October 27, 2004 -- Tis the season to be sailing...

There's nothing quite like spending the holidays on the high seas. Even on the newest, splashiest ships, the mood is warm and fuzzy. Think Bing Crosby and White Christmas.

During the weeks of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's, many ships go all out getting dressed for the occasion, decking their halls with twinkling Christmas trees, poinsettias and gingerbread houses. Holiday music sweeps across the decks, traditional meals from turkey and stuffing to potato latkes and matzo are served, and Santa can always be counted on for a quick visit with a bag of toys. Typically, a priest, rabbi and minister are aboard to conduct holiday services in a lounge and a menorah is lighted during the eight days of Hanukkah. The New Year is always ushered in with a traditional countdown, complete with party horns, confetti and a complimentary glass of bubbly.

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If you're looking for the biggest holiday bash, a good rule of thumb is the bigger the ship, the bigger the spread. Lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Cunard and Crystal pay homage to Santa and his crew with great fanfare. Smaller-ship lines, from Silversea to Star Clippers, Clipper, Seabourn and SeaDream Yacht Club, go about the holidays in a more subtle fashion, offering seasonal music, traditional holiday meals and refreshments, and tasteful decorations.

No matter the size of ship you choose, though, holiday cruises are bustling, social affairs. Ships generally sail at full capacity during the holidays, and there are often more families aboard than any other time of the year. The 2,500- to 3,500-passenger megaships may easily see 1,000+ passengers under age 18, while the much smaller ultra-luxe cruisers can carry as many as 50 to 100 children during the holidays.

Though traditionally among the most popular weeks of the year for the cruise industry, Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus, points out you can still get a good deal. According to Funk, while cruise pricing is generally picking up steam after the lows of the past few years, rates for year-end holidays still haven't completely bounced back after 9/11.

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"Prices are higher than the same time last year, but still lower than historic highs," he says. For example, during New Year's 1997, Funks reports that a low-category inside cabin on Carnival's Ecstasy for a 4-night west Caribbean cruise went for as low as $954 per person (not including port charges), while a longer 7-night Caribbean cruise on Celebrity's Millennium this New Year's, starts at a lower price point, $761 per person, without port charges. You do the math.

If you take the holiday plunge this year, here's what to expect from a sampling of cruise lines.

Carnival (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com), the self-proclaimed fun-ship line, doesn't hold back at the holidays. The fleet is decked out in wreaths, lights, mistletoe and Christmas trees. A gala stage show features a set designed with a faux oversized fireplace, large sofas and a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by the children on board. The festive performance closes with a group of crewmembers representing the many different nationalities on board singing "Silent Night." On Christmas Day, Santa stops by to distribute toys to kids and other special activities include holiday movies and readings of nostalgic stories, like "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by the ship's staff.

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Aside from lots of activities geared to parents, family-friendly Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) goes overboard to please kids too. On Christmas day, the fleet's Adventure Ocean program keeps kids in the holiday spirit, decorating Christmas cookies, taking pictures with Santa, doing arts and crafts, caroling around the ship and watching holiday movies. On New Year's Eve, the group playroom is open extra late so mom and dad can ring in the New Year, while the kids have their own countdown party with the Adventure Ocean staff. Teens, of course, do their own thing in the ships' teen centers.

After the confetti has been thrown and champagne corks popped, Princess (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com) brings in the new year with a day of football fun. Watch the bowl games on the giant 300-square-foot LCD screens attached to the funnels on the Caribbean and Grand Princess ships. Settle back in one of the 200 comfy chaise lounges and watch the game while munching on free popcorn. Ships without the outdoor screens, offer football parties in lounges, with a full spread of snacks, from chips to mini hot dogs and burgers.

Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) Hawaii-based ship, the Pride of Aloha, is offering its own special tropical taste of the holidays. In addition to the traditional tree and Christmas spirit, the ship's restaurants feature yummy dishes like Hawai'ian lobster and pumpkin bisque, turkey with mango-macadamia nut stuffing, and creamy egg nog, mango and papaya soup.

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If barefoot and carefree are more your speed, then Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' (tel. 800/327-2601; www.windjammer.com) fleet of ultra-casual tall ships are paradise for the holidays. For Christmas, the railings and masts of the classic beauties are strung with lights and a big ole decorated tree takes up residence on the rustic wooden decks. For New Year's Eve, the party line lives up to its legacy by offering a raging bash, complete with noise makers, champagne at midnight, and cheap drinks flowing into the wee hours -- bottles of beer are just $2 and mixed drinks are $3.

Crystal (tel. 866/446-6625; www.crystalcruises.com) doesn't spare any expense when decorating for the holidays. In fact, the line displays some $100,000 of seasonal d├ęcor on its three elegant 940- and 1,080-passenger ships, from handmade ornaments to ornate sleighs, Old English toy soldiers and a dozen Christmas trees a piece. Plus, traditional activities include a Christmas tree lighting ceremony hosted by the Captain complete with carols, cookies and hot chocolate.

For something more low-key, SeaDream Yacht Club's (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtlcub.com) pair of 110-passenger mega yachts represent what the smaller, ultra-luxe ships do during to celebrate the holidays. Tasteful decorations include poinsettias in public rooms and staterooms, plus a Christmas tree in the Reception area and Main Salon, and fresh wreathes (no plastic!) placed throughout the ship. On Christmas day, happenings include a teatime featuring traditional Christmas fare and a cocktail hour serenaded by caroling crewmembers. All passengers receive a lovely gift from one of Seadream owner Atle Brynestad's glass and porcelain factories in Norway and Sweden -- last year it was an elegant handmade crystal ball. On New Year's Day a special "Hangover" brunch is served late between 11am and 2pm, followed later by dinner up on deck.

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Giving the Gift of the Deal

Carnival is offering these holiday bargains in the Caribbean (rates are for inside cabins and include port charges): a 7-nighter on the brand new Carnival Valor departs Miami December 19 and starts at $849 per person for the first and second passenger and $619 for the third and fourth guest; a 7-nighter on the new Carnival Conquest departs from New Orleans on December 19 and starts at $989 for the first two passengers and $669 for the third and fourth; an 8-night cruise on the Carnival Legend out of Ft. Lauderdale on December 21 is going for $1,099 for the first two passengers and $729 for the third and fourth; while a quickie 3-night Bahamas cruise from Miami December 24 on the 10-year-old Fascination starts at $379 for the first two passengers and $329 for the third and fourth.

Luxury operator Crystal Cruises is offering 14-night cruises over Christmas and New Year's from US ports on all three of its ships. On the Harmony's December 21 Caribbean trip out of New Orleans, fares start at $3,495 per person and children under age 12 sail free when sharing a stateroom with two adults.

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Small-ship operator, Clipper Cruise Line (tel. 800/325-0010; www.clippercruise.com), offers a low-key holiday vibe on its cozy ships. Specials include 50%-per-person discounts and $250 single supplements for the 7-night December 19 cruise along Florida's gold coast on the 102-passenger Nantucket Clipper; rates begin at $1,870 per person. For something more exotic, the line is doling out 25%-per-person discounts and $250 single supplements for the 15-night December 21 Antarctica and Falkland Islands cruise on the 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer; rates start at $7,990 per person and include all sightseeing and shore excursions. If the islands of green New Zealand are more your speed, take advantage of 50%-per-person discounts on the 11-night cruise-tour departing December 21 on the 128-passenger Clipper Odyssey.

Have your taken a cruise for the holidays? Post your "Ship Report" on our Cruise Message Boards today.

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