A lot of us have sampled cruising - a winter Caribbean cruise here, a Baltimore-to-Bermuda cruise there. Now imagine visiting more than 100 ports across the globe on a floating luxury hotel over a three- to four-month period. Throw in a butler - and what's not to like?
World cruising, as it's called, is one of the industry's emerging trends. Why? Because travelers are no longer waiting to retire to take the cruise of their dreams, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.
"It's a new type of passenger. The great thing is the cruise lines are really getting behind this and offering many more options. It's just a wonderful way to see exotic places - and live the dream."
My husband, Gil, and I have cruised five times over a two-year period: the Panama Canal, Alaska's Inside Passage, twice in the Mediterranean and a Baltimore-to-Bermuda run. Even so, nothing could have prepared us for our introduction to world cruising last winter: a three-week segment from Sydney, Australia, to Shanghai, China, on Seven Seas Voyager, a classically handsome ship operated by Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Voyager's sail had started in San Francisco and had already taken in Hawaii, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and New Zealand when the ship picked us up in Sydney, 33 nights into a 115-night world cruise. Half of the nearly 600 passengers on board were bona fide world cruisers, in it for the long haul. The rest, like Gil and me, are known as "segmenters" or "segmentists": folks who are there to experience one or more of the trip's seven segments.
Incredibly, a scant 24 of the 600 guests were new to the ship. The rest were repeat passengers, Regent Seven Seas loyalists and, as we quickly discovered, a fiercely social crowd. A fellow passenger actually left his business card on my clothes bag in the laundry room one morning, inviting us to dinner. The guests on our segment were largely retired and wealthy, including one man who lives onboard full-time. Amazingly, everyone I talked to on Voyager last February had already booked their 2009 world cruise.
Regent Seven Seas, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the pricier lines. The average fare for this nearly four-month-long cruise ranged from $170,000 to $180,000 per person, not exactly loose change. That's not to say there aren't "deals" out there. Several cruise lines, including Voyages of Discovery, Cunard, Holland America, Fred.Olsen, P&O; and Princess, all will launch world cruises this winter with fares starting under $25,000.
World cruises nearly always begin in January or February and end in April or May. Our "World Cruise Hostess," Dana Logan, likened it to having a winter home in Florida "except that the landscape changes, there are new people to meet and there is this life that goes on about us." Or as one passenger famously put it: "It's the lifestyle, my dear."
One of the things Gil and I first noticed was that, for many of the veteran passengers - folks who have cruised dozens of times - the real draw wasn't the destinations, largely because they have visited them before. In Shanghai, for instance, only 100 people signed up for shore excursions because they've been there, done that. There was also plenty of action onboard to keep everyone's attention.
Shipboard life doesn't get much better than this: Cozy three-hour dinners at a Le Cordon Bleu-sanctioned restaurant. Yes, that Cordon Bleu. Companionable games of bridge. Cocktail hours on the ocean blue. Celebrity lectures from the likes of hostage negotiator-turned-hostage Terry Waite, whose stories captivated us. Not to mention the gold-standard service impeccably delivered in our roomy 320-square-foot suite by our butler, VaSant, and stewardess, Marichelle. And who couldn't grow attached to a ship whose movie-star handsome captain, Dag Dvergastein, routinely reads poetry over the public address system and keeps a framed photo of his English cocker spaniel on his desk? It's the luxe life, for sure.
However, as first-time world cruisers, we also appreciated Voyager's inspired itinerary. Our segment started in Sydney and ended in Shanghai with stops in Cairns and Hamilton Island in Australia; Madang, Papua New Guinea; Saipan; and Osaka and Kagoshima in Japan.
In Cairns, we visited an aboriginal center exactly one day after the Australian government formally apologized for mistreating indigenous peoples for generations. In Madang, we watched villagers dance - their teeth stained red with betel nut juice, enjoyed for its narcotic qualities. In Saipan, a U.S. territory, we toured the cliffs where, during World War II, thousands of Japanese jumped to their deaths rather than face capture by Allied forces - a history lesson writ large and live.
In Nara, Japan's first capital, Gil and others on our shore excursion fed rice crackers to the domesticated deer that are icons there. And vertical Shanghai, with its silver blur of skyscrapers, tested my boundaries of scale: 18 million people and a skyline that stretches for miles.
And then there was this bonus: 10 sea days, half of them in the South Pacific. We sailed the Coral Sea, the Solomon Sea and the East China Sea. One morning, we quietly circled Iwo Jima, site of the storied World War II battle, as a trumpeter played Taps. On sea days, passengers with similar interests - whether it's cards, deck sports, fitness classes, needlepoint or just kvetching - tend to find one another. People adopt a routine, just as they do at home. For us, that meant working out in the mornings, attending enrichment lectures and, of course, sampling all manner of cuisine. Coddled quail egg anyone?
Probably the toughest thing about world cruising is preparing for it. I talked to one couple who took a full month to pack their eight suitcases. In addition, they secured four months of prescription medicine and pre-paid their gardener, pool cleaner and housekeeper. Their continuing bills were taken care of by automated payments.
When we first boarded Voyager, I wondered what it would feel like to be on a ship for as long as three weeks - let alone months. Here's what we learned: With the ship's excellent Internet access, we communicated with friends, family and business contacts on a daily basis so there was no sense of living in a vacuum. Our pet-sitter, God bless her, even e-mailed us videos of our two dogs. And my news-junkie husband signed up for a daily photocopy of The Baltimore Sun, delivered every night to our cabin so that he could follow Terps basketball and other regional goings-on.
And then there's the ship, always the ship.
With so many ports of call, a ship on a journey like this becomes something of an emotional anchor. As Mike Kinne, a retired 66-year-old from Southern California taking his first full world cruise, described it: "You don't have a true feeling of the vast distance you're traveling. You wake up in the same bed, you have the same housekeeper, you eat in the same restaurants. There's no disconnect that you're at the end of the earth."
But still, there's something thrilling about not knowing precisely where in the world you'll wake up next.
if you go
The 2009 World Cruise
Seven Seas Voyager will launch its 116-night world cruise from Los Angeles on Jan. 12. It will return to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., May 8.
Itinerary segments: Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, 19 nights; Auckland to Sydney, Australia, 12 nights; Sydney to Shanghai, China, 21 nights; Shanghai to Singapore, 12 nights; Singapore to Dubai, 14 nights; Dubai to Istanbul, 17 nights; Istanbul to Fort Lauderdale, 20 nights.
Highlights: Humanitarian Terry Waite will be a special guest lecturer on the Los Angeles to Auckland sail. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will serve in the same capacity during the Shanghai to Singapore segment. The final segment, from Istanbul to Fort Lauderdale, will feature Regent Seven Seas Cruises President Mark Conroy, Le Cordon Bleu cooking workshops, and the ship's "Astronaut Series."
Cost: Full world cruise fares range from $64,995 to $224,995 per person, based on double occupancy. Segment fares start at $7,995.
Note: Voyager's sister ship, Seven Seas Mariner, will also conduct a world cruise, departing Jan. 26 from Fort Lauderdale for Buenos Aires. For a roundup of world cruises, visit Cruise Critic at cruisecritic.com.
5 things to know before you go
1. Secure your travel visas. We had to get two visas, one for Australia and the other for China, in advance of our world cruise. Australia was easy - we did it online. But China, and many other countries, can be more complex.
2. Visit your accountant. World cruises occur during tax season, so be sure and settle things with your accountant before your trip.
3. Pack for both warm and cold climates. We wore shorts in Australia and heavy coats in snowy Japan a mere three weeks later.
4. Stash up on your meds. Obviously, you need to get prescription refills that will last for the 100-plus days of your cruise. It's also a good idea to ask your doctor or check at cdc.gov/travel for any vaccinations that might be recommended for your itinerary.
5. Anticipate rough seas. As we discovered, the Pacific doesn't always live up to its placid name. On cruises, we always pack anti-nausea ginger gum, Dramamine and acupressure-based "sea bands" that you wear on your wrist.