Niche grows even as big-ship fleets expand

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NEW YORK -- The cruise industry's dominant suppliers are building large ships at a rate unprecedented in the 30-plus years of the modern industry's history.

The new ships are so big they are rewriting the definitions of "large" and "small" cruise vessels, making yesterday's 50,000-ton megaship the equivalent of today's midsize liner.

But the expansion of the big-ship market also is spurring growth among cruising's small-ship fleets. In fact, there are now more small-ship cruise options than at any time in recent memory.

Small cruise ships not only sail throughout North America's inland rivers and coastal ports, but across international waters to Europe, Asia and the Far East.

Even among small ships, passenger capacities and tonnages, not to mention relative levels of service and accommodations, can vary. But for general purposes, "small" cruise ships are generally considered to be vessels of 350 or fewer passengers and measuring no more than 20,500 gross registered tons. (GRT does not represent a ship's weight, but cubic feet of enclosed, revenue-earning space).

Royal Clipper will offer seven-day Mediterranean cruises this summer. Although these smaller vessels generally lack the varied facilities and around-the-clock activity of the large cruise ships, they offer passengers a more intimate atmosphere akin to sailing aboard a private yacht.

The smaller vessels also feature smaller drafts, allowing the ships to venture into harbors and even small bays that are off limits to bigger ships.

So even as small ships journey to areas also served by large vessels (including Alaska and the Caribbean), the experiences are quite different.

The growing number of small-ship cruise options is an indirect result of cruising's increasing popularity as a mainstream vacation form.

As more and more vacationers opt for big-ship cruises, the number of experienced cruise passengers seeking alternative sailing experiences also is growing.

As a result, small-ship operators are rising to the challenge with an expanded group of vessels and international itineraries.

American Classic Voyages (ACV) offers a broad selection of small-ship steamboat cruises on U.S. rivers, plus coastal voyages in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest.

Delta Queen Coastal Voyages, ACV's coastal-cruise division, recently reached an agreement with CruisExcursions.com to create detailed port briefings and maps for 44 destinations, including the coastal U.S.

Later this year, Delta Queen Coastal will offer nine-day Columbia River journeys, departing roundtrip from Portland, Ore., aboard the 161-passenger Columbia Queen.

Rates, including port charges, transfer and taxes, start at $2,210 per person in May and $2,410 in June for an inside stateroom.

Another small-vessel operator, Clipper Cruise Line, is offering a 14-day voyage from Nome, Alaska, across the Bering Strait to Petropav-lovsk, Russia, departing Aug. 18.

The journey, aboard the 128-passenger Clipper Odyssey, is a first-time itinerary for Clipper.

Rates start at $6,510 per person and include roundtrip air from Anchorage to Nome and from Petropavlovsk to Anchorage, plus one hotel night in Anchorage.

Meanwhile, Clipper's 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer will explore Ireland's heritage and culture during a nine-day cruise to the coastal towns of the Emerald Isles.

The voyage is followed by two hotel nights at Adare Manor, located on the banks of the River Maigue. The journey begins June 28, with a reverse itinerary offered July 4.

Rates start at $5,185 per person. The cost includes roundtrip air, one hotel night in West Sussex, England, and one hotel night in Kent, England.

"Clipper Adventurer is designed for the traveler seeking natural beauty, cultural interest and the best on-board speakers, a 'National Geographic on Steroids' experience," said Jeff Drew, Clipper's senior vice president of sales.

Small-ship operator Cruise West, under a five-year partnership agreement with Temptress Adventure cruises, will offer a series of seven- and nine-day cruise packages to Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize aboard the 100-passenger Temptress Explorer.

From November to April, Temptress Explorer will offer roundtrip voyages between Costa Rica and Colon, Panama.

During the same period, the company will offer a nine-day itinerary between the same ports, with the addition of visits to the Darien Jungle and the San Blas Islands.

Star Clippers, which offers a variety of itineraries aboard three replica clipper ships, will sail to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Far East in 2001.

The line's largest vessel, the 5,000-ton Royal Clipper, is more than twice the size of sister ships Star Clipper and Star Flyer, and is marketed by the company as the world's largest sail-powered vessel.

This summer, Royal Clipper will offer seven-day Mediterranean cruises departing roundtrip from Cannes, France, with port calls in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia; Calvi, Corsica; Livorno and Portovenere, Italy, and Monte Carlo, Monaco.

An alternate itinerary, offered every other week, calls at France's Hyeres Islands; Mahon, Menorca; Palma, Majorca; Barcelona and Cap Cruies, Spain, and St. Tropez, France. Weekly departures are set to operate between May 26 and Oct. 6. Rates start at $1,445 per person, excluding air fare.

Windstar Cruises also is featuring Mediterranean cruises on its fleet of small ships this summer.

The 308-passenger Wind Surf will offer 26 Mediterranean and Adriatic/Amalfi coast sailings from May 5 to Nov. 3. Cruisers also can book consecutive seven-day sailings to create 14-day journeys at a special discount.

Thirteen of Wind Surf's Med cruises will focus on France and Italy, cruising between Nice, France, and Rome. Ports of call include Monte Carlo, St. Tropez, Portofino, Portoferraio and Portovenere, Italy, and Porto Vecchio, Corsica.

The Adriatic and Amalfi coast cruises venture between Venice and Rome, calling at Amalfi and Messina, Italy; Corfu, Greece, and Dubrovnik and Rab Island, Croatia.

Windstar's cruise/air transportation packages for Wind Surf's European voyages start at $3,531 per person.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Great Lakes Cruise Company is offering cruises on all five Great Lakes between June and November aboard Le Levant, a 90-passenger French cruise ship.

Le Levant will offer nine-day cruises visiting Chicago and Toronto on June 3 and Sept. 10. Great Lakes also is offering nine-day itineraries on Aug. 29, Sept. 5, Sept. 22 and Sept. 29 aboard another small ship, the Columbus.

American Safari Cruises, which specializes in California wine country voyages, offers four- and five-day sailings on the Napa and Petaluma rivers this fall aboard the 22-passenger Safari Quest.

The ship will make 14 departures between Oct. 1 and Nov. 16, with four-day cruises departing on Fridays and five-day cruises departing on Mondays.

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