SUN, FUN -- AND FREIGHT Luxury vessel hauls passengers and potato chips


Want to spend a mere $10,000 to be pampered royally for 45 days while cruising around with a few thousand tons of earphones, potato chips, aspirin, plastic shoes, microwave ovens and automobile parts?

Why not try the Americana, a one-of-a-kind passenger freighter that combines luxury accommodations and a modern-day container ship. This maritime hybrid docked at the South Locust Point terminal here Wednesday during its final stop on a 45-day ** round-trip from New York to South America.

For Maryland port authorities, it was a classic two-fer.

As the royal blue cranes towered over the ship's midsection loading and unloading huge orange containers, several dozen passengers disembarked and were whisked off to Harborplace to spend some of their leftover cash.

In recent years, port authorities have tried to boost Baltimore's cruise liner business. During 1992, 16 traditional cruise ships -- owned by lines like Princess, Royal Viking and Royal Cruise -- are scheduled to stop in Baltimore. That represents a 23 percent increase over last year, according to the Maryland Port Administration, which has been promoting the port among local travel agencies.

Currently, those ships, which typically carry 500 to 800 passengers, dock at the Dundalk Marine passenger terminal. But the MPA and the city of Baltimore have been discussing the possibility of locating a passenger terminal closer to the Inner Harbor.

"The monetary repercussions of the cruise business are fantastic," Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the MPA, said recently. "Everything from taxis, to florists, to the longshoremen handling the baggage all benefit from this business."

According to the MPA, a recent study showed that cruise ship passengers spend an average of $225 a day in port cities during a typical stay.

While several liners linger long enough for that kind of spending in Baltimore, the Americana's six-hour visit was much shorter.

Unlike many South American cities -- where handling cargo is cumbersome and chaotic -- Baltimore and other U.S. ports load and unload containers much more efficiently, making lengthy dockings unnecessary.

Even though Americana passengers might not have spent much money during their brief visit to Harborplace, the ship's cargo docking fees made up the difference, according to Rebecca Barber, a spokeswoman for the MPA.

While there are many so-called passenger freighters -- reminiscent of the romanticism of 19th-century steamers -- the Americana is the only freighter sailing from the United States with accommodations for more than 12 passengers, according to Ivaran Lines, the Norwegian company that owns the vessel. (Maritime law requires a doctor to be aboard if there are more than 12 passengers.)

The Americana travels the 9,600-mile round-trip from New York to Rio de Janeiro year-round, stopping at ports including Savannah, Miami, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Because it carries passengers, the ship gets preference for berths over other freighters.

Passengers on the working ship can wander the bridge and talk to the Norwegian crew. In port, they watch as assorted cargo is loaded off and on. On its return trip this week, the Americana carried 41 tons of beer, nine tons of doors, 121 tons of cashew nuts and 193 tons of tapioca.

Compared with other cruise ships that call here, the Americana has most of the amenities -- on half the boat. There is, however, far less organized activity and less of the feeding frenzies. Most of the older passengers are bedded down by the traditional midnight buffet common among other luxury liners. There is also little gambling other than a few slot machines.

Its passengers, like 94-year-old Ruth Gagirch of New York City, are largely veteran cruisers from upscale, larger cruise ships. They are lured not only by the novelty of a working ship, but by its size and cost. The seven-deck passenger side of the ship accommodates only 108 passengers, compared to several thousand on the largest luxury liners. And cabins are double the size of most luxury liners, according to passengers.

"I won't go on ships with many people. It's like being at Madison Square Garden," said Ms. Gagirch, the ship's oldest passenger who was making her second voyage on the five-year-old vessel.

In addition, fares are relatively inexpensive. The 45-day cruise in mid-season is $9,675 per person for a double cabin; traditional cruise ships charge a similar fare for far less than half the time. More than a fourth of the passengers are repeat guests.

Ada Berkey of Scottsdale, Ariz., has been on the Americana five times -- every summer since it began sailing.

"It's nice, long, cool, inexpensive and safe," said Ms. Berkey, a retired music librarian who has traveled to 159 countries but seems content to follow the Americana's same course down the South American coast year after year.

"The world has gotten itself into such trouble, there's no place left to go," she said.

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