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Do you dream of moving up the cruise chain, graduating from the big megas to the much smaller and more refined luxury ships? Do you hunger for truly elegant service that harkens back to the old days of ocean travel? Do you picture yourself in a large, plush stateroom where walk-in closets and bathrooms with double sinks are basic amenities.

So, what's standing in your way? Could be the price -- rates for the top shelf ships start at about $300 to $600 per person a day. Sure, there are discounts and promotions from time to time, but you'll spend more to get more. Keep in mind that tips, wine, spirits, and even some shore excursions are included in the rates of some top lines.

One way to sample the goods is to book a short cruise on one of the ultra-luxe lines. Most offer a handful of mini cruises from three to six nights long, mixed in with their mostly longer itineraries of 10 to 14 nights and more. You can taste the caviar without going broke.

Why buy the bottle when you can buy a glass?

If price isn't an object, but you're just not sure a cruise is for you, these short-but-sweet sailings on the top shelf lines will be a good test.

Go ahead, the good life may just be your thing.

  • Fine-tuned and fashionable, Crystal's (tel. 866/446-6625; www.crystal.com) three dream ships (two recently refurbished and one new) offer top-shelf service and cuisine on ships large enough to offer lots of outdoor deck space, generous fitness facilities, tons of activities from computer training to dance classes, plus multiple restaurants, and more than half a dozen bars and entertainment venues. Crystal's shortest cruises in 2005 are a sea of 7-nighters, including a May 21 Alaska cruise on the Harmony, round-trip out Vancouver; three Mediterranean cruises in May on the Serenity and Symphony (Rome/Civitavecchia to Venice; Venice to Athens/Piraeus, or round-trip from Rome/Civitavecchia); an Oct 9 New England/Canada sailing round-trip out of New York on the Symphony; a series of Mexican Riviera sailings on the Harmony round-trip out of Los Angeles, Sept 28, Oct 15, Nov 1 and Nov 8; and a March 17 Caribbean cruise on the Symphony round-trip out of Ft Lauderdale.
  • The first true ocean liner built in more than 3 decades, Cunard's (tel. 800/7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com) 2,620-passenger QM2 is as modern as passenger ships get, and bigger than them all, but she's also an homage to all that went before. Designed with the oversized grandeur of the old days, she boasts the best of today, from an expansive Golden Door Spa, to multiple dining outlets, great kids facilities and many diversions, including a planetarium. The grand dame is doing a 3-night cruise to nowhere round-trip out of New York on July 2.
  • If you insist on luxury but like to keep it subtle, Radisson Seven Seas (tel. 877/505-5370; www.rssc.com) might be your cruise line of choice. Its ships are spacious and understated, with a relaxed onboard vibe that tends to be less stuffy than Seabourn and Silversea. Radisson offers a bunch of 4- to 6-night cruises this year, including a series of 4- and 5-night Caribbean sailings round-trip out of San Juan on the Radisson Diamond departing Feb 2, 6, 22; March 2, 6, 10; and Apr 6, 10. The Diamond is also doing a one-off 5 nighter May 3 from Madeira (Portugal) to Barcelona. The Seven Seas Mariner is offering a pair of 6-night Panama Canal transits March 3 & 25, and May 6 between Ft. Lauderdale to Puntarenas, Costa Rica. The Navigator is doing a 5-night Caribbean cruise round-trip out of Ft. Lauderdale on April 22 and a 3-night trip from Freeport, Bahamas to New York on May 8. The Voyager is offering a 5-night Caribbean cruise Dec 12 round-trip out of Ft. Lauderdale. Tips, wine at dinner, and soft drinks are included in the rates.
  • Small and intimate, Seabourn's (tel. 800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com) three comfortable mega yachts carry just over 200 guests and lavish them with personal attention and very fine cuisine. This upper crust crowd is used to the good life and enjoys a genteel, low-key vacation. For a little sample of Seabourn's brand of luxury, there's a 3-night cruise on the Seabourn Pride Sept 15, round-trip out of New York. The ship doesn't make any landings, but cruises the Hudson and into the Long Island Sound. Tips, plus all wines, spirits and soft drinks are included in the rates.
  • Intimate cruise-ships-turned-yachting-vessels, SeaDream's (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) two 110-passenger ships deliver an upscale yet casual experience without the regimentation of traditional cruise itineraries and activities. The line carries along jet skis, mountains bikes and MP3 players to keep its sporty guests occupied. For a taste of sheer indulgence, there's a 3-night Bahamas cruise on the SeaDream I round-trip out of West Palm Beach on Oct 27. There's also a delicious-sounding 5-night French Riviera cruise on the SeaDream II departing May 23 round-trip out of Nice -- sound Nice? Tips, plus all wines and spirits, and some shore excursions are included in the rates.
  • It doesn't get better than free-flowing champagne and marble bathrooms stocked with wonderful Acqua di Parma bath products. Silversea's (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com) lovely 296- to 388-passenger ships offer the best of everything. For a test drive, there's a 6-night Mediterranean cruise on the Silver Wind departing April 23 from Barcelona to Rome/Civitavecchia. Dec 5, the Silver Cloud is dong a 5 nighter from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia The line also offers a slew of 7-night Caribbean itineraries in the winter and in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe throughout spring and summer. Tips, plus all wines, spirits and soft drinks are included in the rates.

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