As year 2000 nears, many make big party plans Celebrations: Some prime hotels are already overbooked, and at least one adventure-travel company has sold out trips to the pyramids and Taj Mahal.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are a few shortsighted travelers left who do not know what they are doing on New Year's Eve in 1999. David Banford is not one of them. When the odometer of our spinning orb ticks over for the year 2000, Banford, a British investor in small businesses, will be floating off Barbados aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, with 99 other members of his club.

He will toast the New Year and the new millennium with champagne that has been awaiting the occasion since 1982, the year that he and a group of old school friends put down a $10,000 deposit to reserve 50 double cabins and lay down some serious Bordeaux, ports and champagnes. Never too early, they reasoned, to plan for one of the biggest New Year's parties.

Banford is not terribly eccentric, as cruise lines, top-flight hotels and tour packagers all over the world can attest. "We've been receiving letters for at least 10 years," said Pam Carter, a press officer for the Savoy Hotel in London. The hotel, which has taken enough names to fill the hotel twice over, will draw names, probably in 1998, to assign rooms.

"We've started taking bookings on three ships," said Fran Sevcik, a spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Line, who said bookings have been heavy for the Norway, Dreamward and Seaward.

"We don't have an exact itinerary, but that doesn't seem to matter," she said. "People just want to go."

Getting in practice

The Millennium Society, a nonprofit organization in Washington, has been holding warm-up New Year's Eve parties since 1984. It will sponsor Countdown 2000 celebrations at notable spots in each of the world's 24 time zones, including the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the Golden Gate Bridge.

At Foxy's Tamarind Bar, on the Great Harbour of Jost Van Dyke island in the British Virgin Islands, the owners are bracing for a flotilla of yachts and pleasure boats in 1999, based on inquiries that have been coming in for the last year. The harbor gets hundreds of boats on New Year's under normal circumstances.

"This time there could be 5,000 people," said Tessa Callwood, an owner of Foxy's. "There could be 10,000 people. We have no gates."

If you've been dreaming idly of New Year's Eve at the pyramids, start fantasizing about Plan B. Abercrombie & Kent, an adventure travel company, has already sold out its Egypt-Nile package, which includes a New Year's Eve party at the pyramids. Their India-Nepal tour, with New Year's at the Taj Mahal, has also sold out. Ditto Kenya-Tanzania, with New Year's Eve among the beasts at the Ngorongoro Crater.

In Seattle, the Space Needle has been booked since 1991, by an otherwise ordinary citizen of Portland, Ore., named Wendy Warren, who plans to celebrate with 15 families divvying up the cost. She may be happy to know that several thousand miles away, in Stockholm, an advertising executive named Johannes Bergh will be celebrating the New Year at the top of the Kaknas television tower, which he has booked for the big night.

Scotts Castle Holidays, which rents castles in Scotland, has been fending off inquiries from party-minded groups large enough to defeat Braveheart. "Some are talking in terms of 500 people," said Eileen Vielvoye, a partner in the company.

"There are perhaps 10 or 20 castles in the whole of Scotland that could handle a group like that." The Tower of London has been besieged by companies that want to reserve its public rooms.

Prime site

Already there is frantic jockeying to capitalize on location. In the geographical tussle, Greenwich, England, holds a distinct edge, as the home of the Prime Meridian, which passes through the center of the transit instrument at the Old Royal Observatory.

Do not think for a moment that this fact has been overlooked. An organization called Millennium Central has submitted plans to the Greenwich Council for an exposition center on the site of a derelict gasworks.

It's a big exposition center. The proposed Millennium Dome, big enough to hold 13 Albert Halls or 3,300 London double-decker buses, would present a yearlong exhibition organized on the theme of 12 of the world's time zones.

The Millennium Commission, a money-distributing body that will hand out an estimated $2.78 billion (at $1.74 to the pound) from Britain's national lottery to millennium-related projects, has pledged $347.4 million, and the organizers are seeking another $260.5 million in private money.

The Millennium Wheel Co., with money from British Airways, plans to build a 500-foot Ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames, across from the Houses of Parliament. The wheel, silver and white, will be the fourth tallest structure in London.

More quietly, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has organized "The Story of Time," an exhibition scheduled to open in November 1999 and run until about September 2000.

Using paintings, documents and artifacts from around the world, it will show the ways that time has been measured.

Among the artifacts are "bits of string with significant knots in them," said Dr. Kristen Lippincott, the director of the museum's millennium project, explaining that the knot method was once used by Polynesians to measure time. "I think theirs is different in tone," she said, referring to the Millennium Dome exhibition. "It's more razzmatazz and hands-on, whereas ours is intellectual and object-oriented."

Feelings can be touchy on time issues. When a recent newspaper article pointed out that Greenwich Mean Time has been replaced as the world standard by Coordinated Universal Time, measured by 150 atomic clocks around the world, the observatory flew into action, asserting that the International Meridian Conference of 1884 gives Greenwich the legal right to claim primacy in the millennium sweepstakes. In addition to defining the prime meridian, the conference accepted the formula for the universal day, which begins at mean midnight at the prime meridian. Therefore, the millennium begins in Greenwich, argued Maria Blyzinsky, the curator of astronomy at the Old Royal Observatory.

No one can take longitude-zero meridian away from Greenwich, but the city does not have a corner on the millennium market. Norris McWhirter, the chairman of the Millennium Adventure Co., has locked up the rights to the highest hill on Pitt Island, New Zealand, which he has described as "the first terrestrial, accessible and populated place to usher in the next 1,000 years." He foresees a gold rush of television companies setting up cameras to capture the first golden rays of humanity's new dawn. Note the caveat implicit in McWhirter's boast, however. Travelers willing to dispense with "accessible" and "populated" have signed up for Mountain Travel/Sobek's trip to Antarctica, where the year 2000 dawns first.

In Scandinavia, event organizers and city officials are betting that tourists will settle for New Year's north of the Arctic Circle. Step forward, North Cape (Nordkapp), a rocky promontory in Norway with only one thing going for it: it is the northernmost point in Europe.

Facilities have been arranged for 1,200 visitors to attend a New Year's concert at North Cape Rock, where a large cave will serve as the main stage.

There's also a chapel built into the mountain, in case anyone wants to get married that night. But those who haven't booked for Dec. 31, 1999, can take heart and indulge in some malicious glee.

As the party horns begin to blow, and the champagne corks pop from Patagonia to the Gobi Desert, the nonplanners can savor a secret thought: It's not the millennium, fools.

Researchers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, responding to hundreds of inquiries on the matter, issued a statement last month explaining that because there is no year zero in the Gregorian calendar, the millennium will actually begin when midnight strikes on Dec. 31 of the year 2000.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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