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SMOOTH SAILING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You've cruised on the big ships that ply the Caribbean, maybe even sailed on one in Alaska or Europe. They've been good experiences, but now you want to step up to the top tier of cruising.

Yes, it's going to cost more, maybe a lot more -- but you can't expect champagne on a beer budget. Where a mass-market cruise may cost $100 to $300 a day per person, a luxury ship usually runs anywhere from $250 to $900 a day.

But in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, cruise prices are at their lowest in years, so this is a good time to go for the gold in cruising.

Some luxury lines have dropped prices more than 50 percent, while others are offering free air transportation, two-for-one deals and other incentives.

Seabourn, for example, will fly passengers free to meet its ships in Europe and Asia or give them discounts up to 45 percent. Radisson Seven Seas is giving out two-for-one deals on select sailings, 50 percent off for second guests on others, free air on some cruises and reducing the lead time to be eligible for early booking discounts.

Windstar has shifted its Wind Surf to Fort Lauderdale this winter and is offering discounted seven-day round trips, some more than 50 percent lower than its regular price. And Silversea, which says it never discounts, has a $1,000-off deal for new guests in addition to its normal advance-payment incentive of 15 percent off.

But even at their discounted rates, fares on luxury lines are still considerably higher than those on the mainstream ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess and Celebrity. What you get for the additional fee, though, is an experience that is entirely different -- and addictively pleasant. And when you add in the extras you'd pay for drinks, wine, alternative restaurants and tips on a less expensive ship, the cost might not be so different.

On a recent voyage on Silversea Cruises' Silver Whisper, for example, my wife and I never had to queue up to take dinner at a certain hour. We went to the dining room any time between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and sat with whomever we wanted. No one was assigned a specific table or waiter, as is customary on many cruise lines.

When we ordered a soda, a cocktail or a glass of wine, the waiters never came to us with a chit to sign. All drinks were included in the price of the cruise.

And at the end of our cruise, we didn't have to worry about stuffing gratuities into envelopes to present to the waiter, busboy and cabin attendant. There was no tipping on this ship.

That's just for starters. What really sets luxury ships apart from the others is their high quality of service.

When I ordered a room-service meal on the Silver Whisper, it was delivered to my cabin within 10 minutes. If you've ever ordered room service on some of the mass-market ships, you're lucky if it arrives within the hour.

When we wanted to rent a car during a port stop in Alaska, the concierge aboard the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator worked at it for a couple of days until she was able to confirm a car for us. Midrange ships don't even have a concierge.

And every time we encountered our Silver Whisper cabin stewardess -- even once ashore when she was on a break -- she met us with an infectious smile and a cheery greeting. It's always pleasant to feel you're a guest rather than a cash cow.

That kind of attention really made us feel special -- and we weren't the only ones who thought so.

"I like the concept that everything's taken care of," said Sandra Condon, a passenger on the Silver Whisper from Sterling, Colo. "You can sit down and enjoy people."

A people ship

Give and take between passengers is an important part of the luxury-liner experience. Luxury ships are smaller and more intimate -- most carry 100 to 400 passengers -- and on the ones we have sailed on it was never long before we got to know other passengers.

We found ourselves sharing thoughts and ideas with a variety of interesting people -- retired entrepreneurs who've made a bundle in real estate and stocks, middle-age couples who decided to splurge on an anniversary trip, business people taking a break between assignments, widows with a need to get away from their former lives.

You won't find many young families on these ships. They can't afford the tariff and, in any case, luxury ships are geared primarily to mature travelers. There's not the frenetic, go-go atmosphere that characterizes many mass-market ships; it's more like staying at a fine hotel.

On luxury ships, the staterooms are spacious and well appointed -- most have walk-in closets and tubs rather than showers. Most also have verandas, that most desired of seagoing perks. Radisson Seven Seas last year put into service the industry's first all-suite, all-veranda ship, the Mariner.

As for cuisine, it's finer on luxury ships. The food is high quality, and getting better all the time. In June, Radisson Seven Seas signed a deal with Le Cordon Bleu to train chefs in its Signatures restaurant and conduct culinary workshops at sea. Seabourn also recently moved upscale in its dining operations with the signing of a well-known New York chef, Charlie Palmer, to restyle its ships' cuisine.

Almost all the ships have at least one alternative restaurant, providing a more intimate and discriminating dining experience. On its newest ship, the Mariner, Radisson Seven Seas has three alternative restaurants, more than any other luxury vessel. Some luxury liners have movie theaters, which some large ships do not, as well as nightly revues in large Broadway-type theaters. Others may provide only lounge entertainers and music.

Services like spa treatments are now standard on all modern cruise lines, but some luxury lines go a step further. Seabourn, for one, has begun offering Massage Moments, complimentary short massages on deck.

Nearly all mainstream ships stop only a few hours in their ports of call, but Silversea, generally regarded as the top luxury line, has its ships stay overnight in interesting ports so that passengers can get more out of their visit.

The cruise line also has for years offered one complimentary "Silversea Experience" on selected cruises; these are shore excursions with a twist. On our recent cruise, it was an exclusive trip to a palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, for dinner and a concert.

Now Seabourn is planning to offer similar experiences. In 2002, "all of our cruises will feature an Exclusively Seabourn program -- one complimentary shoreside event on every single cruise, like an evening concert at Ephesus [Turkey] when the site is closed," said Rick Meadows, the line's senior vice president for marketing.

Most luxury ships also have a concierge on board to make arrangements for passengers. Want a private car and driver? The concierge will call ahead and it will be waiting for you at the dock. Want to book a particular performance ashore? The concierge will fix it up. You have to pay for these arrangements, of course, but somebody else does all the work.

"The biggest thing our passengers want is total flexibility, total choice. They like the whole idea of freedom, to do what they want to do when they want to do it," said Bill Lieber, Silversea's senior vice president for marketing.

Luxury standards

What puts a cruise ship into the luxury class? The classification is a loose one. Most such ships cater to 100 to 400 passengers, but Radisson has two ships with more passengers, as does Crystal.

Silversea, Radisson Seven Seas and Seabourn all offer single, open seating for meals, complimentary wines and no tipping. Silversea also does not charge for drinks. Crystal, which has the only large-capacity ships considered to be in the luxury category, has two set seating times for dinner but also has two smaller alternative restaurants. Its passengers also are expected to tip.

Windstar, whose sails put its ships into a class of their own, has a casual style that decrees men never have to wear a tie to dinner. Its restaurant has open seating and it does not require tipping (but many of the passengers do tip). Cunard's venerable Queen Elizabeth 2 has a separate dining room for its upper-end passengers and some really grand suites, putting those parts of the ship on a par with other luxury ships. But the bulk of the ship is much less exalted.

Is it possible to have a luxury experience aboard a mainstream ship? The answer is yes and no. Certainly one can book a suite on any ship; some ships even have concierge levels with butlers and exclusive lounges for guests on those decks. Fine wines are available on all ships, though on the mainstreams you have to pay for them. A bottle of Jordan cabernet sauvignon on Carnival ships, for example, costs $58; on Celebrity it's $82.

But unless you dine in your suite or in an alternative restaurant, you have either an early seating (6 p.m.) or late seating (8:30 p.m.) in the main dining room. The cuisine and food quality is likely to be lesser than on the luxury ships, and the ship ambience will definitely be less upscale.

On the other hand, passengers on large ships have far more choices for entertainment, activities, dining and shopping.

At the opposite end of the scale, what may be the ultimate luxury ship is scheduled to enter service this spring. Called the World at ResidenSea, it may be the most luxurious ship ever built, as well as the first of its kind.

Built in Norway, the World is a 40,000-ton floating luxury resort community with 110 privately owned apartments and 88 guest suites. Each apartment costs a minimum of $2 million and carries a $100,000 annual maintenance fee. (The most expensive sold for $6.8 million.) The line claims to have sold 80 percent of the apartments.

Each apartment will have a full kitchen and a washer and dryer. Ship facilities will include a full-size tennis court, a retractable marina, a putting green with real grass and a grocery store.

The ship will roam all over the world, spending as much as a week or more in ports (including Baltimore in April) during events such as Carnival in Rio and the Cannes film festival.

Good deals now

Like other cruise lines, the luxury companies have felt the effects of the terrorist attacks, which came on top of an economic downturn. These factors prompted some high-end lines to discount fares and offer such lures as free airfares. There were other consequences as well.

Already sailing in shallow financial waters, Renaissance, which aspired to lift itself into the luxury category, went belly up when the terrorist attacks scuttled its bookings. Some cruise lines have offered to credit fares that Renaissance passengers paid toward a voyage on their ships.

With its Silver Wind going in for an extensive rehab, Silversea decided to take it completely out of service for 2002, shifting its cruises to the Silver Cloud. Radisson Seven Seas did the same with its Song of Flower, which is just going into dry dock for renovation. It will remain out of service until April.

Accustomed to ranging far and wide to exotic ports, the lines also canceled cruises to the Red Sea and other Middle East ports, and added more sailings closer to home.

Now, with such new routes and new ports of call, the lines are scrambling to fill their cabins, and that's good for travelers who want to taste the best of cruising: Fares for those cruises offer some of the best deals around.

WHAT IS A LUXURY SHIP?

No two luxury ships are alike in size, facilities or policies. But they will offer some or all of these attributes and amenities:

* Superior service -- this is a must for all luxury ships.

* High ratio of crew members and public spaces to passengers.

* Spacious staterooms / suites with walk-in closets, bathtubs and verandas.

* Single-seating dining room with flexible times.

* Well-prepared, well-presented food.

* All-inclusive pricing.

* Several alternative dining venues.

* No tipping.

* Bar drinks and wine included in pricing.

* Concierge service to help with shore arrangements.

* Mini-bar stocked with favorite alcoholic and carbonated beverages at no cost.

* Imaginative shore excursions and enrichment programs.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Here is a list of cruise lines generally regarded as being in the luxury category or having some luxury components:

Silversea Cruises

* Phone: 800-722-9955

* Online: www.silversea.com

* Four ships: Silver Wind, Silver Cloud, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper

Seabourn Cruise Line

* Phone: 800-929-9595

* Online: www.seabourn.com

* Three ships: Seabourn Spirit, Seabourn Pride, Seabourn Legend

Radisson Seven Seas Cruise Line

* Phone: 800-285-1835

* Online: www.rssc.com

* Five ships: Paul Gauguin, Song of Flower, Radisson Seven Seas Diamond, Radisson Seven Seas Navigator, Radisson Seven Seas Mariner. Coming in 2003: Radisson Seven Seas Voyager

Crystal Cruises

* Phone: 800-446-6620

* Online: www.crystalcruises.com

* Two ships: Crystal Harmony, Crystal Symphony. Coming in 2003: Crystal Serenity

Windstar Cruises

* Phone: 800-258-7245

* Online: http: / / windstarcruises.com

* Four ships: Wind Star, Wind Song, Wind Spirit and Wind Surf

ResidenSea

* Phone: 800-970-6601

* Online: www.residensea.com

* One ship, the World, making its debut this month

Cunard Line

* Phone: 800-528-6273

* Online: www.cunardline.com

* Some luxury elements in Queen Elizabeth 2, Caronia. Coming in 2003, Queen Mary 2

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