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First-timer finds that there might be something small cruises

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When a trusted friend told me she loved her last cruise, my curiosity piqued. After all, she lives in a downtown loft and knows her Claret from her Cabernet. Still, I could hardly believe she willingly boarded (more than once) one of those vessels built for thousands.

Determined to find out whether the meals, the yoga classes and the interesting passengers she reminisced about were figments of her screenwriter's imagination, I began my research.

"The mainstream cruise business has become significantly young," says Danny Genung, owner of Harr Travel in Redlands. In 2009, half of his clients were younger than 40. "There's an overall increase in family travel," adds Bob Sharak, executive vice president of marketing and distribution at Cruise Lines International Assn.

Put another way: "No one is really looking for shuffleboard or the 24-hour buffets anymore," says Margie Jordan of ASAP Travel in Florida .

We certainly weren't -- "we" being my 58-year old mother and my 18-month old daughter. "If your apprehension about going on a cruise is being stuck with thousands of others, then bigger is not better," my trusted friend advised. So last September we boarded a weeklong Mediterranean cruise from Venice, Italy, to Athens aboard the Seabourn Odyssey, a stylish 450-guest vessel featuring 225 suites outfitted with verandas (only 10% are not), plasma TVs, iPod docking stations and marble bathrooms with separate shower and soaking tub. Shortly after Odyssey's first two sold-out voyages, Seabourn boasted that almost half of its passengers were not only younger (under 45) but also first-timers.

The predominant decor throughout the ship was more like a hipster hotel: creamy whites and chocolate browns and lots of natural wood (teak deck furniture, blond wood desks and dressers in bedrooms) and stylish but cozy furnishings that would not look entirely out of place at the Roosevelt in Hollywood or the Mondrian in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"We took the personalized service and attention to detail that Seabourn has always offered," says Pamela Conover, Seabourn's president and chief executive, "and added features and amenities that younger guests appreciate."

I appreciated the fact that the staff seemed to know what I wanted before I did. "Anything to drink? A vodka tonic, perhaps?" a waiter asks. "Don't mind if I do," I reply. I was sitting on a plush sofa in a kind of lounge-y concierge area called Seabourn Square, decorated with vintage nautical photographs and bookshelves lined with hundreds of historical novels, popular fiction in several languages and glossy coffee table books. A cool electronic tango tune drifted from the speakers -- was that Gotan Project?

My fellow passengers were an eclectic mix of women of a certain age accessorized with lots of Louis Vuitton and younger couples in perfectly distressed jeans and immaculate Adidas.

At one end of the Square was a European-style cafe (the croissants are as good as any you'd find in Paris) outfitted with an Art Deco mahogany bar where a couple in their late 30s sipped lattes and handed an iPhone back and forth (perhaps updating their Facebook page). This was not, I realized, your grandma's cruise ship.

But it isn't a Disney Cruise either. The Odyssey does attract a younger audience, but these are not the kind of people who want deck parties or want to learn to surf in a massive wave pool. Never garish (you won't hear any announcements over the public address system) or over-the-top, Seabourn is about understated privileges and pampering that includes free-flowing champagne, personalized stationery and Hermès soaps.

There's also a heavy focus on the cuisine, which is outstanding and swiftly discredits the long held stereotype (at least in my eyes) that you can't eat well on a ship. Restaurant 2, with its scarlet drapes in thick velvet, black plush carpeting and fuchsia pillows, is a tour de force in décor. But it's the experimental small portions menu conceived by Chef Charlie Palmer that has everyone talking next day by the pool.

"Didn't you just love the roasted salmon with that sake ginger sauce?" a woman asks her friend.

"I loved everything," he says.

Another hit is the Spa, which spans two decks and even features two massive villas -- outfitted with oversized bathtubs, living areas with day beds and balconies for private sunbathing -- that can be booked for two-hour treatments or for a full day of pampering. Treatments at the spa range from the expected (Thai massage, sea salt scrub) to the extravagant (24-Karat-Gold Facial). Highlights for me were the yoga classes and the opportunity to try the state-of-the-art Kinesis wall during complimentary group classes.

"I love the fact that I can look forward to eating an amazing seven-course meal after I work out for an hour at the gym," says a petite blond woman as we made our way to the herbal steam room.

Like the rest of the staff, the fitness instructors are young, attractive and charming. Earlier at breakfast, a waiter rushed over as I served myself from the fruit bar and insisted on carrying the plate to my table. Every night at dinner, my mother got a kick out of being escorted to our table by an attendant. I, on the other hand, found the constant attention to be a tad much and imagined that if the goal were to attract a younger audience, some subtle adjustments might be necessary.

Not that Seabourn isn't trying. Cruise Director John Barron, 33, was hired because the company wanted someone in step with the entertainment tastes of a younger demographic. "Someone who would grow with their guests," Barron told me. Nevertheless, the nightly entertainment options -- a magic show, a classical pianist, a Las Vegas music act that covers hits from the '80s and '90s -- were not my cup of tea. An up-and-coming singer-songwriter might have been more interesting for me, although my mom was quite happy to hear Norah Jones cover songs.

In the end, the nightly entertainment options didn't really matter. I was so tired after spending my days exploring the ports with my mom and daughter or partaking in the excursions that we were happy to relax in the room with a movie -- and a sweet treat.

"Should we try the chocolate dessert tonight?" my mom would ask, knowing perfectly well that the answer was always a resounding yes.

On my last day, I stumbled upon an outdoor whirlpool I had not seen before. It was not the first time I got to delight in a little corner of the ship all by myself, as if I were on a private yacht. As if by magic, a fresh towel and a glass of champagne awaited me when I slipped out of the water. There might be something to this cruising thing after all.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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