On board for Adventure Active people are cruising for excitement

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With adventure trips becoming the fastest growing segment of the travel business, it was only a matter of time before the traditionally sedentary world of cruising began to reflect the shift toward active vacations.

While many lines have installed shipboard exercise spas and spiced up conventional itineraries with optional excursions from kayaking to horseback riding, an increasing number of cruises are devoted exclusively to soft-adventure trips, usually of an ecological bent.

Passengers can explore French Polynesia's out islands via commercial freighter, sail among the Galapagos Islands' giant tortoises in a 10-passenger schooner, slice through Antarctica's icebergs in an expedition vessel, making landings by Zodiac to penguin colonies sometimes half a million strong, or village-hop along Papua New Guinea's snaking Sepik River, with a side trip to a mountain region inhabited by people living much as they did in the Stone Age. One can even book a cabin on a six-passenger charter yacht and sail like a millionaire through some of the Caribbean's most beautiful island groups, hiking, snorkeling and wind-surfing along the way.

Such trips often attract a younger clientele than more traditional sailings, a trend that corresponds with recent findings by the Cruise Lines International Association that there is a dramatic increase in vacationers in the 25- to-40-year-old age group for the cruise business. But older individuals, too, are venturing off the beaten seas; passengers over age 50 predominate on more far-flung cruises, which require a substantial outlay of money and time.

"People who take our Antarctica cruise tend to be either veteran cruising enthusiasts who are seeking something more interesting, or adventure travelers looking for something a little more comfortable than the usual rough and tough trek," says Mike Enberg of Abercrombie and Kent, a Chicago-based company that specializes in upscale travel. He said passengers range from age 35 to 77, but that most are around 55. "They've got the disposable income and the urge for adventure," Mr. Enberg says.

Special Expeditions' trip along Papua New Guinea's Sepik River and into the remote Southern Highlands attracts individuals who "have been absolutely everywhere else," says company spokesman Kevin Schafer. "They're blown away by the exoticness of it all, by the fact that people can still be living such a primitive existence."

You won't find midnight buffets or lavish floor shows on exploration cruises; instead you'll usually be offered lectures by scientists and naturalists versed in the history and environment of the region. Accommodations and food may be as good as on a traditional cruise -- but don't count on it. The use of vessels designed for exploration rather than comfort, as well as a tendency toward smaller cabins, which accommodate a maximum of 42 passengers in twin or double berths, are air-conditioned with private baths, a public address/music system and a television monitor for viewing videos.

A three-day land portion of the trip visits the remote Southern Highlands, home of the colorful Huli wigmen, famous for their giant human hair wigs decorated with flowers and brilliant plumage from the local birds of paradise. The Highlands people, who live much like their Stone-Age ancestors, were discovered by the outside world in the 1930s.

Based at Ambua Lodge, guests hike into highland villages, visiting with local chiefs and observing ceremonial sing-sings, where villagers adorn themselves with paint, shells, bones, flowers and even insects.

Watching the wildlife

For unparalleled wildlife viewing, Wilderness Travel's cruise through Ecuador's Galapagos Islands is a best bet. Many companies visit the area, home to giant tortoises, flamboyantly colored iguanas, sea lions, a huge variety of shore birds and the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station. Group size is limited to 10 to 12 passengers.

"Small groups make for a much more intimate encounter with the islands, and there's better contact with the naturalist guide," says Tana Singh of Wilderness Travel.

The trip begins in Quito, Ecuador, with tours of the colonial city. After a 600-mile flight west over the Pacific to the islands, passengers board their chartered sailboat and start cruising.

Boats used by the company have air conditioning; starting in 1994, only two yachts will be used, both luxury models with a private bath in each cabin.

Sailing usually is during the pre-dawn hours to allow maximum time for daylight shore landings via rubber dinghy. A typical day starts with a two- to four-hour morning nature walk. Lunch back on the boat is followed by snorkeling among neon-colored fish and time for wildlife viewing, hiking and photography.

After dinner on board, guests may attend a lecture or head to the deck for star-gazing.

Dramatic encounters

Abercrombie and Kent's 15-day Exploration of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands is a journey through perhaps the world's most dramatic cruising waters. On the 238-foot expedition ship Explorer, a maximum of 96 passengers encounters a frozen world of giant blue icebergs, black mountains soaring from the sea and abundant wildlife,

Two or three times a day, the group loads into Zodiacs for shore landings, where they break into subgroups led by scientists and naturalists. There are hikes among the penguins (the trip leaders try to keep humans at least 15 feet from animals), explorations of 19th-century whaling sights and early 20th-century exploration huts, and visits to research stations set up by Russia, Chile, China, Korea, Britain and the United States.

Chartering a yacht in the Caribbean may not have the high drama of cruising Antarctica in an expedition vessel, but the opportunity to slice through the sea with the wind in your sails, snorkel in fish-filled cays and hike forested peaks in the company of a few cruising partners can have a deliciously Robinson Crusoe feel at a fraction of the cost.

The Moorings, a Florida-based company, recently introduced a program that allows customers to book a cabin aboard one of its 50-foot sailboats for weeklong excursions in the British Virgin Islands, the Caribbean's Grenadines or Tahiti's Society Islands.

The yachts, which have a two-person crew, accommodate a maximum of six passengers in three double-occupancy cabins. The rooms are snug with minimal storage space, but each contains a tiny lavatory with a toilet and shower.

"We try not to put smokers on board with nonsmokers, or book honeymooners with elderly couples," says Moorings spokeswoman Michael Ann Harvey. "We get letters all the time from customers who say they've made new friends on the yachts who they are planning to travel with in the future."

IF YOU GO . . .

* Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime, 595 Market St., Suite 2880, San Francisco, Calif. 94105; (415) 541-0677.

* Special Expeditions, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019; (800) 762-0003.

* Wilderness Travel, 801 Allston Way, Berkeley, Calif. 94710; (800) 368-2794.

* Abercrombie and Kent, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Ill. 60521; (800) 323-7308.

* The Moorings Preferred Yachting Holidays, 19345 U.S. 19 North, Suite 402, Clearwater, Fla. 34624; (800) 437-7880.

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