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Cruise ships attract all kinds of special groups, and Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com) in particular gets its share. From poker players, to Trekkies, church groups, zoos, photography clubs, basket weavers and bingo fanatics, groups are drawn to cruises because, a) they're fun, b) they're affordable, c) there are lots of meeting spaces, and d) you can visit different ports while you obsess over your favorite past time.

By their very nature, ships are intimate places for groups to congregate -- you can only stray so far -- and yet well equipped to handle meetings with hotel-like amenities including theaters, lounges and multiple entertainment and dining venues. Cruise rates can be quite low for groups who can buy cabins in bulk.

In the spirit of learning more about how a cruise with a special group really works, Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call contributor Darlene Simidian spent a week on Holland America's Oosterdam in the Mexican Riviera last April as part of a special Spiritual Cinema Circle group (www.spiritualcinemacircle.com).

Getting into the Group Cruise Spirit

In pursuit of my own little slice of nirvana, I sign up for spiritual email newsletters whenever a good one comes along, including one by Deepak Chopra. That's how I learned about a new DVD-of-the-month club called Spiritual Cinema Circle (SCC). I joined, and one of the monthly DVDs announced SCC's second annual "Spiritual Cinema Festival-at-Sea," described as a "unique floating film festival that celebrates the heart and soul of cinema. Spiritual but not religious, it is entertainment that uplifts, inspires and stirs the soul."

That sure got my attention; the marriage of the spiritual and the sea seemed a match made in heaven. I signed up.

The week-long cruise to the Mexican Riviera on Holland America's Oosterdam last April included a variety of spiritual films -- features and shorts -- plus workshops, special screenings, cocktail parties, dinners, informative panel discussions and a closing awards ceremony, all as part of the cruise fare. I could watch the kind of films I love, meet like-minded SCC members and filmmakers, visit the Mexican Riviera, enjoy the luxury and ease of a cruise, and get a tan. It was a spiritual movie camp for grown-ups. For me, it was nirvana. Of the 1,800 or so passengers on board the Oosterdam that week, about 300 were with the SCC group and mostly from the west coast.

Round-trip from San Diego, the cruise had three ports of call at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. On the three sea days we saw films in the morning and afternoon (smartly, none were scheduled on port days so we could go ashore), and after each screening the filmmakers came onstage and described their films and answered questions. All the films had a spiritual message, and as the group watched them together, members began bonding. You know that great feeling you get when you talk with someone about a movie you both really like? Well, imagine having 300 people to talk to at the end of each one. The group discussions after the films were sometimes as inspiring as the films themselves.

Guest lecturers, discussion groups with filmmakers and informal meditation groups were also a complimentary part of the week's activities. A highlight was the moving and inspirational talk by Neale Donald Walsch, the author of internationally-acclaimed Conversations with God book series that's sold more than seven million copies and been translated into 34 languages. It's about the amazing journey of the author, who overcame homelessness and serious medical problems.

The films and speakers were inspiring, and so were the members themselves as they exchanged ideas and experiences. Each day, the group became tighter.

But togetherness aside, the beauty of a cruise is that there are opportunities to follow independent pursuits as well. Having three sea days and three port days provided a nice balance between group activities and time exploring on shore -- a group cruise with too many ports wouldn't work because it would make members choose between going ashore and joining group activities on board.

Like regular passengers, group members could pick and choose between any of the shore excursions the ship offered for sale (at their own expense). Many of us did excursions together, but the option remained for some alone time for those who craved it.

The Oosterdam turned out to be a great choice for a film festival. Considering that some ships carry 3,000 passengers or more, the Osterdam's 1,800 seemed an almost quaint and cozy number, and traditional nautical touches, like maritime artwork by Stephen Card and replica 18th-century Dutch engravings, added to the relaxed ambience. Size-wise, the ship was intimate enough for group members to easily find each other and also it was large enough to offer enough places for meetings and group activities. We watched all of our films and listened to the guest speakers in the three-story Vista Lounge theatre, but for workshops and activities, met in other places, like a smaller theater and the various public lounges, including the top-of-the-ship Crow's Nest observation lounge, Explorations Internet Café and over a meal in the ship's three main restaurants. For most meals, the group members dined in the Lido buffet restaurant or the main two-story dining room where we had reserved tables. Some ventured to the intimate Pinnacle Grill for a quieter experience (and a $30 per person cover charge) and very personal service and great food.

In between films, some group members spent time in the traditional-looking library, joined a cooking demo in the culinary arts center, or just snoozed on one of the wooden deck chairs that line the wraparound promenade deck. There was also the roomy oceanview gym for work outs. The menu of treatments in the well-equipped Greenhouse Spa included acupuncture -- very appropriate for our alternative medicine-embracing group -- which is used onboard for treating sea sickness as well as other ailments.

After dinner, there was time to visit the disco, casino, piano bar, sports bar, or one of the show lounges for some cabaret. There was a Beatles review, and one featuring Elton John and Billy Joel songs, and they were all well received. The Oosterdam's version of "American Idol" was called "Superstar," and it had cruise staff act as judges and passengers as the contestants. The whole thing was a hoot, but quite tame without the real Simon.

The final night was devoted to more group discussions on creativity and inspiration as well as announcing the members' awards for the best films. There were tears and lots of hugs as the members said good-bye. No question, the group had really bonded over the course of the week and lots of email addresses were exchanged.

Hooking Up with a Group Cruise

So what exactly is a group cruise? Not to be confused with a theme cruise, where the entire ship is privy to an overall theme of say jazz music or wine, group cruises refer to smaller affinity groups who choose a cruise as the venue for a meeting or a group holiday. Members belong to the same association, fraternity, alumni organization, club, church group and so forth, and have all booked a cruise as a member of said group. Groups are typically no larger than half of the ship's double occupancy passenger capacity to prevent the group from making the other guests feel out of place. Even with groups of just a few hundred, you can usually pick out a group member by the name badges or logo shirts and hats they often wear.

Travel agents or group leaders arrange the cruise and promote it to group members in alumni publications, trade magazines, direct mail and so on. You cannot typically go to a cruise line's reservations department to enquire about group cruises coming up, you must go to the source (a travel agent or the leadership of an organization you belong to). For example, Santa Ana California-based travel agency Life Journeys (tel. 888/259-9191; www.ronoyer.com), is a specialist in organizing customized cruises and tours for spiritual groups -- with connections to big-name authors and speakers like Marianne Williamson, Neal Donald Walshe, James Van Praagh and Debbie Ford -- and they put together the cruise for SCC. If you've got a trusted travel agent, it can't hurt to ask them if they're creating any interesting groups or know of someone who is. Sometimes a good old Google search will tip you off to listings for special group cruises.

All in all, pursuing my interest in spiritual films on a cruise proved to be a smart move. I really had the best of both worlds -- intriguing people and activities targeted to my interests coupled with a relaxed vacation setting. Cabins were roomy and who can complain about posh amenities like a flat screen TV and DVD player, massage showerhead, and extra thick bedding, bathrobes and towels.

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