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Great cruise vacations.

Have you wanted to take a cruise, but 1) thought it would be too expensive, 2) would take too much time, or 3) you wouldn't find other people with whom you have things in common? If so, throw out those old notions and read on. Cruising is no longer a privilege of the rich and retired; it's for everyone--young and old, singles and families, couch potatoes and the athletically-inclined. Whatever your lifestyle, there is a cruise to suit your desires.

"Perceptions about cruising have changed," says Denine Rodney, vice president for Accent Travel and Tours, a black-owned travel agency in New York City.

"The industry's mass-marketing efforts have helped travelers discover that cruises are more affordable than they ever imagined."

Travel professionals agree that there has never been a better time to sail. Although cruise lines generally increase fares by 2% to 5% each year, the lingering recession has helped slash rates by as much as 30%--bargains that are expected to hold through 1993. And by booking with a cruise discounter, you can sail on some ships for as little as $700 per person, double occupancy (plus air).

Thanks in part to deal-seeking travelers, cruising has emerged as the fastest-growing segment of the leisure-travel market. The industry has sailed ahead at a rate of 10% a year since 1987. In 1991 alone, 3.9 million American passengers boarded cruise ships at U.S. ports, says Jay Lewis, president of Market Scope Inc., a Miami-based cruise consulting firm,

What's the draw? "Cruising is an all-inclusive vacation," Lewis says. "You get accommodations, dining and entertainment all for one price. It's also a good way to visit foreign ports without giving up the comforts of an American lifestyle." Another plus: Most cruises include round-trip air fare.

Today, there are 15 major cruise lines in the United States (see sidebar), each offering different itineraries, amenities and price tiers. So how do you choose? "Selecting a cruise is like buying a car," says Tara Rogers, vice president of World Wide Cruises Inc., a discounter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You can buy a Chevy or a Rolls Royce--it all depends on your budget, your destination and the type of ship you want to travel on." You'll find that accommodations run the gamut, too--from an inside cabin on a lower deck with basic amenities to a deluxe outside suite with a wet bar and a balcony. Rather than wade through all the possibilities yourself, it's best to work closely with a good travel agent.

Whether you opt for budget or luxury class, keep in mind that cruise prices are seasonal. Typically, mid-September to November are bargain months, when prices can drop as much as 30% from their peak-season (Christmas through March) highs.

Blacks Take To The High Seas

Years ago, the only African-Americans you'd find on a ship most likely worked there. But today, we're taking to the seas in style. Only 5% of Americans have ever embarked on a cruise, but a recent BLACK ENTERPRISE survey found that more than 17% of subscribers have cruised within the past three years.

And the industry is taking note. As the black cruise market strengthens, agencies and cruise lines are responding with ethnic and culturally themed packages. Philadelphia-based Premier Travel Center Inc. (800-800-7207) is offering a "Family Jazz Cruise," Aug. 1-8, 1993 aboard Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas. The ship will make stops in Mexico and four Caribbean isles before returning to Miami. Cruise packages run from $1,345 to $2,595. Heritage Tours International in Fort Lauderdale (305-755-6180) is planning "A Taste of Blackness" cruise April 30 to May 8, 1993. Leaving from Miami, the cruise will stop in San Juan, St. Thomas and Puerta Plata, Mexico, and will feature a fashion show, gospel revival and workshops. Rates range from $925 (per person, double occupancy) for inside cabins to $1,745 for suites.

The only way to find out how great cruises can be is to try one yourself.

My husband and I recently took a seven-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas. Here's what we found.

Setting Sail And Getting Settled

Boarding is quick and easy. A crew member greets us as we arrive and directs us to our deck. He then explains that we'll need to return to the purser's desk to establish a line of credit (for drinks and incidentals), since cash is not accepted on board.

We find our "stateroom" with ease. It's an outside cabin with twin daybeds forming an L against the wall. They would be our seating area by day, then joined at night to become a full-sized bed. Though our cabin is compact, we find its comforts surprising: a 13-inch color TV, for instance, and a wall-mounted phone. Small closets are organized with cataloglike precision; the bathroom is basic (no tub) but has a concealed laundry line for wet swimsuits.

As we unpack, our cabin steward drops by to let us know he is at our beck and call. Then a tone bell, followed by a voice, announces we're about to set sail and that afterward there will be a safety drill. We find our life vests stowed above the closet and head for the deck.

Joining us on the Sovereign, we learn, are 2,496 passengers and 822 crew members, from 43 different countries. Aboard this 14-story, 73,000-ton behemot h, we'll spend the next week plying the tranquil waters of the Caribbean, making our way to the farthest destination, St. Thomas, first. On course, we will pass Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico before arriving in the Virgin Islands.

On our first night, dinner is casual. (Most passengers comply with the "suggested" dress code.) We're assigned the first seating for all meals, which means we'll dine at 6:15 p.m. Arriving at the 650-seat dining room, we meet our dinner companions, a friendly couple from California and their adult son. We're also greeted by our waiter, wine steward and busboy--each is warm, friendly and anxious to please. (After all, when the week is over, they hope to be rewarded with a generous gratuity.) What cruise veterans say is certainly true: You will never go hungry. Food is served on board 24 hours a day, from "early bird coffee" at 6:30 a.m. to the lavish midnight buffet. Dinner each night takes on a different ethnic theme, from appetizers to desserts. And as if that's not enough, all-night room service is available, too, at no extra charge.

Floating Resort

After our meal, my husband and I decide to check out the ship. She is impressive. The main lobby, the Centrum, is spectacular, executed in glass and brass. Glass elevators quietly glide passengers up and down the five-story lobby. Near a fountain sits a baby grand, where a pianist plays familiar melodies during cocktail hour. Strolling around the lobby we discover boutiques, a beauty salon and the ship casino.

There's a hugh theater for Vegas-style shows, a cabaret lounge, plus another offering live Big Band sounds. Still more nightlife can be found at th e piano bar and disco. For a relaxing evening, passengers can try the champagne bar or glass-enclosed cocktail lounge high above deck.

Family Funnin'

A ship the size of Sovereign is ideal for families. Staffers keep children and teens busy around the ship with organized activities by day; for night there's a video arcade and even a teen disco party.

Adults are well-taken care of, too. Try the daily bridge tournament, or take in a movie at either of two, plush 160-seat theaters showing Hollywood flicks. You can relax in the outdoor jacuzzi, go for a refreshing swim in either salt- or fresh-water pools, or enjoy a sauna at the spa. There's also a quarter-mile jogging/walking track and a fitness program of aerobics classes and other sports.

After two days at sea, around sunrise, we pull into the Charlotte Amalie harbor in St. Thomas. To help passengers make the most of their day ashore, the ship's tour desk offers a variety of island excursions for a fee. My husbaand and I decide, however, to wing it on our own. After browsing the dutyfree shops, we tour the island with three other couples for a bargain $10 each. Returning to the ship, we set sail late afternoon for our next destinati on, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

We come into port about 10 p.m. under a crystal-clear moonlit sky. About 2 p.m. on Wednesday, we shove off again, heading for our next and final destination, RCCL's private Bahamian island, Coco Cay.

Friday morning, we anchor and go ashore via motorized ferry. Signing up volunteers, the activity staff gears up for volleyball games, sandcastle building and other beach fun. Nearby, a straw market draws shoppers.

After a lunchtime barbecue feast, we reboard the ferries and return to the ship by midafternoon. Our cruise is winding down. Already, it's time to head back to Miami.

At our "debarkation talk" later that night, we are instructed to place our packed bags outside our doors for screening by U.S. Customs officials. It also is here that we're informed about customary tipping: $3 per person per day for our cabin steward and waiter, $1.50 for the busboy and something in between for the head waiter.

With passports, declaration cards, video cam and stereo in hand, we said goodbye to the Sovereign of the Seas, but only for now. As the saying goes: "Once you do it, you can't stop." Maybe we'll see you on board!
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Whigham-Desir, Marjorie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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