A Sea of Possibilities

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When the Greens of London go on vacation, chances are they've packed their deck shoes. Richard, Sharon and their three children, ages 13, 10 and six, have signed up for six cruises in five years. The last one in August a week-long excursion aboard Royal Caribbean International's 1,825-passenger Legend of the Seas took them to Monte Carlo, Malta and other Mediterranean ports. They've already booked two back-to-back, week-long voyages to the Caribbean over the upcoming Christmas season aboard her sister ship, Explorer of the Seas, a new behemoth that carries 3,100 passengers. "It's like a resort hotel, only better value," says Richard, 34, an electrical wholesaler, ticking off such amenities as plentiful food, three swimming pools (one with a sliding glass roof) and top-flight entertainment.

The Greens are among a growing number of Europeans sailing into the sunset on a seafaring holiday. A record 859,631 Britons cruised last year, an annual increase of 16.2% and a four-fold hike over a decade ago. But as cruising moves beyond the shuffleboard set to attract a younger crowd, the numbers of passengers from the Continent are rising as well. Voyagers from France increased by 11.7% to 223,810 in 1999, while those from Germany rose by 6.8% to 327,000. "Europe is a fantastic market, and Europeans take longer vacations," enthuses Howard Frank, Carnival Corp.'s vice chairman and chief operating officer. "There's great potential to expand."

During the 1990s, when North America's passenger loads were growing by 7-8% a year and Europe's by more than twice that rate, cruise lines were buoyant with cash and went on a building spree. A total of 70 new ships worth $19.8 billion several of them megaboats that can carry 3,000 to 4,000 passengers are launching through 2005. With so much capacity, competition is fierce. Price wars helped sink U.S.-based Premier Cruise Lines in September, and Wall Street concerns about the glut have hit the share-prices of some large carriers. But consumers are benefiting. A week in the Mediterranean aboard a four- or five-star liner can cost as little as $706. "Right now it is a buyers' market," says Mark Van Straten, managing director of Britain's Cruise Direct. "It's a great time to take a cruise."

Despite the industry consolidation of the past few years, there's a ship at sea to appeal to every taste. Club Med offers the same casual, activity-packed ambience on its gargantuan sailboat as it does on land. Britain's Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours has already sold out its only cruise a week-long, wine-tasting sail around southern Italy and Sicily next summer aboard the three-masted brigantine Lili Marleen. The voyage recreates an era of 1920s elegance at 2001 prices ranging from $4,244 to $5,659.

For those who just want to be alone and also have unlimited budgets (say, $40,000 for a week's charter, not including food, fuel and crew), Britain's Camper & Nicholsons International manages 55 yachts. Clients can plan their own routes and the options are worldwide from island hopping around the Ionian and Aegean Seas to seeking out sea tortoises and iguanas on the Galapagos Islands.

The Mediterranean and Caribbean are traditionally the favored destinations for seagoing Europeans. Smaller luxury lines, which tend to cruise globally, cater to those desiring exotic far-flung ports, like Istanbul, Casablanca and Mombasa. Increasingly voyagers are booking passage to even more unusual locales. Bruce Jefford, 55, a semi-retired hotelier from Exeter, England, and his wife Pat welcomed in the Millennium by taking a four-week cruise around Antarctica. Next year they plan to sail through the Chilean fjords. "It's good value for money, too, because you're really pampered," insists Jefford, who has sailed with Italy's Silversea Cruises several times.

Top-end carriers like Silversea offer ultra-luxury. Even discounted, prices in this category average about $4,245 a week. What does that kind of money buy? Spacious, state-of-the-art suites (often with balconies), gourmet dining and fine wines at no extra cost. These six-star cruises also feature personalized service: as frequent guests, the Jeffords found a complimentary bottle of Dom Perignon champagne in their stateroom on their last voyage.

Previously the biggest carriers, with their mass-market approach, were reluctant to target the Old World. That's because Europe's millions of potential voyagers are divided into so many national camps, each segregated by language and cultural preferences. But in their zeal for new customers, the big companies have found that satisfying different tastes is really no more difficult than rearranging the deck chairs. On the three ships it dedicated to European travelers last summer, Royal Caribbean moved evening dining times later, lowered the minimum drinking age from 21 to 18 and printed all material from menus to schedules in five languages: English, German, French, Italian and Portuguese. By 2002 the company will have seven ships catering to Europeans. "We are very bullish on Europe," says Gary Bruton, Royal Caribbean senior vice president-international.

Carnival, the world's largest cruise operator, has tried another tactic, scooping up European lines, some of which cater primarily to the local market. Two years ago it bought out Cunard, the venerable British line, and in August it shelled out $495 million for the remaining half of Italian carrier Costa Crociere. Carnival has already ordered a $350 million, 1,057-passenger ship for delivery to Costa in 2003.

While the gargantuan, mid-market ships can't match their six-star rivals in luxury and service, they are offering novel amenities to keep passengers happy from rock-climbing walls and ice-skating rinks to virtual-reality games. The Greens like being aboard ship so much that to them, destinations are secondary. Although the Legend of the Seas made five port calls when they were aboard, they went ashore only three times. "I'd rather sit by the pool and do nothing, which is what I enjoy," Richard explains. Shipboard socializing also remains a big attraction. Elsriede and Hansjoachim Koch, of Munich, have taken 10 cruises since 1972, including a North Sea jaunt this summer aboard the Europa. "And we've made good friends on every one of them," Elsriede says.

Indeed, the Greens, the Jeffords and the Kochs are already talking about their next cruises. And like true proselytisers, they have convinced many of their friends to take to the seas, as well. Notes Richard Green: "If you can get people on board, they're hooked." That's a view to buoy the spirits of an industry with a growing flotilla of ships to fill.