Think you know what a cruise is? You might be surprised

Fed up with the election already? Six weeks at sea could be the perfect antidote for the floating voter. Guy Mansell on slow boats, river refuges and the rise of the super cruiser

NINETIES-STYLE CRUISES

Seventy per cent of our planet is covered by water. It is no longer the domain of Britannia, but if the wise men of travel are to be believed, it is our next new playground.

Last year 429,000 Brits sought their seafaring heritage and went cruising, a 22 per cent increase from the previous year (a decade ago only 91,000 booked holidays afloat). Between now and the end of 1998, 36,000 new berths are being created for the global cruise market, through the introduction of 16 new ships costing $1.5bn, most of which will carry 2,400 passengers and up. It is likely that more than 600,000 British holidaymakers will be taking cruise holidays by 2001.

With the introduction of new ships, new routes, new on-board facilities, activities, leisure amenities, attitudes and options - coupled to new low "everyman" type costs - cruising is obviously starting to catch on in a big way.

Jet travel may have sent the ocean liners full astern into the scrapyards in the Sixties but now with "fly cruises" to all points of the globe, cruising has found a compatible role with the airliner.

The image of a rather constipating time spent in rigid idle luxury, afforded by an elderly elite, has gone. Ships such as the QE2, magnificent as she is - part Blue Riband liner, part Love Boat - are also disappearing. The new generation of liners are highly defined floating hotels flavoured with imaginative "tasties" taken from theme parks, sports and lifestyles. Most of the amenities, activities and facilities found at a five-star resort complex can be found afloat.

Changes have certainly been dramatic, not just in ships but in the styles of cruising, just as our own holiday habits have swung from vacuous vacations to holidays with purpose. Today's cruise liners are finding themselves in a new element at the right time.

Deck quoits has been swapped for gyms, fitness trainers, aerobics, Jacuzzis, beauty salons, aromatherapy, swimming pools, cinema, theatre, lectures, live entertainment, hobby classes, shops and gambling. Air-conditioned cabins with picture windows and patio doors have ousted portholes. Many come with king-size beds, TV, video, minibar, room service and coffee makers. Shore excursions encompass more than sights, with bike rides, beach parties, snorkel expeditions and landings by inflatables in outlandish places. The inclusive high-standard meals with non-stop buffets that would shame the Ritz, save enormously on holiday costs. They will also send your waist beyond the "Plimsoll line".

The choice at the moment is immense, with attractive discounts on some 16 new cruise vessels entering service over the next 18 months. The first- time cruiser will find selecting the right holiday daunting.

There are still the luxury "spoil me" experiences perfected by Cunard with its Sea Goddess and Royal Viking Sun and emulated by Silver Sea Cruises with its Silver Wind and Silver Cloud or Crystal Cruises with its Crystal, Harmony and Symphony.

Then there are adventure cruises to the Arctic, Antarctica or way off the shipping lanes among Polynesian islands. There are exotic cruises to the Amazon and scenic coastal voyages, such as along the Alaskan coast or on the Hurigruten that bobs round the heels of Norway's mountains, evocative of floating through the Alps. There are theme cruises from cooking, gardening and golf, to self awareness therapy or nonstop party atmosphere on the Carnival Line fun ships.

If exploration is more your thing, there are options ranging from Noble Caledonia under the umbrella of the Royal Geographical Society to clipper windjammers from Windstar Cruises and even rustic banana boats in way off waters of the South Pacific. Others seeking the sea voyage to distant lands can duck all the cruise-ship "whoopla" by taking a suite or luxurious cabin aboard a vast choice of cargo vessels. Those with queasy stomachs may prefer floating on some of the world's great river systems such as the Danube, Volga or Mississippi.

The family cruise is now also within sight, led by our giant holiday packagers. Thomson and Airtours now have their own cruise ships. Airtours, which recently added a third, has directed its efforts to bringing cruises to ordinary pockets. For example, its "cruise and stay" in Florida and the Caribbean starts at just pounds 559 on the Carnival Destiny - including flights. Next year the creator of Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney, takes to the seas with two ships with berths for 2,400 passengers each, bringing the family cruise even closer.

Who should the first-time cruiser ask? Our high-street travel agents are a sad source when it comes to destination knowledge, let alone cruising, even if they are now improving under an educational programme arranged by the PSA.

Experienced cruise specialists are recommended as the first step. Organisations such as Paul Mundy have helped tailor ship and voyage to suit for more than 25 years. Callers can even see a video on the cruise they might like.

FACT BOX

Forthcoming launches

The following inaugural voyages are already on sale with some hefty discounts likely for early bookers. In May, Princess Cruises (0171-800 2468) introduces the 1,950-berth Dawn Princess, costing 300m, while Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (0500 212213) presents the Rhapsody of the Seas costing $275m. October sees the Holland America Line (0171-729 1929) bring in its Rotterdam VI with 1,320 berths and costing $350m. Radisson Seven Seas (0171-287 9060) starts operating the Paul Gauguin and Celebrity Cruises takes on the Mercury. The Arcadia with 1,500 capacity will join the Oriana for P&O (0171-800 2222) in December. In early 1998, Carnival (0171-729 1929) will launch the 100,000 tons superfun liner Carnival Triumph, able to carry 3,390 passengers.

Opertors' phone numbers

Cunard (01703 716605)

Silver Sea Cruises (0171-613 4777)

Crystal Cruises (0171-287 9040)

Carnival Lines (0171-729 1929)

Noble Caledonia (0171-409 0376)

Windstar Cruises (0171-628 7711)

Thomson (0990 502562)

Airtours (01706 260000)

P&O Cruises (0990 726726)

Paul Mundy (0171-734 4404)

GA Clubb River Cruise Agency (01372 742 033).

Peter Deilmann Cruises (0171-436 2931).

Irrawaddy Flotilla Co (01877 382 998).

RIVER CRUISES

RIVERS, being ancient highways, brim with history. Even today, city centres display their oldest buildings onto riverfronts and offer a different perspective in sightseeing.

Gazing is the prime occupation aboard these floating hotels. They are the ultimate intoxicant to the view addict, whether passing through gorge, countryside, village or town. With frequent stops, they also offer some healthy leg-stretching.

The Nile is probably the most popular river, but deciding which vessel to choose is something of a nightmare. The choice is vast. Anyone wanting to feel the decadence of yesteryears might like to consider the SS Mahasen, formerly a floating seraglio for King Farouk. It is being restored to its Thirties glory and is the sister of MS Memmon, featured in the film Murder on the Nile. Eight days, pounds 510 per person all inclusive, from Voyages Jules Verne.

For the zesty scent of summer pine woods, on the other hand, then chugging across Sweden from Stockholm to Gothenburg via Telford's Gota Canal is a must. Three vessels, all dating from the late 1800s, carry 60 passengers and cover the 350 miles in four days. 65 locks have to be navigated during the journey up and then down from the high lakes.

Six-day package, including flights and hotels, from Scantours - pounds 915 per person.

For an introduction to Tsarist Russia, the MS Lev Tolstoy carries 210 cruisers on the Volga and the network of waterways from St Petersburg to Moscow. Highlights include Uglich, with its Palace of Tsarevich Dmitry, and Kizhi Island's open-air Museum of Architecture. 11 days, including flights, from pounds 1,349 (call GA Clubb River Cruise Agency).

Mark Twain would probably be rather put out if the Mississippi was not on list. Delta Cruises plies from New Orleans and St Louis on its authentic- looking and luxuriously grand Victorian paddlewheeler. Its October cruise from Minneapolis to St Louis is themed to catch the glories of the autumn leaves. 11 days from pounds 219 per person including flights (call GA Clubb River Cruise Agency).

Closer to home, the Elbe, Rhine, Rhone and Danube offer a mighty choice. The Mozart, the finest of the floating hotels on Europe's waterways, runs on the Danube from Passau to the Black Sea port of Constanta, crossing seven countries. 11 days from pounds 2,500 per person inc flights (call Peter Deilmann Cruises).

If Aung San Suu Kyi ever encourages us to visit Burma again, a trip through the heartland on the Irrawaddy aboard the Myat Thanda takes in places and cultural sights inaccessible to the tourist. 14 days from pounds 2,700 with Irrawaddy Flotilla Co.

CRUISES ON CARGO BOATS

"WHY not take the slow boat to China?" suggests John Alton of Strand Voyages. His face glows with enthusiasm, almost matching the "red duster", the ensign that once symbolised the might of our merchant navy, that hangs above his desk. John specialises in arranging travel on cargo ships.

His agency represents 38 cargo lines, with more than 100 ships plying the oceans to ports across the seven seas. While the vessels look decidedly like floating industrial estates - with names as inspiring as Ipswich - "the romance," he says, "is in the route, not the ship".

Today's cargo vessels are no liberty ships, nor smoke-stack tramps crewed by shifty looking ne'er-do-wells. These fast container ships are manned by hi-tech officers on directors' salaries. Cabins with en suite facilities and suites can match the best in hotels. They also come with TV, videos, superb dining, plus gym, games room and a swimming pool!

Newscaster Andrew Gardner, is an aficionado of the cargo vessel. He feels that the five weeks it takes to get to Australia is a time to catch up on his list of "must-reads, and must-writes". He enjoys being part of the ship's purpose, where cargo and schedules are paramount. At the voyage end, he confesses to a "feeling of achievement, coupled to a bonding with the officers, crew and handful of other passengers".

Travelling on freighters was once the only way. Throughout the 1900s it was very much the "done thing" until the introduction of the container ships in the Sixties when passenger-carrying ceased. With hi-tech electronics making officers redundant in the early Eighties, cabins became available once again. John Alton established Strand Voyages to specialise in this service.

Among his armoury of itineraries are "Round the World" voyages via the Suez and Panama canals, taking some three months. He can also offer the "banana boat" experience aboard working freighters in the time-stood-still Marquesa and Tuamotu islands. The Aranui carries 60 passengers calling at many of Robert Louis Stevenson's islands and Atuana, the resting place of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel, over 16 days. From pounds 2,100 per person.

Getting to Singapore, the Far East and New Zealand with departures from Felixstowe is still the most popular and places do need reserving in advance. Also growing are the numbers of cabins becoming available to East and West coasts of South America. Furness Withy Line offers a 70-day round trip aboard the CMG Magellan from pounds 4000 per person.

One very different route to South Africa is the 28-day voyage via St Helena with an eight-day stopover in one of the island's hotels, while an adventuresome Atlantic crossing would be aboard the ice strengthened Canmar Fortune to Montreal that leaves Felixstowe and battles through the ice on the St Lawrence in winter.

Anyone who really does fancy the slow boat to China, a round trip of 83 days, also from Felixstowe with port calls up the Yangtze, then why not take it - John will fix it.

Strand Voyages, Charing Cross Shopping Concourse, Strand, London SW2B 4HZ. Tel: 0171 836 6363.

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