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A line on adventure

The Baltimore Sun

Stomach clenched and legs wobbly, I climb hesitantly to the launch platform of the Dragon's Flight Zipline, discovering that it's a ledge, really, and not much of one. The metal cable that will carry me half a mile at 50 mph is a slim silver line. And I wonder: What in the world was I thinking?

This had seemed like a good idea.

I wanted a new experience, and the Dragon's Flight, a new Vitality adventure excursion on Royal Caribbean's stop at Labadee, Haiti, its private beach resort, promised me that.

I look out, and the view is beyond spectacular.

Our ship, Liberty of the Seas, floats majestically far below, a white jewel in the blue crown of the cove. I suddenly realize that even with clear skies and visibility for miles, I am so high and so far away from the landing that I can't see the end of the cable. But eventually I get there.

Zip lines are all the rage, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to Canada, as are all sorts of adventure excursions on cruises. These days, cruise guests can drive a Formula 1 racecar in Monte Carlo; go cave tubing in Belize or white-water rafting in the Chilean fjords; try rock-climbing in the Klondike; or fly over an active volcano in Hawaii. Some whale-watching excursions in Alaska even offer a money-back guarantee.

"Over the last four or five years, there is probably an increase in things that you may call adventurous," says Bob Sharak, vice president for marketing and distribution for the Cruise Lines International Association.

" 'Adventure' sometimes has this connotation of Indiana Jones," he says, "but I think what you're seeing here is just what is happening in the world in general. People are looking for a little more action and enrichment in their lives."

Sharak's favorite cruise excursion involves sport fishing.

"I just got back from Alaska and had a great time catching salmon," he says. "I went out with my wife and my 15-year-old son, and it was glorious. We had glassy clear water, and there were eagles sitting on the rocks right next to us. It was so beautiful it was unbelievable. If I didn't catch a thing, I would have been satisfied."

But he did catch fish - cohos and some king salmon at 30 to 38 pounds - and kept one. "As soon as you get back on the boat, they take your information and freeze the fish [for the rest of the cruise], then pack it in dry ice, and you take it home. I've been enjoying it ever since. A 35-pound fish - that's going to last a little while."

An adventure excursion can inspire you to leave your comfort zone, too. Several years ago, when they were in their late 50s, Shirley and Craig Sisk of Severn went on a snorkel excursion in the Caymans so they could swim with stingrays.

"I don't swim," Shirley Sisk says. "So I don't stick my face in the water. I don't open my eyes in the water."

But when they arrived at the stingray area, Sisk gamely donned snorkel gear and jumped in the water. "As a first test, I leaned over and opened my eyes," she says. "Then I actually went under and gave it a try. I came up and I went, 'I did it, Craig, I did it!'

"I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So you get over the fear and just do it."

Was it worth it?

"That was the best part of the Caribbean," she says.

Of course, shopping and bus tours remain popular excursions.

They are "huge," Sharak says, with emphasis. "Shopping remains one of the most, if not the most, popular activities of all. That and exploring the port itself."

Bus tours give you a chance to snap scenic photos and hear interesting information about the place you're visiting.

In the Caribbean, if you like shopping, you shouldn't miss the town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. Shopping experiences are emphasized in just about every port, but St. Thomas merchants seem more eager to make deals than their counterparts elsewhere. And if you don't like the idea of missing beautiful tropical scenery, cruise lines offer excursions that combine an island tour and plenty of time for shopping.

It's also possible to "do it yourself" on excursions. On a Caribbean cruise in January, we docked in St. Thomas. My husband, Rick, got off the ship to walk around for a bit, spotted a motorcycle for rent and took an impromptu ride around the island. My son, Owen, and his shipboard friends grabbed a cab and rode over to Magen's Bay Beach for a swim.

In St. Martin, the pier has a large tourist information booth. Owen and I stopped there, having tried too late to sign up for the ship's beach excursions. The staff happily pointed to a water taxi just a block away, which took us on a fun, inexpensive five-minute ride to Great Bay Beach for the afternoon.

And when we docked in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, we took a walk uphill on our own to see the historic San Cristobal fort.

There is also something to be said for staying aboard ship, sprawled on a deck chair at the now-uncrowded pool as waiters take your drink order.

But for excursions on my cruise in July, I had adventure in mind.

I actually thought the Dragon's Flight would be a cinch. A couple of days before, Owen and I did an excursion on St. Martin's Loterie Farm that is billed as a "treetop adventure" with zip lines.

I imagined a thrilling Tarzan-type swing from tree to tree, although I know that a George of the Jungle-type collision was also a possibility.

Owen wondered whether I had the upper-arm strength to hang on to the line, and I assured him that this is not commando training and will not require such a thing. Although I know that if it does, I am a goner.

But Loterie Farm proved to be more obstacle course than zip line, and the zip lines are fun. They aren't far off the ground, are short and do not require you to hang on with your arms. Guests are even given a thick glove that can be used to slow the zip ride.

The obstacle courses, on the other hand, are a major workout. Consisting mostly of diabolically difficult swaying-rope bridges, the "treetop adventure" gave even the fittest middle-age women among us an exhausting workout.

Owen, however, finished easily and quickly. Judge your own physical tolerance accordingly.

So, I found myself looking forward to the Dragon's Flight on Labadee. It will just be a little longer and a little faster, I thought.

A couple of days later, I am standing with Owen on the Dragon's Flight ledge, but the zip line looks a lot longer and a lot faster. Again, what in the world was I thinking?

The guide clips my harness to a cable and tells me to squat on the ledge.

He says that because of wind and weight configurations, we have to use the "starfish" form - the one I most dread. "Starfish" means that you fling your hands and feet out to the side, hanging on to nothing. It's just you and two metal clips - and the void.

The guide asks me if I'm ready. I lie and say yes. "Lift your feet," he orders, and I shoot off the tower and into blue air.

There are a few moments of heart-stopping terror, but they're brief. I'm flying, and that's that.

Then suddenly I feel wonderful. God, I'm flying! I'm actually streaming through all this light and color - not a middle-age woman with stress and emotional baggage, but a body free-flying through space.

I make the "starfish," totally letting go. I start whooping: WhoooooHOOOOOOOO!

I race faster and faster down the mountain, pass the green blur of trees, reach the water and skim the cove like a seabird. Soft, foamy waves tumble beneath me. I see the beach landing area ahead. Then a hook grabs onto my harness clips with a jolt, and the apparatus nudges a giant spring for a soft landing. Guides help me out of the harness, and I am still whooping a little.

My goodness, what a ride! Exhilarated, I ask Owen how he liked his ride, and he surprises me. He liked it, he says, but he thinks it should have some kind of control.

I do a double take. A teenager wanting a control? Is this zip line a little too adventurous?

"Yeah, a control," he says, "so you can go faster." (Note to Royal Caribbean: Please ignore advice from teenagers.)

All that being said, however, and despite my initial terror, I can say that the Dragon's Flight is not just a thrilling experience, but a powerful one.

These days, whenever I face a Herculean task - whether it's raising a headstrong teenager, wandering through a customer-service labyrinth or navigating rage-infested highways - I find myself saying: "I can do this. I rode the Dragon's Flight Zipline. I can do anything."

Do some quick research before booking an excursion

To see which excursions each line offers, go to a cruise line's Web site, click on its "destinations" link and then click on the "excursions" link.

Cruisecritic.com is one of the most useful Web sites overall and has lots of articles about excursions. At the site, type in "excursions" in the "quick search" box. Most of the excursion information is in the "articles" section. Look for links to excursions for families and excursions by destination.

Some ship excursions fill up fast, so you might want to sign up before you board. However, excursions will be canceled if not enough people choose them. My husband's deep-sea fishing excursion was canceled on our January cruise.

Excursions can be expensive, and you save money with a "do-it-yourself" approach. But not all ports offer easy-to-find tours. Also, make sure you know how long the independent tours last and when you need to be back on the ship.

As you look at the list of excursions offered on your cruise, choose those that suit your interests - even if your interests lie in trying something different from what you're used to. If that's the case, be sure to consider the excursion's physical requirements, which are always indicated, and any phobias that might prevent you from enjoying the excursion. Heed the cruise line's description of how strenuous an excursion is. A pregnant woman signed up for the St. Martin "treetop adventure" despite clear descriptions of how physically challenging it is. The excursion guide declined to allow her to participate in the excursion that calls for moving along a series of zip lines, rope swings and bridges suspended from platforms mounted in trees.

Here is a sampling of adventure excursions from major cruise lines, gleaned from the Cruise Lines International Association:

Carnival Cruise Lines: Cave tubing and rain forest exploration in Belize

Celebrity Cruises: Treetop zip line and obstacle course on St. Martin

Crystal Cruises: Drive a Formula 1 racecar in Monte Carlo

Cunard Line: White-water rafting in the Chilean fjords

Disney Cruise Line: Kayak on Castaway Cay in the Bahamas

Holland America Line: Photo safari in Croatia

Norwegian Coastal Voyage: Visit penguins in their natural habitat

Norwegian Cruise Line: Hike to the summit of a dormant Hawaiian volcano

Princess Cruises: Zip-line tours in Hawaii; Ketchikan, Alaska; Costa Rica; and Jamaica

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: Rock climbing in Corsica

Royal Caribbean: Klondike rock-climbing and rappelling

Seabourn Cruise Line: Mountain biking among flowers and vineyards in Cotes de Provence, France

Sheila Young

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