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October 27, 2004 -- There are certain combinations of numbers and letters that just seem to go together. "Six-pack" and "twelve-step program" are two, "seven-night Caribbean cruise" is another. That most common of cruise lengths and destinations is a veritable distillation of the modern American vacation: nearby, timed to coincide with a week off work, and designed to reduce stress.

That said, in 2005 the typical Caribbean cruise isn't as typical as it used to be, with ships departing from a host of alternative homeports, cruise lengths varying from as short as three nights to as long as twelve, and itineraries pressing farther into the southern Caribbean and Central America. Here's a few of the more notable developments as we head into the new year.

New Ships, New Lines, New Looks

While this season will see far fewer new ships introduced than in recent years, a few new faces will make their debut. In December, Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/CARNIVAL; www.carnival.com) will launch its new, 110,000-ton, 2,974-passenger Carnival Valor on year-round seven-night cruises from Miami, visiting Nassau, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten on her eastern Caribbean route and Belize City, Roatan, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman on her western route. (Though Grand Cayman is currently closed to visitors following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ivan, officials expect at least some of its tourist industry to be up and running by mid-November.)

The third in Carnival's series of Conquest-class ships, Valor joins sixteen other Carnival vessels (including five larger than 100,000 tons) on Caribbean itineraries from various U.S. homeports, prompting Carnival president Bob Dickinson's pronouncement that "Carnival owns the Caribbean."

Maybe, but Carnival's competitors aren't giving up their claim just yet. Heading Caribbean-ways in November will be the newest from Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/398-9819; www.royalcaribbean.com), the 90,090-ton, 2,100-passenger Jewel of the Seas. Delivered to the line in April and currently sailing Canada/New England itineraries from Boston, Jewel is the fourth of RCI's Radiance-class ships, the most attractive series the line has every produced. She'll sail alternating itineraries from Fort Lauderdale through April, with 6-night western Caribbean sailings visiting Key West, Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Grand Cayman, and 8-night eastern Caribbean cruises stopping at San Juan, St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Thomas, and Nassau.

In April, Princess (tel. 800-PRINCESS; www.princess.com) introduced its new 116,000-ton, 3,100-passenger Caribbean Princess on year-round eastern and western routes. Intended to be the leading edge of Princess's assault on the Caribbean market, she's being followed this year by no less than five of her supersized fleetmates, with sisters Grand Princess, Golden Princess, and Star Princess offering seven-night itineraries and the smaller Dawn Princess and Sun Princess sailing alternating ten-day cruises. Caribbean Princess's giant "Movies Under the Stars" movie screen, offering outdoor feature films in the evening, has been such a hit that Princess is adding them to Golden, Grand, and Star Princess too, starting in November.

One of the lesser known players in the Caribbean is also making a play for more exposure. MSC Cruises (tel. 800/666-9333; www.msccruises.com), the Italy-based cruise arm of giant Mediterranean Shipping Company, first appeared in the Caribbean in 1998, offering low-priced cruises aboard one of the old Big Red Boats of Premier Cruises, but those days are now history. Armed with two brand-new ships (the twin 58,600-ton, 1,590-passenger vessels Lirica and Opera) and with a new executive team that once headed Celebrity Cruises, the line is intent on carving out a chunk of the premium cruise market for itself.

New Routes for High-End Yachts

Meanwhile, luxurious SeaDream Yacht Club (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) and Windstar Cruises (tel. 800/258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com) will be dispatching their vessels to some of the smaller, more intimate ports of the Caribbean.

SeaDream, which operates two 110-passenger ex-Cunarders, will send its SeaDream II formerly Sea Goddess II) on three different itineraries around Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula this winter, all sailing roundtrip from the small town of Puerto Morelos, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. "Yachtsman's Mayan Riviera" and Yucatan Explorer" cruises concentrate on small Mexican ports, quiet beaches, and Mayan and colonial history, while the "Mexico-Belize Eco-Adventure" focuses on eco-tourism and water sports.

Windstar, which operates a fleet of small ships powered by both engine and sail, has left its traditional winter sailing grounds around Tahiti and shifted the 308-passenger Wind Surf and 148-passenger Wind Star to Central America for a series of weeklong cruises.

Wind Surf will offer seven-night cruises roundtrip from Cozumel, visiting the Honduran Bay Islands of Isla de Utila and West End (Roatan Island); the Honduran mainland ports of Puerto Cortez and Omoa; Belize City; and Costa Maya, Mexico. The smaller Wind Star will offer seven-night Costa Rica cruises departing from Puerto Caldera, visiting the Pacific-coast Costa Rican ports of Playa Flamingo, Quepos, Bahia Paraiso (Drake Bay), Curu Reserve, and Tortuga Island, plus San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. For these trips, think rain forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and beaches.

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