June 1, 2008

Weekend cruises get an upgrade

Hop a cruise for the weekend, and you'll find hue-changing martini bars, swirling four-story water slides, sushi and lobster and duvet-covered beds spread with high thread-count sheets.

Hop a cruise for the weekend, and you'll find hue-changing martini bars, swirling four-story water slides, sushi and lobster and duvet-covered beds spread with high thread-count sheets.

Gone are the years when short cruises meant short change -- on food, service and facilities. New and refurbished ships -- upgraded with multimillions of dollars -- have put weekend cruises out of South Florida from major lines on par with week-long sailings on their newer ships.

''We pack a lot of activity into a short time. This is pretty much go, go, go, even if its a relaxing break from your life routine,'' says Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

Royal Caribbean has added specialty restaurants, rock-climbing walls and balconies to many cabins to its weekend ships, and, in winter, adds Navigator of the Seas -- launched in 2002, with the signature Voyager-class ice-skating rink, mini-golf course and interior promenade -- for six months of short cruises.

Carnival and Celebrity, too, have added spas, restaurants and slick bars to bring their weekender ships up to par. And NCL recently announced that is adding a casino to the Norwegian Sky -- formerly Pride of Aloha -- bringing it to South Florida for short cruises that begin in July.

Two other lines -- Discovery and Imperial Majesty -- offer sailings from Fort Lauderdale. Discovery, which makes a daily roundtrip to Freeport, Bahamas, offers hotel packages on the island. Imperial Majesty sails on overnight cruises to Nassau. Both lines' ships have undergone renovations in recent years.

One reason for the upgrades: More of us are taking short vacations. About 35 percent of all vacations last only one to two nights, according to the Travel Industry Association, a trade group.

For cruise lines, that means big bucks. Fifty percent of the passengers sailing with Carnival Cruise Line sail on short voyages, said Terry Thornton, the line's senior vice president; at Royal Caribbean, about 18 percent of all passengers sail on short cruises.

For first-time cruisers, weekenders are a chance to check out the experience before signing up for a longer voyage. Cruise lines want to be sure that first impression is a good one.

''It's a great first-time introduction of our product to people who haven't tried Freestyle Cruising,'' which offers multiple restaurants and flexible dining times, said Colin Veitch, NCL president. ``And for those who have, it's a low-cost option for a three-day experience.''

The low cost is one of short cruising's big attractions. Three-night cruises sometimes cost as little as $199 per person, double occupancy, for lodging, activities, transportation and more food than even the heartiest diner could consume. Imperial Majesty and Discovery Cruises are even less expensive.

Such cruises are even cheaper than staying in town, figures weekend sailor Carlos Sotolongo of Miami. ``I end up spending more staying in town and going to restaurants and clubs here.''

Another draw is ease. If you're sailing Friday, you can spend most of the day in the office and be back for work Monday morning.

''It's enough time to feel like I'm on a vacation, and I'm not taking time from other holidays,'' says legal assistant Carolyn Balicki, who works in downtown Miami. The taxi ride from her office takes less than 15 minutes -- part of the reason she's taken a half-dozen short cruises in recent years.

For these frequent cruisers, the ships and experience aboard is more important than where they go. With so few days, port calls are limited to the Bahamas on three-night sailings, and Key West and Cozumel on four-night trips.

And that means that while you don't have to get on board until 90 minutes before the ship sails, you might want to board earlier -- before all those prime-time spa appointments have been snagged.

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