- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

On a moonlit night aboard the Caribbean Princess, we leaned back into poolside lounge chairs, accepted the free popcorn and watched “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Although the film is forgettable, the ship’s Movies Under the Stars program shined as our favorite cruise event, marrying our nostalgia for old-fashioned drive-ins to our love of balmy sea breezes.

The 300-square-foot LED screen glowed equally bright in daylight and in darkness. There were cocktail-hour screenings of a Tina Turner concert as well as afternoon films for children.

Turning a top deck into a theater illustrates cruising’s new trend: the ship as destination.

People like the itineraries and the shore tours, but more and more passengers, especially frequent cruisers like us, select sailings based on the ship’s amenities, services and programming.

For years, cruise lines have lured children with elaborate programs. Now, savvy sea companies target parents, grandparents, couples and friends with enriching onboard classes, unique entertainment, trendy spas, and choices in dining.

The new $800 million Queen Mary 2, the apotheosis of this trend and the largest ocean liner ever built, sails to the Caribbean, Europe and Canada, but cruise aficionados know the best bookings are the six-day trans-Atlantic crossings.

Forget-about six-hour plane rides across the Pond. The point is to experience Cunard’s sleek and elegant ship. Among its firsts: a Canyon Ranch spa, a planetarium and a Todd English restaurant.

Radisson Seven Seas, a small luxury line, focuses on service. Our cabin aboard the Navigator came with something special: our tall, dark and handsome butler, Saurabh Choksi, who trained in India. At first, my friend Diane and I felt embarrassed, not knowing what to ask of Saurabh. So we started small.

Could he replace our lost shore tour ticket so we wouldn’t have to stand in line? Done.

May we have more merlot in our cabin bar? Easy.

Saurabh also remembered that for afternoon canapes we preferred Atkins-approved smoked salmon and shrimp instead of cheese, fruit and crackers. The evening we returned too tired from a day of snorkeling to dress for dinner, Saurabh rescued us by serving a dining-room meal, course by course, in our cabin.

Swaddled in our bathrobes and sipping wine, we watched Saurabh elegantly serve the crab legs and the fruit cocktail with Jamaican rum, then discretely leave the room.

He entered quietly, clearing the plates and bringing the salads, then vanished again to appear at just the right moment with the veal chops and the steak and, later on, the dessert.

For us, this proved to be the ultimate pampering moment on our “girlfriends’ cruise,” well worth the extra 10 percent cost over a similarly sized non-butler suite. The increase in the number of suites with butlers is part of the emphasis on service by Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, winner of the Best Small-Ship Cruise Line in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2003 Readers’ Choice Awards.

However, cruisers have to leave their cocoon — oops — cabin some of the time. That’s where the new trend in miniclasses comes in. Radisson, Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International appeal to market demands by adding a learning component to the shipboard experience.

On the Navigator, we skipped the golf chipping and bridge lessons and missed the talk on trade, commerce and immigration, but we did glean some pointers from a digital photography session.

Princess, depending on the sailing, schedules financial workshops and maritime history classes as well as talks with naturalists, astronomers and other professionals.

Celebrity Cruises focuses on photography during the Zenith’s seven-night Bermuda cruises from New York from Sept. 4 through Oct. 16. The Conde Nast Traveler 15th-anniversary photography collection will be on display, and photographers on select sailings will lead shore excursions and hold onboard workshops.

“This costs too much” and other useful phrases; learn Latin moves at rumba, cha-cha and merengue dance classes; and taste local specialties — tapas — to the accompaniment of flamenco music in the ships’ bars.

Shopping is always a vacation must. Radisson has added a new twist with its Antiques Boatshow voyages. Appraisers and lecturers from BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow” detail potential port finds. On the 15-day September-October sailing from Tokyo to Hong Kong, for example, experts discuss Japanese and Chinese porcelains, arming buyers with information and leading shore tours.

Antiques Boatshow is part of Radisson’s Spotlight sailings, cruises with lectures on wine, cooking, music, Broadway shows and even wellness. With the exception of except the Cordon Bleu cooking school, Radisson’s classes do not cost extra.

Entertainment is another lure. Celebrity has upped the stakes with its new creative partnership with Cirque du Soleil, a performance troop that melds mime, dance, acrobatics and music. Starting Dec. 4, the Constellation, offering seven-night southern Caribbean voyages from San Juan, Puerto Rico, will feature a masquerade ball plus the Bar at the Edge of the Earth, a venue for interacting with Cirque du Soleil’s unusual characters. In 2005, the Summit also will feature Cirque du Soleil entertainment.

Disney Cruise Line’s strengths are its elaborate children’s programs for ages 3 through teens as well as its entertainment, which delights adults almost as much as children. The shows, populated with come-to-life Disney characters, create nostalgia for adults and wide-eyed wonder for children.

To deliver top-notch musical productions, both the Wonder and the Magic feature impressive stages equipped with Broadway-like possibilities. Special lighting, quick set changes, pyrotechnics and a cascade of bubbles electrify the two big musical shows, “The Golden Mickeys” and “Disney Dreams,” turning them into productions popping with adult appeal.

We must confess: Lazing away a cloudy afternoon watching “Haunted Mansion” or other Disney movies was relaxing and fun.

Shipboard spas have gone upmarket as well, providing more ways to indulge as well as expanded relaxation areas. The Queen Mary 2 has the first Canyon Ranch Spa Club, a 20,000-square-foot facility. The Lotus Spa, the first owned by a cruise line, debuted aboard the Caribbean Princess in April, offering Asian-themed treatments, a current pool, and a thermal suite with heated tile lounge chairs, plus massages on Princess Cays, the line’s private beach.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Mandara Spas feature a large indoor lap pool. Onboard NCL’s Dawn, I could backstroke without colliding into other serious swimmers. My favorite treatment: the four-handed massage. Two therapists worked in tandem orchestrating Asian and other Eastern moves with the smoothness of a 1950s doo-wop duo.

Two pairs of forearms rolled Lomi Lomi style along my back, and four palms applied Balinese pressure to my aching shoulders. For active cruisers, especially those with teens, an RCI Voyager-class ship is perfect.

Like its sister ships, the Mariner, which debuted in November, sports an ice-skating rink, in-line skating course (a small one), a basketball court, minigolf, and a wall for rock climbing.

Onboard, my cousin and I, outfitted with helmets, knee and wrist pads, rolled along the tiny in-line-skating track, just big enough for a never-ever like me to get the rhythm. Then we went below deck for ice-skating. After an initial wobbliness, we glided and giggled like our childhood selves.

Rock climbing, however, proved difficult. Instead of clambering to the top like the agile teenagers next to us, we hung there holding onto the rope, knocking our behinds against the wall like two big clappers. At least we tried.

That’s what RCI’s activities give cruisers — a taste of these adventures. Carnival Cruise Lines transports guests by creating unique architectural spaces.

Known for its glitzy ships and make-the-scene bars, the line launched the Miracle in February. On this ship, designer Joe Farcus uses “fabulous fictional icons” to fashion playful spaces that keep you interested or at least talking. A Frankenstein monster presides over the disco; signed photographs of athletes line the walls of Maguire’s bar, named after the sports agent in the movie “Jerry Maguire”; and three-dimensional figures of the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit clink teacups in the cabaret.

Unlike long ago, Carnival’s food is good. Nick and Nora’s, the supper club named for the suave detectives created by Dashiell Hammett and noted for its steak, is worth the extra $25 per person. Our favorite Carnival touch: the adults-only, very funny midnight comedy show. We always look forward to this storytelling for grown-ups that creates belly laughs before bedtime.

Foodies have a lot of fun aboard NCL’s ships, where “freestyle cruising” means never having to eat in the same dining room twice. Most NCL ships have six to 10 restaurants. Some dining rooms require reservations, some charge extra fees, and for some you just show up.

On many ships, a 24-hour eatery serves fish and chips and wok-fried rice. At the Japanese-style place, the chefs put on a show, juggling cleavers, cutting chicken, and flipping beef as they grill in front of you. Le Bistro, NCL’s signature restaurant and our favorite, serves filet mignon, salmon and sea bass followed by a fabulous chocolate fondue. Be sure to book this restaurant as soon as you come aboard.

NCL’s reconfigured Norwegian Sky, which debuted as NCL America’s Pride of Aloha on July 4, overnights in the Hawaiian islands Maui and Kauai, giving cruisers lots of time for shore-side raft trips, rounds of golf, helicopter rides and snorkeling adventures.

The ship has six restaurants, including the Royal Palm Bistro, a reincarnation of the line’s top dining venue, as well as the Pacific Heights Restaurant, serving modern Hawaiian cuisine but also pizza.

With so much to do onboard, the itinerary seems almost secondary. To find the ship that’s right for you, check out the special services, classes and signature entertainment.

Carnival: From Sept. 5 to Oct. 24, the Miracle sails to Key West and the Bahamas from Baltimore; 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com.

Queen Mary 2; 800/7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com

Disney Cruise Line; 888/DCL-2500; www.disneycruise.com

Norwegian Cruise Line; 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com

Princess Cruises; 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises; 800/477-7500; www.rssc.com

Royal Caribbean International. Through Oct. 25, RCI’s Grandeur of the Seas offers Caribbean, Bahamas and Canada-New England cruises from Baltimore; 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com/gohome.do.

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