Informal Ship Sports Two-Way Caribbean Route

Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

After the initial surprise of the luxurious pastel decor and the suite-size cabins with built-in mini-bars and VCRs, the Exploration regulars on board admitted that the Starship was very nice indeed, just not what they expected.

The 250-passenger ship seemed "very big" to these people accustomed to sailing on vessels such as the 88-passenger Great Rivers Explorer, and words such as fancy and dressy kept cropping up in conversation, although the Starship is much more informal than its bigger cruise ship cousins.

During its first five years Seattle-based Exploration Cruise Lines built a reputation as a family-style purveyor of moderately priced small-ship cruises emphasizing frequent and sometimes offbeat ports of call.

In Tahiti, Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Sacramento River Delta and along the west coast of Mexico, the line's sturdy little vessels took sensibly clad middle-aged couples for close looks at glaciers and beach landings on deserted islands. Excursions and explorations filled each day, food was simple and hearty, and nobody stayed up very late.

Rapid Growth

Then, in August, 1985, Anheuser-Busch acquired a majority interest in Exploration and the company, still managed by the Giersdorf family who founded it, grew rapidly to its present fleet of eight and widened its cruise horizons considerably.

The 250-passenger Explorer Starship, which debuted in the Caribbean in August, is the largest and most elegant of the company's ships, and is already attracting younger passengers.

For many, the Starship's itinerary is a special attraction, offering eight or 10 islands of "the deep Caribbean" on two seven-day schedules that can be combined into one round-trip cruise that does not repeat a single island.

Northbound itineraries begin in Bridgetown and call at Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Croix and Virgin Gorda before arriving in San Juan, while southbound sailings from Puerto Rico include St. Thomas, Saba, Nevis and St. Kitts, Antigua, Martinique, Bequia and the Tobago Cays on the way to Barbados.

Many of these islands are off the usual cruise route, so the Starship frequently must anchor and send passengers ashore on the 120-passenger Baby Starship, so mobility-impaired travelers would not always be able to go ashore.

Water Sports

Plenty of sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling is guaranteed, including free lessons and use of equipment for the latter. A water sports platform on the Starship's stern can lower passengers to water level for swimming while the ship is at anchor, and the flat-bottom launch with its bow-landing capability can ferry passengers right onto the beach.

Optional snorkeling and scuba excursions are offered almost daily and free shore excursions are scheduled on many of the islands, including a glass-bottomed boat cruise over the wreck of the 17th-Century ship, the Rhone, near Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands.

It's tempting to call the Starship "the poor man's Sea Goddess," because there is a strong similarity in interior decor; both ships had the same designer. Cabins have extra touches of luxury--built-in hair dryers, tiled bathrooms with blue or rose-colored fixtures, color TVs and VCRs, fully stocked mini-bars with drinks priced the same as in the ship's bars. Some queen-size beds are available, as well as some bathtubs and verandas.

All 124 staterooms are outside, with large windows or portholes. Prices for a seven-day cruise range from the least expensive B category cabins, roughly 9 by 22 feet with queen or twin beds, for $1,975 value season and $2,195 peak season per person double occupancy, to $3,055 and $3,395 per person double occupancy for the 17-by-19-foot veranda suites. Prices include round-trip air fare, but there is an added $69 port tax.

Large Film Library

Both book and movie fans will be delighted with the large library of recent and classic feature films and a generous assortment of hardbacks and paperbacks, all available 24 hours a day.

The deck space aboard seems unusually generous, and the public rooms dazzle. A glassed-in aerie above the bridge is filled with lemon yellow furniture; the show lounge is elegant mauve and gray with angled mirrors and green plants. The glamorous nightclub includes a black marble dance floor lit with tiny strip lights, and from the casino, porthole windows peek playfully underwater into the deck swimming pool.

The Starship's officers are Norwegian and registry is Bahamian. In the pretty rose-colored dining room, recessed ceiling lighting can be changed in tint and intensity to suit the setting and time of day. It's a pity that same imagination and creativity didn't extend to the ho-hum continental menus and very ordinary cooking, which is fortunately supplemented many evenings with special pasta dishes and flambeed desserts prepared on the spot by the maitre d'hotel.

Far more appealing are the breakfasts, with an especially delicious smoked salmon plate, and the deck lunches, where steaks, hot dogs and hamburgers are grilled to order and served with freshly made french fries; a nearby table offers salads, fresh fruit and cheese.

Most of the eager, efficient young hotel and dining room staff are new to the cruise business. They were handpicked from Manila's top hotels and trained especially for this ship, according to hotel manager Walter Hagen.

The entertainment is provided primarily by the genuinely nice cruise staff, including a couple called Arden and Maisie who pleased the crowd with a collection of rollicking British pub songs.

The Starship will continue alternating Caribbean cruises through the sailing of April 12, 1987, then will make a 16-night Panama Canal cruise from Barbados to San Diego on April 19 (priced from $3,499 to $5,295 per person double occupancy) to reposition for Alaska summer sailings.

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