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Holidays Afloat: The Best Christmas, Chanukah & New Year's Cruises

November 21, 2003 -- Ah, the holidays: chestnuts roasted on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, yuletide carols, choirs, folks dressed like Eskimos. Classic. Cheerful... And cold. Maybe real cold. And maybe you're supposed to cook this year too. Or maybe Bob invited you to his awful New Year's party again. There's still time to come up with an alternative, and if you're planning to hit the eggnog and champagne, why not name a cruise ship as your designated driver? Most cruise lines make big plans for their holiday guests, and there's still time to sign up and enjoy the ride.

Cruise ships and holidays are a natural match: Both are in the good-times business. And when you sail during the holiday season you get the fun of built-in parties and feast-quality meals plus someone else to cook them, someone else to do the decorating and entertaining, and someone else to clean up the mess afterward. The only thing they don't do is write out your cards.

It's a little too late for a Thanksgiving departure, but here's a rundown of the best cruises being offered for Christmas and New Year's, with details on what kinds of holiday cheer the different lines have planned. Prices listed reflect what's being offered by the cruise lines and major online sellers as of mid-November 2003. Since cruises are capacity-controlled and demand is high for holiday sailings, prices are likely to rise as sailing dates get closer.

Christmas Cruises

Cunard QE2: Classic British-Style Christmas in the Caribbean -- Launched in 1967, Cunard's QE2 has a lock on classic, and is undoubtedly the most famous vessel at sea today. Catering to a well-traveled, soft-spoken, and heavily British clientele in their fifties and up (plus some families in the Caribbean), she offers an onboard experience that's genteel British all the way, from the formal service to the mixed modern and traditional decor, with its burlwood paneling, art deco room dividers, teak decking, and etched glass. In the lovely Chart Room lounge, a pianist performs on the grand piano from the old Queen Mary, while the Golden Lion Pub has an impressive selection of international beers and ales and a mini-Harrods shop sells its signature green totes, stuffed bears, and cookies.

Guests on QE2's 15-night holiday cruise can embark in New York on December 21 or two days later in Ft. Lauderdale. From there, the ship spends Christmas Eve and Christmas day cruising the Atlantic, then sails to St. Lucia, Martinique, Barbados, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas, with New Year's Eve and day again spent at sea en route back to Ft. Lauderdale and New York.

This year's holiday voyage will feature a Festival of Carols in the public rooms, "Father Christmas" handing out toys to all the children on board, a gala Christmas dinner followed by a yuletide show in the main lounge, and religious services. Hanukkah will also be observed with the traditional festivities, and the traditional British celebration of Boxing Day will be observed on December 26. New Year's Eve will be a black-tie gala, with deck party hats, noisemakers, and streamers provided.

Cabins are still available, with research turning up some wildly divergent fares, from $3,449 per person at to $6,485 elsewhere. Contact Cunard at 800/7-CUNARD,

Disney's Magic and Wonder: A Fantasy Christmas for the Whole Family -- If you've got young kids, this is the best Christmas cruise you can buy. And is that any surprise? After all, it's Disney's job to create magical family experiences that pull at the heartstrings, and that's what most of us want from Christmas.

The experience starts at Disney's cruise terminal at Port Canaveral, Florida, where Disney characters dressed in their season's best greet passengers as they check in. On board, both of the line's near-identical ships are decked with Christmas trees and boughs of holly, accentuating their beautiful retro decor. Both classic and ultramodern, the vessels are designed to evoke the grand transatlantic liners but also boast a handful of innovative features, including extra-large cabins for families, several restaurants through which passengers rotate on every cruise, fantastic Disney-inspired entertainment, separate adult pools and lounges, and the biggest kids' facilities at sea.

Christmas sailings on Disney feature a whole raft of holiday-themed entertainment and activities. In the main atrium, a tree-lighting ceremony features faux snow falling on the crowd. Elsewhere, members of the crew perform international holiday carols, Mrs. Claus reads "T'was the Night Before Christmas," and families can get together to design and decorate their own gingerbread houses. On Christmas day, multiple faith and inter-denominational holiday services are held, "Santa Goofy" pays a visit and distributes gifts to all the children onboard, and traditional Christmas feasts are thrown in the ships' three dining rooms.

Disney's Christmas sailings are extremely popular, so only select cabin categories are still available at this writing. Disney Magic offers a 7-night cruise from Port Canaveral departing December 20, visiting Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. Currently, per-person prices are hovering around $2,700. Disney Wonder sails a 4-night cruise from Port Canaveral departing December 24, spending Christmas day at sea, then visiting Nassau and Castaway Cay. Prices run from $1,140 per person. Contact Disney Cruise Line: 888/325-2500,

NCL's Norwegian Dawn: Snowbird Ship Heads South -- The only cruise ship currently operating year-round from New York, Norwegian Dawn offers northeastern travelers a way to beat both the cold weather and the airport blues, heading south from New York on December 21 toward Florida and the Bahamas.

One of my favorite ships of the past few years, Dawn offers ten different onboard restaurants, from fancy steakhouses and teppanyaki restaurants to casual Tex-Mex and burger joints. Public areas throughout are fanciful and extremely spacious, done in a mix of bright, Caribbean- and Miami-themed decor and high style art deco, with lots of nooks and some downright wonderful lounges and bars mixed in among all the restaurant choices. Dawn comes with a healthy dose of Latin Miami in her music and entertainment as well, with an excellent onboard salsa band. For kids, the T-Rex Kids' Center is a knockout, huge and so completely kid-centric that I wished I was five again. For adults, the El Dorado Spa's indoor pool complex is an elegant, Mayan-themed space with a large lap pool, hot tub, jet-massage pool, and sunny windowed seating areas furnished with wooden deck chairs. It's one of my favorite spaces aboard the recent crop of cruise ships, harking back to the indoor pools on the classic transatlantic liners.

For its Christmas/Hannukah sailing, Dawn offers seasonal decorations and a special holiday menu featuring seasonal favorites, from egg nog, pumpkin pie, and traditional roast turkey with all of the trimmings to traditional Christmas stollen and other desserts. A Catholic priest and a Protestant minister will conduct Christmas Eve services on December 24, and a rabbi will conduct services on each day of Chanukah. On Christmas day, Santa Claus will give a gift to each child on board.

Norwegian Dawn sails from New York on December 21, visiting Port Canaveral, Miami, Great Stirrup Cay (NCL's private beach in the Bahamas), and Nassau before heading back to New York. Prices are currently starting around $770 per person. Contact Norwegian Cruise Line: 800/327-7030,

Other Great Christmas Choices -- Holland America's flagship, Rotterdam, sails a 12-night Caribbean/Panama Canal cruise from Ft. Lauderdale on December 22, with both Christmas and New Year's celebrated onboard. The ship's classy interior is decorated with Christmas trees, wreathes, and poinsettias, the international crew serenades guests with Christmas carols from around the world, and holiday movies are screened in the theater. Rates currently start at around $2,000. Contact Holland America Line: 877/724-5425,

Princess's two Florida-based Grand-class ships, Golden Princess and Grand Princess, are another classy choice, offering Christmas cruises departing December 20 and 21 (respectively) Ft. Lauderdale. Both ships are trimmed with holiday decorations, and seasonal entertainment includes themed production shows, music, and films. Kids' activities include parties, singalongs, a holiday play, and crafts classes where they create ornaments for the ship's Christmas tree. Rates currently start around $900 for both ships. Contact Princess Cruises: 800-PRINCESS,

New Year's Cruises

Carnival Conquest, Destiny, Victory, and Paradise: Fun Ships for a Fun Night -- If there was ever a night when Carnival's typical over-the-top decor and party-boat atmosphere were absolutely, perfectly appropriate, it's New Year's Eve.

Even though it's come a long way from its notoriously raucous early years, Carnival's still the line of choice for the party crowd. The line with the most recognized name in the biz serves up a very casual, very down-to-earth, very middle-American vacation full of activities, some of the best entertainment in the biz, pretty good eats, and an electric onboard vibe. Though the decor on its newest ships isn't quite as in-your-face as it once was, it's still pretty outrageous, and that's part of the fun: Carnival ships provide a fantasyland you can't get at home.

For New Year's, Carnival's ships are all decorated for the season, and guests are provided with party favors, noisemakers, and complimentary champagne. Weather permitting, the big party is out on deck, with festivities starting around 10pm, but there's really nowhere on board that's not caught up in the mood, with big-band music in the showroom leading up to the big countdown at midnight.

  • Carnival Conquest sails a 7-night western Caribbean itinerary from New Orleans, departing December 28 and visiting Montego Bay (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, Cozumel. Current prices start at just under $1,000 per person.
  • Carnival Victory and the entirely smoke-free Paradise both sail from Miami on December 28.
  • Victory visits San Juan, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas, with rates starting around $900.
  • Paradise visits Belize, Roatan (Honduras), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, with rates starting around $950.
  • Destiny sails from San Juan, Puerto Rico, visiting St. Thomas, Martinique, Barbados, and Aruba. Rates start around $750.

Contact Carnival Cruise Lines, tel. 888/CARNIVAL,

Royal Caribbean's Voyager-Class Ships:

Who Needs Times Square? -- Royal Caribbean's five Voyager-class ships are the largest, most activity-packed cruise ships in the world, with onboard rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, in-line skating tracks, full-size basketball courts, huge kids' centers and video gamerooms, and more bars and noshing options than you can shake a stick at. What really makes these ships A-1 choices for New Year's, though, is their four-story, boulevard-like Royal Promenades, running fore to aft, lined with shops, bars, cafes, and entertainment venues, and anchored at each end by soaring 10-story atria. They're veritable Times Squares at sea, party central at countdown time, with party favors and a champagne toast. The ships' gorgeous three-story restaurants serve a special holiday menu to get you in the mood.

A perfect compromise for couples who can't decide between a tropical cruise and a city vacation, the Voyager ships are the first vessels to really live up to the old "city at sea" clich?Each carries 3,114 guests at double occupancy, but since many staterooms have third and fourth berths, total capacity for each vessel can (and sometimes does) reach as high as 3,838. Remarkably, though, the ships never feel crowded. Kudos go to the crew for efficiency, and also to Royal Caribbean for a design that features enough appealing public areas to diffuse crowds comfortably-it's entirely possible to be aboard for six days, turn a corner, and find yourself in a room you've never seen before. Favorite spots and features? The promenade's English/Irish pubs, the new Latin-themed Bolero's Bar, the excellent ice-shows, impromptu entertainment from gangs of roving clowns, lovely champagne bars, and the great 19th Hole sports bars way up on the top decks.

  • Adventure of the Seas sails from San Juan on December 28, visiting Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas. Rates currently start at just under $1,100.

  • Navigator of the Seas sails from Miami on December 27, visiting Labadee (a private beach in Haiti), Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. Prices start from just under $1,200.
  • Voyager of the Seas sails from Miami on December 28, visiting Belize, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman. Rates start above $1,300.
  • Explorer of the Seas sails from Miami on December 27, visiting San Juan, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau. Prices currently start above $1,675.
  • The newest of the class, Mariner of the Seas, sails from Port Canaveral on December 28, visiting Labadee, Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. Prices start above $1,815.

Not quite as Times-Squarish as the Voyager ships, Royal Caribbean's older Grandeur of the Seas is also a good New Year's bet, sailing from party-ready New Orleans on December 27 and visiting Key West, Cozumel, and Costa Maya. Her big New Year's party is held on the pool deck (weather permitting) and in all the other bars onboard. Prices currently start around $1,100. For more information contact Royal Caribbean International at 800/327-6700 or

Celebrity Mercury: Adults-Only Cruise from San Diego -- New Year's Eve never was and never will be a kid-friendly celebration, so Celebrity took the bull by the horns and added Mercury's December 29 Mexican Riviera cruise to its list of "Celebrity Escape" adults-only sailings.

Mercury has been one of my favorite ships ever since I saw her launched from the shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, back in 1997. Completely modern, with a knockout collection of contemporary art and a sleek and sophisticated decor, she also harks back to the classic ocean liners with chic deco touches and warm wood tones. It's difficult to say what's most striking on board: The elegant Moorish-style spa with its 15,000-gallon hydrotherapy pool? The twin three- and four-story atria with their domed ceilings of painted glass and serpentine staircases? The distinguished Michael's Club piano lounge with its leather wingback chairs and velvet couches? The Astaire-worthy two-story dining rooms with their grand floor-to-ceiling windows? The excellent service and cuisine? Take your pick.

On her New Year's cruise, Mercury will offer seasonal decoration, a special nondenominational service to bless both passengers and vessel on December 31, a New Year's gala dinner with champagne in the main restaurant, and parties in all the public lounges. In addition, the regular amenities of all Celebrity's adults-only sailings include late-night comedy acts (including an adult-themed show), onboard games including a scavenger hunt for adults, and extended late-night spa hours.

Mercury's 11-night itinerary departs San Diego on December 29, visiting Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, and Manzanillo. Prices currently start around $1,100 per person. For more information contact Celebrity Cruises at 800/722-5941 or

Other Great New Year's Choices -- For those with the cash for paradise, Ultra-luxe line Radisson Seven Seas Cruises is offering a 7-night Tahiti cruise aboard the lovely Paul Gauguin, sailing from Papeete on December 27 and visiting Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora Bora, with New Year's days spent in Moorea. Prices are currently starting around $4,000 per person. Radisson Seven Seas: 800/477-7500,