FANTASTIC VOYAGES If going a little overboard is your idea of a great vacation, vigorous, eco-friendly tours offer all the adventure you can handle.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the swank Wind Song makes its maiden call on Costa Rica this December, passengers will be offered an unusual means of getting into the swing of the country -- careening from tree to tree along a metal cable 100 feet above the rain-forest canopy in a scene more evocative of a Rambo flick than a cruise-ship shore excursion.

For further thrills, passengers can gallop across a working ranch with an active volcano for a backdrop or hike up the steep bank of a seaside jungle preserve, hooted on by howler monkeys and toucans. Throughout each cruise, a Costa Rican naturalist based on the ship will key passengers in to the fragile ecology of each region through shipboard talks and wilderness walks amid the country's rich diversity of plant and animal life.

"Our passengers keep telling us they want to really get into the natural splendors of a destination, to feel them, touch them, be involved with them; well, here's their chance, big time," says Rick Meadows of Windstar Cruises, which is repositioning the Wind Song to Costa Rica after 10 years in Tahiti.

Indeed, these vigorous outings, previously available only on land-based adventures in Costa Rica (I've tried them all on several visits, and they will sate the most intrepid outdoors enthusiast), represent a revolutionary meld of comfy ship life and the "Just-do-it" call of the great Out There.

New wave of traveler

The Wind Song is not alone on this wild new wave afloat. This season, many ships will be calling on virgin turf or revisiting familiar grounds in more intimate, eco-centric ways that would have been unheard of a few years ago. While passengers aboard rough and tough expedition vessels always have been able to count on adventurous nature outings as part of life at sea, these relatively daring excursions aboard mainstream liners give more traditional cruisers a double bonus. They get all the usual amenities of a regular cruise ship -- typically, more spacious cabins, feedings virtually around the clock and a plethora of on-board entertainment -- along with a taste of adventure when they are in the mood. Couples and families can satiate different tastes as one member makes like Tarzan zipping through a rain-forest canopy or mountain biking up a volcano, while another takes the city tour, shops in port, or just lounges by the ship's pool sipping the frosty drink of the day.

"We believe ideal cruising is about choice, with lots of options each day for every kind of passenger," says Mimi Weisban of Crystal Cruises. "A good vacation is a regenerative experience -- some people want to be active, others seek relaxation, and others education. We want to give our passengers a shot at all those things."

This year Crystal is trying to meet that goal by venturing for the first time up the western coast of South America, with inaugural calls in Chile, Peru and Ecuador. An optional Crystal Harmony shore excursion in Peru includes a two-night trip to Machu Picchu, where passengers are taken on a guided hike amid the ruins of the ancient lost city of the Incas.

In an effort to sate its most active nature lovers, Crystal has hired the venerable Toronto adventure outfitter Butterfield & Robinson to run naturalist-led cycling and walking excursions on several new European itineraries as well as cruises through New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia.

Closer to home, passengers aboard Celebrity Cruises' Galaxy will have an opportunity to horseback ride alongside beachfront Mayan ruins and swim through a system of underground rivers, past caves and lagoons, when the ship introduces an excursion to Mexico's expansive XCaret Eco-archaeological Park during its western Caribbean sailings starting this month.

Though usually associated with a more sedate senior set, the Holland America Line is riding the wave of the increasingly profitable family vacation market by introducing, on its Alaskan TTC itineraries, nature adventures for kids only -- a first in the cruise industry. Children ages 6 to 17 will get a taste of natural history and marine adventure as they help paddle a giant war canoe out of Sitka, hike a rugged coastal rain forest near Ketchikan, trek a mountain trail above Juneau's old gold mines, and help care for injured eagles at a rehabilitation center for raptors and other birds of prey.

"When we began to realize that families were accounting for up to 20 percent of our Alaska cruise passengers, we decided we had to make sure we were not leaving children unentertained or they would run amok," says Jack Anderson of Holland America. "The youth program should please other passengers as much as families."

Disney redoing an island

That consummate family pleaser, Disney, which enters the cruise business in March with the debut of the 2,400-passenger Disney Magic, has found a foolproof way of assuring passengers of all ages a prime nature experience during its three- and four-day Caribbean cruises out of Port Canaveral, Fla. It has acquired its own pristine Bahamian island, dubbed Castaway Cay, a 1,000-acre expanse of white sand beach, lagoons and marshland in the Abaco chain about 60 miles north of Nassau. Working with American and Bahamian environmental experts to minimize the negative impact on plant and animal life, Disney is developing 400 acres of the island, including walking and cycling trails and a lagoon-based marine adventure center with nature programs for children. The remaining 600 acres, including a marsh rich in marine and bird life, will be left in their natural state.

Africa continues to provide a popular mix of land and sea adventures where nature gets star billing. Silversea Cruises was so successful last year with its Indian Ocean cruises that combined sailing the Seychelle Islands with wildlife safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, that this year the line is adding pre- or post-cruise safaris (including nocturnal wildlife-watching excursions) to new itineraries in South Africa.

Silversea also is experimenting with multinight shore excursions to give passengers a more comprehensive cultural experience in port. On Red Sea cruises, for example, the line is extending its overnight stay in Safaga, Egypt, gateway to ancient Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, to two nights.

"Our passengers have told us they want a chance to savor more deeply Egypt's archaeological treasures and desert landscapes," says Silversea's Dale Dibello.

Silversea has teamed up with National Geographic Traveler magazine, bringing aboard some of the magazine's top photographers and writers on selected sailings in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Africa, South America, the Far East, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and coastal New England and Canada. Chosen for their expertise in the geography, culture, oceanography or animal life of the areas being visited, the Traveler representatives will lead shore excursions that include tips on photographing different environments as well as personal insights into the host cultures.

Wind Song's Costa Rican venture is perhaps the most ambitious of the new eco-centric programs, and the rain-forest tree-top excursion is the most adventurous of the lot. Participants are strapped into a harness with a multitude of safety lines and outfitted with heavy leather gloves for speed control, then use a pulley system of ropes and cables to hoist themselves 100 feet up to a platform in the first tree. Then, attached by a strong hook to heavy cables strung several hundred feet between giant ceiba trees, they zip from tree to tree, rappeling down to earth from the final platform. The first time I tried traversing, as the sport is called, my heart was in my throat when I stepped off the first platform and into the air. And yes, I screamed -- though more like Cheetah than Tarzan. From then on, though, the experience became more exhilarating than frightening, and afterward I swaggered back to base like an Olympic medalist.

Less energetic types can opt instead to ride an aerial tram outside the capital of San Jose for a similar bird's-eye rain-forest view. Also, a tractor equipped with benches will take you across a similar route on the same property, sans saddle sores.

"Wherever possible we're providing both athletic and more sedate ways of experiencing Costa Rica's prime wilderness environments, so no one need be left out," says Meadows of Windstar.

Briefly noted

These other new nature encounters are making waves on the high seas:

* Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' new 320-passenger Paul Gauguin will begin year-round cruises in Tahiti and French Polynesia starting Jan. 31. Jungle hikes, kayak, horseback and snorkeling trips, and a dive program will include guest lecturers who are experts in the area ecology and culture.

* Princess Cruises has introduced a plethora of nature excursions around the island of Dominica, perhaps the least spoiled rain-forest habitat in the Caribbean. When the new Dawn Princess begins calling on Dominica this month, passengers can join guided excursions, from mountain biking to whale-watching, kayaking, snorkeling and volcano hikes. For would-be Jacques Cousteaus, Princess is the only cruise line that offers an on-board PADI dive certification program.

* Seabourn Cruise Line, whose three all-suite ships accommodate just 200 passengers, has launched an "Adventure Collection" of nature- and culture-oriented excursions worldwide. Options include hikes in the Amazonian rain forest, participation in traditional village festivals in Indonesia, boating excursions amid 100-foot limestone outcroppings in southern Thailand's Phang Nga Bay and hiking and horseback excursions on small Caribbean islands rarely visited by larger cruise ships.

* Carnival Cruise Line may be best known for its shipboard party animals, but there's plenty of real wildlife on its new shore excursions. Among the selections are a guided family hike through rain forest and hardwood swamp out of Port Canaveral, Fla., a waterfall trek in Dominica, a kayaking trip along a mangrove trail out of Key West, swimming with stingrays in the Cayman Islands and a Cayman marine life educational snorkel tour around a coral reef brimming with fish and ocean flora.

Calling cruise lines

* Carnival Cruise Lines: 800-327-2058

* Celebrity Cruises: 800-437-3111

* Crystal Cruises: 800-446-6620

* Disney Cruise Line: 800-511-1333

* Holland America Line: 800-426-0327

* Princess Cruises: 800-421-0522

* Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: 800-333-3333

* Seabourn Cruise Line: 800-929-9595

* Silversea Cruises: 800-722-9955

* Windstar Cruises: 800-258-7245

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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