For many people, dieting on a cruise ship would be like taking a dog sled onto the expressway. Maybe it's possible, but why would anyone want to?
But one of us is engaged in a constant battle to keep her dress size in the single digits and had recently taken on the latest diet plan featured on "Oprah" ("The Zone Diet"). The other is an insulin-dependent diabetic who must always account for his eating.
Our adventure into controlled consumption faced a colossal challenge: As do most cruise ships, Carnival Cruise Line's Ecstasy feeds people better and more often than it does anything else but fleece happy gamblers in its casino.
During our relatively short trip -- leaving Friday afternoon, returning Sunday morning -- passengers were offered 28 separate meals. So cruising dieters who want to maintain their weight need twice as much fortitude as they need on land.
Fortunately, the companies that run the show understand that a growing segment of the population still wants to pay attention to health while on the high seas. Whether it is foods on the menu, gym equipment that rivals the best found on land, or treatments that cater to feeling marvelous and looking healthy, cruises offer what the customer wants.
"There has been a definite shift in trends that we started to observe in the late 1980s," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. "We have observed that about half the passengers on any given cruise will use some aspect of the health and fitness facilities."
Really conscientious health-watchers can start exercising the moment they board. Just avoid the elevators and use the stairs that link the half-dozen decks a passenger is likely to frequent. It's better than a Stairmaster.
But a diet-friendly vacation really starts with the meal menu. As is traditional on cruise ships, the sit-down meals were multicourse affairs. Appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert. As many as you want. As much as you want.
Carnival designates at least one item under most menu categories as "Nautica Spa Fare." That means the food will be relatively low in fat and sugar.
On one night, the carefree diner could chow down on fried mozzarella, a salad with creamy Italian dressing, spaghetti carbonara, veal parmigiana and a slice of cream pie. Not to mention seconds.
The Nautica choices that evening included a marinated squid and mussel appetizer, a salad with balsamic vinaigrette, fresh broiled mahi-mahi and an artificially sweetened lemon cake.
Plain broccoli is doable
The kitchen can accommodate requests. One night, we asked for a cup of plain broccoli alongside the three small but succulent lamb chops listed as the spa entree. The waiter, probably more accustomed to hearing requests for extra desserts, raised his eyebrows but soon returned with a plate filled with the plain vegetable.
An increasing number of diners eat breakfast and lunch at buffet locations on deck. These mostly feature artery-clogging choices such as scrambled eggs, fried chicken, hamburgers and chocolate eclairs. But even here, a health seeker can find fresh fruit and a salad bar.
"Ten years ago, the lettuce would have wilted on a salad bar," De la Cruz said. "People wouldn't have eaten it."
Carnival's food-watchers have spotted other trends. The percentage of people choosing red meat and those eating fish and poultry have flip-flopped in the past five years -- from 60-40 to 40-60. And vegetarian entrees are three times more popular than they were a few years ago.
Increased attention to healthy cooking has produced some tasty recipes. Nautica choices beat the heck out of Lean Cuisine (but weren't quite as satisfying as the regular fare).
So you've finished eating. Now it's time to exercise.
The Ecstasy has a 12,000-square-foot spa area. Part of it is filled with state-of-the-art hydraulic weight machines. Another room is set up for aerobics classes. But space in the gym was generally much easier to find than chaises longues in the sun.
Most of the spa area is taken up with ways for passengers to passively roll back the toxic effects of years of too much food and too little activity -- at a price.
People have been getting massages and facials on the high seas since the days of the first luxury liners. But high-tech has invaded the realm of feel-good treatments.
In one corner of the gym was a plastic egg big enough for a person to recline inside. The form-fitting couch inside the egg supplied gentle vibrations while fans wafted warm air through the interior and New-Age music tinkled in the earphones. At $25 for 25 minutes, it was a bit pricier than the old Magic Fingers hotel beds. While it may or may not stimulate alpha waves as promised, it was very relaxing.
In another corner of the spa area, algae packs and electric current were backed up by an astonishing claim: The "ionithermie" treatment was guaranteed to instantly shrink 1 to 8 inches of cellulite. Of course, there's a catch: The total is cumulative, taken from 11 measurement points. But still, a guarantee?
For $80 you get 50 minutes of treatment. Electrodes stimulated the muscles of the legs, thighs and stomach. The target zone was covered with a green muck that supposedly contained ingredients that would pull the toxic cause of ugly ripples out and send them, well, somewhere else.
The bottom line: After the treatment, Marni's measurements really were a half-inch smaller at each location (a loss of 5.5 inches on the therapist's cumulative scale), and the reduction seems to be permanent weeks later.
Dallas plastic surgeon James Fowler says external applications such as ionithermie lack scientific support but may have some effect: "A person may get temporary benefits." The bottom line from the doctor: Science doesn't back the therapists' explanation, but Marni had done herself no harm.
Pub Date: 10/27/96