When I caught up with Keith and Anne Marie Steiner, the morning sun had just topped Tahiti's lush volcanic peaks, throwing shafts of golden light across the deck of the Crystal Serenity. The couple were about to go ashore at their first stop in French Polynesia. The ship had docked along the waterfront quay in Papeete and the Steiners were bound for the city's vibrant market, known for its black pearls and colorful fabrics.
The next day they would be in Bora Bora, they said. They planned to tour the island and play in its dazzling aquamarine lagoon, considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
The adventure might be considered epic for some people, but it's not unusual for the Steiners. This was their eighth world cruise, they said, during a phone interview from the ship. "You pretty much move onboard, see many ports and never have to pack and unpack," Keith Steiner said.
The Texas couple are part of an elite but growing group. They're what might be called extreme cruisers. They love to go to sea — and stay there. During their current journey, the Steiners will be gone 170 days and they'll circumnavigate the globe, visiting dozens of ports, including Cape Town, South Africa; Rio de Janeiro; and Madagascar. Before docking at Papeete, they visited Easter Island.
At least seven major cruise lines now offer world cruises; many leave from Florida ports, but some sail from Los Angeles. Princess Cruise Lines' Pacific Princess, for instance, departed L.A. on Jan. 23, bound for a 111-day circumnavigation that will span six continents and include 34 destinations in 25 countries.
World cruises have become so popular that cruise lines can barely keep up with the demand, even though they're the priciest trips marketed by the travel industry, costing about $20,000 per person to as much as $500,000 per couple. By comparison, the average cruise is one week and may be available for as little as $500.
You can blame the baby-boomer generation for the growing popularity of cruises that go around the world in 80 days (or more).
"They have time on their hands, disposable income and an interest in travel," said Richard Meadows, Cunard's North America president. "They're looking for unique experiences. World travel delivers that." Cunard caters to that market in a variety of ways, including scheduling onboard entertainment such as James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
The 175-year-old line offered its first world cruise in 1922; it now has three Queens in its fleet: Victoria, Elizabeth and the Queen Mary 2. Each sails world cruises January through April and other long segments during the summer.
Those who don't want to spend the time it takes to go on a world cruise but still want to spend a significant time at sea can combine segments — a 10-day cruise and a 21-day cruise — to lengthen their journey.
"We pioneered the concept of lengthy cruises," Meadows said. "It's an important focus for us."
Cunard's ships are larger than many of those that do circumnavigations and they offer an old-fashioned perk for women who like to dance but find themselves without a willing partner: gentlemen hosts. They're part of the staff and are charged with the responsibility of keeping women guests happy. "I've seen a few romances bloom there," Meadows said.
This form of entertainment may seem rooted in a different generation, but most cruise lines, including Cunard, emphasize that they're attracting younger guests.
Crystal's 108-day Silver Celebration World Cruise has newlyweds, one of whom is 24, on board, said Edie Rodriguez, president and chief operating officer. "A lot of younger people want to live life to the fullest and want the experiences they find when they travel," Rodriguez said.
The Internet has also made it easier for people to stay in touch when they're traveling. "Because we're connected, some entrepreneurs run their businesses from the ship," she said.
Prices for the luxury line's circumnavigation range from $50,000 per person to $500,000 per couple.
But you also can find less pricey options.
Rates for the Princess World Cruise start at less than $20,000 a person. And if you choose a shorter cruise, for example, the line's 15-day round-trip cruise from L.A. to Hawaii, the starting rate is $1,599 per person.
Holland America has a 114-day world cruise currently underway, but it also offers an 18-day San Diego to Hawaii round trip and many mid-length cruises of 30, 60 and 80 days. "We call them voyages," said spokesman Erik Elvejord.
"Half of our deployment is in longer than average cruises. We've always had a core of our travelers who like longer cruises. And that market is absolutely growing."
The Steiners figured out long ago that long cruises offered them the most exciting, and at the same time relaxing, vacation. They book their annual Crystal trip as much as three years in advance. "It's like coming home," said Keith Steiner.
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