoking Hills, where the coal seams smoulder naturally. Watching eagles, bears, caribou and wildfowl and catching fresh trout for the table are the real allure of this watery experience. The Ms Norweta is operated by the Whitlock family, pioneers with Inuit lineage and the cruise costs from C$3,990 (pounds 1,690) for full-board cabin accommodation, but doesn't include international flights. Mack Travel (tel: 001 867 874 6001).

The legendary Northwest Passage

is an addition to the cruise map along with Hudson Bay, Newfoundland and the St Lawrence Seaway. Two lines with five-star ships are offering adventure cruises here. The French-owned de luxe yacht ship, Le Levant, which has accommodation for 90 guests, moves from her winter home in the Amazon to Hudson Bay, the Arctic Ocean and the Great Lakes in summer.

Another ship for watchers of polar bears, walrus and whales is Hapag- Lloyd's Ms Hanseatic. Its 14-night fly cruise in August starts from Churchill in Hudson Bay and ends in Portland, Maine. Stops will be made at Marble and Walrus Islands and the vessel will penetrate the late-summer pack ice in the Fox Channel. Ports of call include Ivujivik on the Hudson Strait, Bonne Bay in Newfoundland and scenic sailing down the Labrador coast, with landings en route.

Both lines offer extremely well priced adventure cruises from pounds 2,450, with full board and flights.

Contact: The Cruise Portfolio, 80-82 Regent St, London WIR 6JB (tel: 0171-434 0089) for Le Levant and Ms Hanseatic voyages.

Spitsbergen and the Norwegian Coast and Fjords

The Wall Street Journal described the voyage along the Hurtigrute as "floating through the Rockies". It is scenic from start to finish with various ships sailing along the mountain-littered coast, deep into the Arctic. The 2,500-mile round trip makes stops at 34 ports, including the Lofoten Islands and passes North Cape to reach Kirkenes on the Russian border.

There are daily sailings from Bergen throughout the year but try to avoid the midnight sun time, when the ships get crowded - backpackers use it as a local ferry. Book for the early autumn, when the geese fly south, or even in the eerie twilight darkness of the northern lights.

Shore excursions are a must, but come escorted by an armed ranger against the polar bears. It was from this archipelago of rock and permafrost that explorers such as Amundsen and Nansen set off on their shivering polar adventures. Another highlight of these islands is the delicate flora, such as the local poppy that valiantly emerges from a few inches of soil above the permafrost.

Norwegian Coastal Voyages have 12-day cruises from pounds 799 per person. Cunard's Caronia and Royal Viking Sun cost from pounds 3,390 and pounds 3,870 for all inclusive 14- and 16-night holidays (excluding beverages). The less costly Black Watch and Black Prince (Fred Olsen) start from pounds 1,960 per person for an all-inclusive, two-week holiday (excluding beverages). Contact: Norwegian Coastal Voyages (tel: 0171-559 6666); Cunard: (tel: 01703 634166); Fred Olsen Cruises (tel: 01473 292222).

Mellow River Cruises in France

For tranquil river cruises with an emphasis on local wines and cuisine try the small barges on France's waterways: expensive but exclusive and ideal for sharing with friends.

The 240-mile long Canal de Midi, in the south of France, is Europe's oldest canal. The Anjodi, a converted barge with four air-conditioned state rooms, begins its journey in Beziers and chugs down to Marseille with stops for vineyard tastings. There are stops at Gallo-Roman sites, including Narbonne, once the capital of the Visigoths.

The 12-passenger La Belle Epoque, cruising through Burgundy, pauses at vineyards and medieval hamlets.

Lovers of castles and chateaux should consider the Nymphea for cruising the Loire Valley. On a larger but far less costly scale is the eight-day cruise on the Arlene, visiting Lyon, Avignon and Arles with a special excursion to the Camargue.

These eight-day barge holidays are from pounds 1,765. The Burgundy to Provence cruise is from pounds 975. KD River Cruises (tel: 01372 742033).

The Fun Ships

Carnival is the pioneer of the floating party with a fleet of 13 wonderfully brash, buzzing ships. However, from November their rivals, Royal Caribbean Lines (RCL), takes delivery of the world's largest cruise ship, The Voyager Of The Seas. Nearly twice the tonnage of the QE2 and bigger than Wembley Stadium, this supersized shrine of decadence is packed with daring innovations and over-imaginative decor, where fountains might gush next to a genuine Old Master. More is definitely merrier for the 3,000 guests in this adult playpen.

Retail therapy is catered for in the royal promenade, an on-board shopping mall, which is a lookalike of the Burlington Arcade made complete with street entertainers and a Mardi Gras parade.

For drinks, take a floating pub crawl round countless themed bars: piano, jazz, champagne, sports, cigar and brandy saloon.

For dining choose from five themed restaurants plus pizzerias and ice- cream parlours. If you still have room for entertainment there's a 1,300- seat theatre modelled on Milan's La Scala, a jazz club and a casino (home to the world's largest roulette wheel).

For the active, there is a golf course complete with trees and bunkers, a rock climbing wall, full-size basketball court, aerobics centre, varying children's clubs, swimming pools, water slides, a wedding chapel and an ice rink. She may well be the mightiest vessel afloat.

Carnival Cruises: seven-day cruises from pounds 795 (tel: 0171-729 1929); RCL: cruises from pounds 959 plus Voyager of the Seas, a seven-day maiden voyage (departing 21 November), is from pounds 1,649 (tel: 0800 018 2020).

To New York on 'QE2'

The 30-year-old QE2 sails as a bond between the Old World and the New. She belongs to New York as much as Southampton and wherever she goes, cameras click and crowds cheer. However much other vessels try to emulate her standards, no other ship is more coveted.

Brian and Beverly Vine are typical QE2 passengers, having made a dozen crossings. "She represents the best of British," says Brian. "Tradition and polish are not created. Service is engrained with that slightly behind- the-times courtesy and thoughtfulness. The experience is as refreshing as the immaculate white gloves, which the British stewards seem to have been born wearing."

This year the ship will make 17 transatlantic crossings before her pounds 20m refit in readiness for her millennium round-the-world cruise.

For anyone who has Britannia in their veins, consider Cunard's June and August six-day offer to or from New York. All-inclusive - with flight - is from pounds 595. Cunard: (tel: 01703 634166).

Other Watery Ideas

The cruise market may be at its most buoyant, but with 16 new ships entering service this year, there are thousands more berths to fill, so bargains are expected.

For free cruise information, call the Passenger Shipping Association (tel: 0171-436 2449). It provides a free factsheet on cruising with children from toddlers to teenagers.

Who could handle kids better than Mickey himself? The Disney Magic has a four-day cruise programme linked to three days in Disney World, Florida, from pounds 1,189. From the beginning of next year, the contract for the new ship, Disney Wonder, will be under Virgin Holidays. (tel: 01293 432 100).

British travel names such as Airtours (tel: 08701 577 775) now have four ships covering the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Canaries. Thomson (tel: 0990 502 562) has seven, and covers the Far East.

Swan Hellenic (tel: 0171-800 2200) specialises in cultural and historic cruises of the Mediterranean, particularly Greece and Turkey (during the winter, the Middle and Far East).

Solo sailors should be in good company as it is estimated that around a quarter of cruisers are single, yet they often get the worst deals, paying over the odds for single cabins. Cruise companies such as Seabourne (tel: 01703 716611) and Silversea (tel: 0171-613 4777), offer guaranteed single rates on certain cruises where the supplement can be only 10 per cent extra and the standard of cabin is guaranteed. And the former two companies go out of their way to make singles welcome.

The Orient Line (tel: 0171-409 2500) caters for environmental travellers on its Marco Polo ship.

For the yachtsman, Windstar Sail Cruises (tel: 0171-739 5414), has four tall ships sailing the Greek islands and Caribbean.

Recommended reading: Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships (Berlitz), pounds 14.95.