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Different Boats for Different Folks: Choosing the Right Size Ship

Different cruise lines present different kinds of experiences, but physical factors such as the size and age of the ship also play a part when choosing your ideal cruise. What kind of ship floats your boat?

Different cruise lines present different kinds of experiences, but physical factors such as the size and age of the ship also play a part when choosing your ideal cruise. What kind of ship floats your boat?

Megaships (1,800-3,600 passengers)

For the past dozen years, the so-called "megaships" have dominated the market, carrying upward of 1,800 passengers and offering an onboard experience any big-city dweller will recognize: food and drink available at any hour, entertainment districts filled with neon and twinkling lights, monumental architecture, big crowds, and a definite buzz. You often won't see the same faces twice from day to day, and, in fact, if you don't plan specific times and places to meet up with your spouse, squeeze, or friend(s), you may roam the decks for hours looking for them. (Luckily, most megaships are wired for cellphone service now, so you can call your travel companion if you can't find him or her.) The megas have as many as 15 passenger decks full of restaurants, bars, lounges, and shops, plus cabins of all shapes and sizes. Most have a grand atrium lobby, three or four swimming pools and hot tubs, theaters, a pizzeria, a specialty coffee shop, and one or more reservations-only restaurants. Mammoth gyms and spas boast dozens of exercise machines and treatment rooms, and vast children's areas include splash pools, playrooms, computer rooms, and video arcades. Activities go on all day long, including wine tastings, fashion shows, dance lessons, art auctions, aerobics classes, bingo, bridge, lectures, cooking demonstrations, pool games, computer classes, and trivia contests. And at night you have a choice of piano bars, discos, martini and champagne bars, sports bars, casinos, theaters, and big glitzy showrooms that put on big glitzy shows.

But even the megas aren't all alike. Carnival's and Costa's ships are the most theme-park-like, with their over-the-top decor and ambience. NCL's are probably the most whimsical, with an overall design sense tuned to "fun," and a dollop of elegance in some rooms. Royal Caribbean's megas blend a lot of flash with some elegant areas; Princess goes for a sort of Pottery Barn design sense and fun but not-too-daring activities and shows; Holland America and Disney blend tradition with some bright, modern spaces; and Celebrity is all about chic modernity.

As a general rule, these ships are so large that they're limited as to where they can go. Ships in the 100,000-ton range are currently too big to fit through the Panama Canal, and so operate from the same coast year-round -- West Coast ships doing Mexico itineraries in winter and Alaska in summer, say; East Coast ships either staying in the Caribbean year-round or spending the summers sailing in Europe or New England/Canada. (Note that this may change in 2014, when the Canal's planned expansion is complete.) Some ports also lack docking facilities to accommodate these huge ships, meaning you either won't visit them at all or you'll have to be tendered ashore in shuttle boats.

SuperMegaships (3,600-5,400 passengers)

As if megaships weren't big enough, in the past few years cruise lines have been introducing vessels so large that they need their own supersized category. The trend sort of began with the introduction of Queen Mary 2 in 2004, though that enormous vessel -- at 150,000 gross tons and 1,132 feet in length -- actually carries "only" 2,592 passengers, double occupancy (about the same number Carnival crams into vessels only two-thirds her size). The real monsters first hit the seas in 2006, when Royal Caribbean introduced the 160,000-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas (and later, sister ships Liberty and Independence). In Freedom's wake, Royal Caribbean upped itself with the over-the-top Oasis of the Seas, a 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger leviathan that will debut in late 2009, after this book goes to press, and Norwegian Cruise Line began planning the 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic, which debuts in May 2010. All these ships offer everything you find on a normal megaship and then some, with innovations only their enormo-size makes possible.

Midsize Ships (600-1,800 Passengers)

For a while it looked as if midsize vessels were going the way of the dodo, but the past few years have seen a small resurgence in their fortunes.

The term midsize is, of course, relative. Weighing in at between 20,000 and 60,000 gross tons, most of these ships are still larger than some of the great old ocean liners. (Titanic, for instance, was only 46,000 tons.) They're plenty big and spacious enough to provide a diverse cruise experience, though you won't find the range of activities and attractions you do on the megaships. Consider that a good thing: For some people, a more toned-down, lower-key cruise is just what the doctor ordered. Oceania and Azamara both operate three vessels carrying about 700 passengers apiece, with a country-club-type setting. Though somewhat larger, most of Holland America's fleet and part of MSC Cruises's fleet also fit the midsize description, aside from their newest classes of ships.

Among the true ultraluxury lines, midsize is about as big as it gets. Crystal and Regent Seven Seas both operate ships in the 50,000-ton range, carrying 700 to 940 passengers -- a telling figure when you consider that MSC's similarly sized ships pack in twice as many guests. Along with high-toned service, cuisine, and amenities, personal space is a major difference between the mainstream and luxe lines.

Small Ships (12-312 Passengers)

If the thought of sailing with thousands of other people makes you want to jump overboard, a smaller ship may be more up your alley. Small ships are ideal for those who crave a calm, intimate experience where conversation is king. As in a small town, you'll quickly get to know your neighbors, because you'll see the same faces at meals and on deck throughout the week.

The small ships in this book can be broken down into four groups: sailing ships, coastal and river cruisers, expedition ships, and small luxury ships.

Sailing ships, obviously, have sails. But what's not necessarily obvious is how much -- or how little -- those sails are used to actually propel the ship. On Maine's coast, the independently owned schooners of the Maine Windjammer Association are honest-to-God sail-powered vessels, most without engines of any kind. If the wind stops blowing, their only option is to let down their motorized yawl boat and push the ship until it catches a breeze. The ships of Star Clippers, Sea Cloud, and Windstar, on the other hand, usually operate under wind power for a part of each cruise, but they have engines to do most of the pushing. All these vessels tend to attract as many passengers in their 30s as in their 70s, all of them looking for something a little different from a regular cruise.

Most of the other small ships in this book are coastal and river cruisers -- small vessels designed to sail in protected coastal waters and rivers. Very casual (and for the most part relatively plain), these ships provide cruises oriented heavily toward nature, wildlife-watching, culture, and history, with onboard naturalists to help interpret what you see. In addition to coastal cruisers, Cruise West and Lindblad also operate tougher expedition ships able to sail in the open ocean.

The small luxury ships of high-end lines such as Seabourn, Silversea, and SeaDream have a refined, ultra-elegant ambience. Cabins are spacious, service is gracious, gourmet meals are served on fine china, and guests dress the part. These ships have few activities besides watersports, putting more emphasis on quiet relaxation and visits to high-end ports such as St. Barts. American Safari Cruises operates truly tiny 12- and 22-passenger yachts. Service oriented like the luxe ships, they also have an adventure-travel vibe, with lots of built-in active excursions.

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