Charters create faux fleet for tour companies

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NORWALK, Conn. -- If you were to make your grand entrance into the Cote dAzur by yacht, the Le Ponant would be a good way to go.

Its a three-masted power yacht with a 30-person French crew and a canopied, al fresco casual dining area. Its lines are sleek -- with sails unfurled it looks like a racing yacht, just the thing for sunbathing on the French Riviera. And its Tauck World Discoverys chartered vessel in the Mediterranean.

Tour operators typically dont own the cruise ships they sell. They charter them for one or several sailings, which often makes for an unusual fleet.

General Tours cruise programs use river ships from Viking River Cruises and Peter Deilmanns fleets. Abercrombie & Kent, meanwhile, makes use of several wildly different (but all luxury) vessels: the legendary Sea Cloud, American Safari Cruises Safari Quest, two Bora Bora Cruises yachts in the Tahitian Islands, Windstars Wind Surf and the Clipper Odyssey.

The programs can be anywhere from a full-ship charter to a few cabins on reserve for tour passengers. Each cruise, just like each cruise ship, is a little different.

The cruises also can give enthusiasts a chance to sail the seas on a ship thats usually not marketed to North Americans.

Take Le Ponant, for example, which typically sells in the French market. Up to 60 discerning guests -- thats Taucks word -- can sail Le Ponant on voyages like its nine- or 11-day A Week in the Mediterranean voyages, which include a cruise from Malta to Nice by way of the Amalfi coast and Corsica. The tours include visits to Monacos famed Monte Carlo -- but its on the land-based side of the tour.

On Taucks Treasures of the Aegean, a 14-night tour and cruise between Athens and Istanbul, a seven-night land tour bookends a seven-day cruise. This tour doesnt use Le Ponant, though. Tauck blocked 20 cabins on nine sailings of the Wind Star, a 149-passenger, five-masted vessel.

Tauck also uses Le Levant, Le Ponants sister ship in the Baltic region, the Dalmatian coast and the Panama Canal. Its a super-sleek, 90-passenger power yacht.

One of Taucks new programs for 2005 is a 12-day Blue Danube cruise on the 110-passenger river ship, the Switzerland II.

Abercrombie & Kents cruises on the Sea Cloud, meanwhile, are a different sort of experience. The Sea Cloud was built in 1931 as the private yacht of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Its features include fireplaces in the cabins, oak paneling, oil paintings and marble bathtubs. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a frequent guest onboard the ship.

A&K offers two options for guests eager to try the Sea Cloud: a seven-day roundtrip cruise from Antigua to the British Virgin Islands, Dominica and Ilses des Saintes departing Feb. 12, and a 10-night Greece tour with a seven-day cruise built in, departing Oct. 14.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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