Sunday, October 1, 2000

Travel feature: Honeymooners take to the seas

Greensboro News & Record-October 1, 2000

News & Record
Edition: ALL
Section: TRAVEL
Page: I1

        You worked for months, making sure the cake, flowers and ceremony are perfect.

        Then you exchanged vows, entertained family and friends and danced your way into your the arms of your new spouse.

        Now you are ready to relax. To spoil yourself, for a change.

        The way to do it is to put yourself in a floating city, filled with people who are there for one purpose: to serve you.

        Honeymoon cruises, once a luxury reserved for the wealthy, are becoming more and more common as couples appreciate the everything-included, upscale feel that cruising brings.

        ``More people are seeing cruising as a contemporary, affordable, high-value vacation,'' said James Godsman, president of Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group for the industry. ``At long last, cruises are being perceived as a hip vacation alternative.''

        According to the association, 5.85 million people from North America took a cruise in 1999. The association represents 25 cruise lines, or 97 percent of the North American cruise market.

        Just as colleges are made large and small, there are cruises for those who enjoy sailing with a few hundred passengers and for those sailing with more than 3,000 other vacationers. Ship-board amenities can range from a room with a balcony overlooking the ship's ice skating rink to a seat by the piano at dinner, aboard a smaller boat.

        While on board, honeymooners can be busy from 6 a.m. one day until 4 a.m. the next playing sports, gambling or relaxing in the spa, or they can snuggle into a deck chair under the sun and pass the whole day with a book and a cold, fruity drink.

        And although passengers will get to see many destinations during their vacation, they'll only have to unpack once, leaving more time for fun and relaxation.

        Kay Allred, owner of CruiseOne travel agency in Greensboro, says that more couples taking honeymoon cruises because of the ease of traveling. Lodging, food, entertainment and other daily activities - nearly everything except for shore excursions, beverages, spa services and souvenirs - are taken care of.

        ``You're so frazzled after you get married, you just want someone to pamper you,'' she says.

        And because so much is included, cruises actually cost 45 percent less than a similar land vacation might, says Allred, citing a cruise line association study.

        As for the notion that couples will get bored on a cruise with only sun and water for company, Allred says, ``Once they get on board and see all there is to do, they'll be amazed. There is so much to choose from for all interests and activity levels.'' Our love boat:

        My husband and I wed in April, and decided we wanted a honeymoon in the sun for about a week. I suggested that we might enjoy a cruise. I had been on several with my parents as a child, but had never taken one as an adult.

        We ended up booking a cabin on the Grand Princess, which was at the time was the largest ship afloat - 53 feet wider than the Panama Canal, and 49 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. (It has since been eclipsed several times, and will continue to be as cruise lines launch more and more supercruisers.)

        Many cruises leave on Sunday, some even on Mondays. Since most weddings are now held on Saturday, the newlyweds have some time to recover before jetting off. Our travel agent found us a Sunday morning flight to Fort Lauderdale after our Saturday night reception, and we sailed out of Fort Lauderdale at 7 p.m., bound for the Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays, the cruise line's private island in the Bahamas.

        One of our trip's highlights was the two relaxing days at sea before we became tourists on St. Maartin. We swam in several of the seven pools aboard the ship, read fiction, nonfiction and biographies in the ship's on-board library and even played nine holes of miniature golf under the sun on the sun deck.

        Certainly, we could have been busy constantly - trivia games and fitness activities began at 8 a.m. Monday morning, and the ship's own television station, hosted by the cruise director, began broadcasting at 6 a.m.Traditional cruise activities of Bingo and shuffleboard were also available, as were recent movies in the ship's theater.

        And then there was the food. After dieting for months for the wedding, the prospect of round-the-clock dining was a bit overwhelming. We chose to eat during the second seating, which began at 8:15 p.m. Most nights, that allowed us to enjoy the day's activities and then get cleaned up and ready for dinner without feeling rushed to get to first seating at 6 p.m.

        Our first night aboard, my husband chose a lobster cocktail in creamy mousseline and red caviar sauce, followed by acorn squash cream soup, a mixed baby spring green salad, milk-fed veal cordon bleu and stracciatella ice cream for dessert. I started with the spring California sunset fruit collection in rice wine, and I ordered the grilled marinated jumbo shrimp for my entree, followed by a dark Swiss chocolate truffle torte for dessert.

        So much for the diet.

        But we didn't have to go to the dining room for temptation to reach us. Each morning, we could have had breakfast delivered to our stateroom; room service was offered 24-hours-a-day for no additional charge. One afternoon, while relaxing in our stateroom, we called and ordered a chocolate chip cookie and glass of milk for each of us. Within five minutes, a tuxedoed gentleman arrived with our snack.

        But alcoholic drinks and shipboard merchandise cost extra. To charge these items, we handed our ``cruise card'' to the bartender and signed our name. The card, which was our passport on and off the ship, was also our room key and our ``credit card'' for all purchases onboard. Our names, cabin number, date of excursion, dining room assignment and even table number were printed right on the card. At the end of the cruise, we settled up our account with a credit card that we had provided upon check-in.

        While this system was convenient, it was also easy to run up a huge balance without realizing it. We kept track of our spending by checking in with the purser's desk every few days to get a statement.

        We met about 15 other honeymooners on board at a get-together organized by the cruise staff, but that was the extent of the planned activities.

        Other cruise lines - Carnival Cruise Lines in particular - cater more to young honeymooners and offer more planned activities, says Allred of CruiseOne. But we didn't miss them on our cruise.

        For a fee, most cruise lines offer an extra honeymoon package. This can include everything from champagne and flowers to a massage for two. We opted for a mid-priced option and received chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne, a framed formal portrait from one of the two formal nights aboard and a cake that was delivered by our dining room matre'd and waiter, accompanied by a rendition of ``Happy Honeymoon to You.''

        Foreign vows

        Some couples elect to take their honeymoon cruise one step further: exchanging vows on board.

        One positive aspect of this plan is that virtually all planning stress is erased. Many cruise lines will make the arrangements for you.

        ``Getting married on board a cruise ship allows the couple to have a memorable day with less of the stress normally associated with wedding planning,'' says Godsman of the cruise association. ``Cruise lines are combining the wedding ceremony with the honeymoon.''

        Many ships perform dockside weddings, in which the guests come aboard for the service and disembark before to sailing. Ten cruise lines, including Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princes Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, offer wedding packages that include such shipboard amenities as complimentary cake, a complimentary wine reception and flowers.

        Only Princess Cruises has been given the authority to perform weddings at sea. As of August, ninety-seven had couples exchanged vows in the Grand Princess's wedding chapel, according to Rick James, the cruise line's spokesman.

        Next year, when Princess launches its newest ship, the Golden Princess, it will also have a wedding chapel.

        ``More couples than ever will have the opportunity to make their day that much more special by exchanging their vows at sea,'' James said.

        How to select your cruise

        With all these options, selecting a cruise can be a bit overwhelming. To narrow the choices, Godsman, of the cruise association, suggests that potential cruisers take stock of their likes and dislikes, then go to a travel agent with ideas in mind. How long would you like to be gone? What is included? Where will I go? How active to I want to be?

        ``The key to any successful vacation, cruises included, is to have in mind a firm idea of what you want,'' he says.

        Most of Allred's honeymoon cruisers sail aboard larger ships to the Caribbean or to Hawaii. But smaller cruises to Alaska and in Europe are popular for older couples and those celebrating second marriages, Allred says: ``They are looking for something more exotic,'' Allred says.

        For honeymooners on a budget, Allred suggests the four largest cruise lines: Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. A cruise for two on one of these lines ranges from $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the length of the cruise.

        Also important is the number of amenities the couple wants. An inside stateroom on a lower deck will be much less expensive than a cabin on an upper floor with a private balcony.

        ``Just like there are different hotels for different people, there are different cruise lines and different categories,'' she said. ``The further in advance you book, the more likely you are to get really good rates.''

        As a bonus, family and friends can help defray the costs of a cruise to the honeymoon couple. Just as couples register for gifts in a store, Allred says, they can open a cruise registry so that people can make payments on the vacation as a gift.

        The couple's family and friends can also arrange for shipboard credit to pay off drinks and purchases, or they can book shore excursions for the couple.

        Because there are so many ports of call, cruise lines offer trips to all corners of the globe. And Allred predicts that once couples take their first cruise, they'll be back to explore other locations and other ships: ``Once you go, you're hooked.''
Copyright 2000  Greensboro News & Record