The complete guide to Cruising

More British holidaymakers went on a cruise last year than went skiing. And no, they hadn't all won the lottery. From a swish, transatlantic crossing on the QE2 to a gung-ho expedition up the Orinoco, and all manner of nautical and thematic variations in between, there's never been a better time to weigh anchor and set sail.


WHAT'S ALL THE EXCITEMENT ABOUT?

WHAT'S ALL THE EXCITEMENT ABOUT?

As a nation, we are getting hooked on cruising, whether it's a week pottering round the Caribbean or an expedition to Antarctica. Last year was the first, according to the Passenger Shipping Association (www.cruiseinformationservice.co.uk), in which more British holidaymakers went on a cruise than on a skiing holiday - 800,000 in total.

Cruising is a holiday with vast open spaces and scenery which changes daily. You only have to unpack once. The food and service are usually better than in a hotel of the same standard. All food and entertainment is included, so the price per day is often less than a land-based holiday. There's no smog at sea, no traffic, little crime, no biting insects and no pollen.

The sense of romance and adventure on the ocean could escape only the most hardened cynic.

BUT ISN'T CRUISING JUST FOR THE BLUE-RINSE BRIGADE?

Hardly. The average Brit taking a cruise is 54 and falling, although several ships attract younger passengers and families. It all depends on the ship and the itinerary - a round-the-world voyage with a de-luxe line like Crystal (020 7287 9040, www.crystalcruises.com) or Silversea (0870 333 7030, www.silversea.com) is more likely to attract wealthy octogenarians than seven nights in the Med with Thomson (0990 502 599, www.thomson-holidays.com).

Different ships attract different types. Want to be surrounded by British, rather than American passengers? Sail with P&O (020 7800 2222, www.pocruises.com) or Fred Olsen (01473 292222, www.fredolsen.co.uk) from Dover or Southampton. For a more European feel, Festival (020 7436 0827, www.festivalcruises.com), Costa Cruises (020 7323 3333, www.costacruises.com) and Mediterranean Shipping Company (020 7637 2525) attract a mainly Italian, French, Spanish and German clientele.

It's not just age or nationality, either. There are gay cruises (www.rsvp.net), nude cruises (www.bare-necessities.com), singles cruises (www.windjammer.com) and even nerds cruises (www.geekcruises.com) where computer anoraks gather for a week of programming talk afloat.

I DON'T FANCY A FORTNIGHT ON A FLOATING RESORT

Better avoid the new generation of megaships, then, as the largest take up to 3,000 passengers and are like giant entertainment malls. Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas (0800 018 2020, www.royalcaribbean.com) is the largest passenger ship afloat, with the ship more a feature of the holiday than its ports of call. The bonus of its size (142,000 tons) is that there's plenty to do, including an ice-rink, basketball court, in-line skating track and rock-climbing wall, as well as a show lounge modelled on Milan's La Scala opera house.

ANYTHING WITH REAL SAILS OR A REAL CHALLENGE?

There are plenty of different ships for a more alternative cruise. Star Clippers (01473 292229, www.star-clippers.com) has two beautiful four-masted clipper ships which spend most of their cruising time under sail. Passengers are encouraged to help the crew haul the ropes, and the cruises are blissfully unregimented.

This summer, Royal Clipper, the first five-masted tall ship to be built in 100 years, joins the fleet, complete with three swimming-pools, an underwater observation lounge and a special watersports platform that is lowered off the stern (the back).

Fair-weather sailors may prefer Windstar ships (020 7739 5414, www.windstarcruises.com), which, like Star Clippers, have acres of billowing sails, although Windstar's are computer-controlled and passengers are more likely to be found in the Jacuzzis on deck than splicing lines.

If uncharted waters beckon, an expedition cruise could be the answer. Expedition ships are small, usually with ice-hardened hulls for polar waters, and a shallow draft (the measurement from the water-line to the lowest point of the keel) which enables them to penetrate deep into areas like the Amazon basin. There is no cabaret or casino on an expedition ship, just guest speakers in the form of naturalists, explorers and geologists. Try Abercrombie & Kent (020 7730 9600, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), or at the top end, Hapag Lloyd (020 7434 0089).

THE WHOLE IDEA STILL SEEMS TOO DECADENT

In that case, strike out on a cargo voyage, travelling on a freighter. There's almost nothing to do on these long journeys except read and commune with the sea, sitting on deck looking out for dolphins and whales. Most cargo vessels take only 12 passengers and can be booked through an expert like The Cruise People (020 7723 2450, www.cruisepeople.co.uk).

WHERE CAN I GO?

Anywhere there's an ocean or a big river, but do read between the lines. Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises, for example, can be very "destination intensive" - in other words, a port a day for a week, with little time at sea. The Caribbean is the most cruised area in the world, and a small island can often be disappointingly swamped by several large ships. Look out for lines with new ideas - Fred Olsen, for example, is basing its ship Black Prince in Cuba in the winter of 2001-2002, with calls at Belize, Costa Rica and Cartagena, Colombia.

Some passengers prefer a lot of ports of call, in which case Royal Olympic Cruises' new Olympic Voyager is the answer, in the Mediterranean. Aimed at a mainly American market, she zips along at a record-breaking 27 knots, enabling her to pack in eight ports in Greece, Egypt, Israel and Turkey in seven days, sailing mainly at night (from £1,055, 020 7734 0805).

For more offbeat ports of call, Seabourn's sleek motor yachts, which take 208 passengers each, call at tiny islands like Elba, or Hvar off the Croatian coast, or sail right up the Guadalquivir river into the heart of Seville (023 8071 6611, www.seabourn.com).

If culture is important, Orient Lines' two ships, Marco Polo and Crown Odyssey combine four-star style and comfort with some ambitious itineraries including the Norwegian fjords and Iceland, the Amazon, Asia, the Great Barrier Reef and the South Pacific. The emphasis here is on quality shore excursions and add-on hotel packages before and after the cruise (020 7409 2500, www.orientlines. com).

Up-and-coming cruise areas include the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, featured by Silversea, Swan Hellenic (020 7800 2200, www.swanhellenic.com) and Seabourn, among others. Unusual ports of call and lazy days at sea are guaranteed. Silversea's new ship Silver Shadow, for example, has an Athens to Dubai cruise in October 2001, which transits the Suez Canal, sails down through the Red Sea and into the Gulf, calling at Aden, Salalah, Muscat and Dubai (from £6,695 all-inclusive).

South America is this winter's big trend, with a whole armada heading for Cape Horn, the Brazilian coast, the Chilean fjords and up the Amazon and Orinoco rivers.

AND MESSING ABOUT ON THE RIVERS OF EUROPE AND AFRICA?

Every year there are 7,000 departures on the Nile alone, on around 200 ships. In Europe, the Rhine, Danube and Mosel are standard fare but there's a huge area to be explored in Russia, where over 8,000 river ships ply the Neva, the Volga, the Dnieper and the Yenisey. The quality of ships varies, but Noble Caledonia (020 7409 0376, www.noble-caledonia.co.uk) has a selection of cruises on more upmarket vessels, including 11 days exploring the forests and tundra of Siberia (from £1,310).

AND WHAT ABOUT A TRANSATLANTIC CROSSING?

Cunard is the only line operating scheduled transatlantic crossings nowadays, on the QE2, although regular passenger services across the North Atlantic were operated by other lines as recently as 1970. The voyage takes six days and is a magical experience during which reality is put on hold and the real romance of sea travel is conjured up. Southampton to New York in August, including the air fare home, ranges from £1,830 to £15,850 per person (023 8071 4166, www.cunardline.com).

Plenty of other ships cross the Atlantic as they "reposition" from the Caribbean to the Med and vice versa at the end of a season. These repositioning cruises are often very good value; Festival Cruises' Mistral, for example, makes a 15-day crossing from Genoa to Guadeloupe in December for just £1,575 per person, or £105 a day.

CAN I TAKE THE CHILDREN?

Some cruise lines welcome families while others actively discourage them. For a hassle-free experience with no flights, P&O's cruises out of Southampton are hard to beat, with fabulous soft play areas, supervised activities and night nurseries for toddlers on Arcadia, Oriana and Aurora. Sister line Princess (020 7800 2468, www.princesscruises.com) has special mealtimes, ball pools, fairytale castles and teen discos, while Norwegian Cruise Line's clubs (0800 525 483, www.uk.ncl.com) include magic, cooking, face-painting and circus skills.

Disney (0990 200 605, www.disney.co.uk) has two cruise ships in the Caribbean, Disney Wonder and Disney Magic, complete with Disney characters, lavish entertainment and childrens' programmes split into five different age groups. Thomson, Airtours (08701 577 775, www.airtours.co.uk), MSC and Carnival (020 7729 1929, www.carnival.com) feature children's entertainment programmes, too, although these are seasonal.

Anyone looking for a child-free experience, meanwhile, should try Renaissance Cruises, which bans children under 18 (0121 445 1010, www.RenaissanceCruises.co.uk).

WILL I HAVE TO DRESS UP?

Dress at sea is getting more relaxed but there are several ships on which the diamonds are trotted out at least twice a week. To many passengers, dressing up in the evening is all part of the ritual and glamour of cruising. A transatlantic voyage on the QE2, for example, wouldn't be right without ballgowns and tuxedos.

All cruise lines specify their dress code before you depart. Fred Olsen expects smart but informal on most nights, with four black-tie evenings on a 14-night cruise. P&O ships have five black-tie evenings on a two-week cruise, while on a Costa ship, a tux would look out of place.

Windstar Cruises have no formal evenings at all, although the clientele tends to be pretty glamorous anyway. Crystal, on the other hand, is seriously glitzy, and so a long cruise will require a large wardrobe.

WILL I GAIN WEIGHT?

Highly likely, when you think of a typical day's eating: huge, cooked breakfasts; mid-morning ice-creams and pizza on deck, formal sit-down lunch, cream cakes for afternoon tea, hors d'oeuvres, seven-course dinner and if you're still up for it, a vast midnight buffet. Putting on a pound a day is not unheard of.

Fortunately, most ships have a gym and spa on board, and a healthy section on the menu, featuring either vegetarian or low-fat dishes. Warn the cruise line of special diets in advance; vegans can expect a hard time, particularly if the chef on board is French. Only two ships, Orient Lines' Marco Polo and Crown Odyssey, have certified kosher kitchens.

Shipboard cuisine is getting more adventurous. Singapore-based Star Cruises' two ships Virgo and Leo offer Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisine, while Virgo has the only Indian restaurant at sea (01293 422 244, www.starcruises.com). Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas has a retro Fifties diner and P&O's new Aurora has 24-hour bistro dining, a first for a British ship. Norwegian Cruise Line is famed for its "chocoholics" midnight buffet once a week, while Radisson Seven Seas' new ship, Mariner, has the only genuine cordon bleu restaurant at sea (020 7287 9060).

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO MAKE UP FOR RAIDING THAT CHOCOHOLICS' MIDNIGHT BUFFET?

Most ships have deck tennis, jogging trails, aerobics and a gym, ranging from an oversized cupboard with an exercise bike to a state-of-the-art health club with lavish (and expensive) spa treatments. Spa wars at sea are intense, resulting in some unusual offerings. Silversea's spas feature a "hot lava rock massage" and a "milk and honey hydrotherapy bath", while Olympic Voyager's spa uses Ahava Dead Sea products and has a large, private deck area for total relaxation. Star Cruises, meanwhile, offers Thai massage on deck.

For five whole days of holistic health, try Sealand Cruise Centre's special "Body, Mind & Spirit" Greek Islands cruise this October, where there will be workshops on feng shui, colour healing and aromatherapy (from £499, 01748 850851).

I'VE HEARD THAT TIPS ADD UP ON BOARD

Tipping is a bone of contention on cruise ships. Some lines like Cunard, Silversea and Radisson include gratuities in the cruise fare, while others leave envelopes in passengers' cabins with a suggested amount per day. This is supposedly optional but in reality, expected, and by the time you've paid the 15 per cent that is often slapped onto bar bills, and tipped the dining-room waiter, the busboy and the cabin steward, the bill mounts up. Renaissance Cruises, for example, recommends $100 (£60) per person in tips on a five-day cruise, while P&O recommends around £3 per person per day.

There is a move towards actively discouraging tipping by some operators, including Thomson, Airtours and NCL, which takes away the angst of how much to give, but also leaves low-paid waiting staff somewhat exposed.

AND PORT TAXES?

The other big hidden cost in cruising. Check whether these are included - in last-minute "bargain" offers, they are probably not and can add well over £100 to the fare.

DO I HAVE TO TAKE THE SHORE EXCURSIONS?

Cruise lines will always try to sell their shore excursions but there is no obligation to take them. Sometimes it's the most practical way to visit things; the antiquities at Ephesus, for example, are a long way from the port of Kusadasi, while Rio de Janeiro can be dangerous for lone travellers. On the Nile, a good tour guide makes an enormous difference.

However, in cities like Palma and Barcelona, you may as well invest in a guidebook and show yourself around. Just don't miss the ship if you do this - it is your responsibility to catch up if you do! THE ONLY WAY TO GO

Five places where you're better off on a ship

Galapagos islands

Spectacular scenery and wildlife 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in a national park only accessible by ship. From £2,385 for 11 nights with Seafarer (01202 685500, www.seafarer-on-the.net).

Antarctica

The best way to admire the dramatic coastal scenery and the stunning glaciers is from the water. Cruising season is June to September. Lines include Holland America (020-7613 3300), Crystal and Carnival.

Amazon basin

Head deep into the Amazon on Abercrombie & Kent's Explorer, staying at jungle camps and visiting remote tribes. This cruise makes minimal environmental impact and is guided by a team of expert naturalists. It's not cheap, though, at £5,420.

Panama Canal

The transit through this spectacular feat of engineering takes about seven hours, often with only a few feet either side of the ship. Some cruises only make a partial transit; for the full experience, try Radisson's Seven Seas Mariner cruise from Miami to Costa Rica, from £3,545.

Round the world

If you've got the money and the time, then a world cruise is the ultimate voyage. The good news is that Crystal, Silversea, Cunard, P&O and Holland America all operate world cruises of 100 days or more. The bad news is that you can expect to pay at least £16,000 for an inside cabin.

TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME CRUISERS

Try to find a cruise where the ship docks rather than anchors outside the ports of call. Anchor, or "tender" ports mean queuing to be ferried to the shore by motor launch and if the sea is choppy, the tenders may not be able to operate.

Save money by opting for an inside cabin if you've chosen an action-packed itinerary and will hardly be on board. If you prefer a voyage with long days at sea in a warm climate, think about upgrading to a cabin with a private balcony.

Visit the US government website www2.cdc.gov/nceh for an inside guide to cruise-ship sanitation levels. Any vessel operating both in the US and internationally is subject to twice-yearly inspections. A score of 86 is a pass.

If you crave space, check out the "passenger space ratio" of a ship in a good guidebook like the Berlitz Guide to Cruising (Berlitz, £16.95). This is its gross tonnage divided by the number of passengers. Ten to 20 is cramped, while 30 to 50 means room for a bit of privacy. Fifty and over is the ultimate in luxury.

Book your cruise through a member of the Guild of Professional Cruise Agents. The 60 or so members sell nothing but cruises and have an amazing depth of knowledge. Find your nearest agent at www.gpca. co.uk, which goes live today.

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