turning 2000 . . . where in the world will you be?

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Perhaps you thought that you had better things to do than worry about a New Year's Eve that is 1,097 days off. But that, dear readers, is exactly the kind of sloth that will make you a loser in a global event where timing is everything: the scramble to secure the perfect location from which to watch 1999 become 2000.

Already in the rush to market the most high-profile New Year's Eve in 1,000 years, the travel industry's machinery is in motion. Concordes have been reserved and lodgings blocked, reservations taken at New York's Rainbow Room, a ball promised in Vienna. Committees, societies and consortia have convened in New York, Washington and Suva, Fiji. Brochures have been mailed, corporate sponsorships secured (Moet & Chandon were grabbed up early) and T-shirts printed (Example: Hard Rock Cafe New York Millennial Ball 2000 AD).

Among the favorite destinations so far: the South Pacific and the pyramids at Giza, Egypt, with the Taj Mahal in India, Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater and Peru's Machu Picchu, among other contenders. And don't count out Nazareth, where key events in the first millennium AD took shape, and where civic leaders are now building 2,000 new hotel rooms and renovating the city center.

"It's such a landmark event, and people want a landmark experience," says Eileen Daily, a spokeswoman for Cunard Line, which plans to strategically position its five ships for the Big Day.

"It figures--it's on a Friday!" says Fred Hansen, director of food and beverage services for the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, fingering the future pages of a multiyear calendar. "That's going to be a wild weekend."

And getting ready for it is a problematic job for businesses and consumers alike. While some entrepreneurs are out ferociously marketing, countless other lodgings, restaurants, tour operators and cruise lines haven't announced plans yet.

"We had no idea that the demand was going to start coming in so early," says spokeswoman Mimi Weisband of Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises. She theorizes that "there are two groups of people who are making their plans now. There are those who always like to be away at that time anyway and there are those who like to be a part of special events, like going tothe Olympics or the Super Bowl."

Crystal Cruises has responded by taking deposits of $500 each from about 1,600 would-be cruisers--enough to fill nearly 90% of its berths--despite the fact that Crystal hasn't decided where its two ships will be or what it will cost to be on them. Carnival Cruises says it won't know until sometime next year where its 11 ships will be in December 1999, but it is taking deposits of $150 to $250 nevertheless.

Throughout the tourism industry, managers are devising techniques for taking reservations and deposits without detailing programs or rates, for fear of underestimating inflation or prices people are willing to pay. It's not easy putting a price on the most resonant New Year's Eve since Western civilization started counting the years AD.

In May, New York-based luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (tel. [800] 323-7308) sent out a splashy catalog offering 14 different New Year's 1999 tours worldwide, most of them limited to just 24 traveling celebrants. By December, five had sold out.

The first was an India-Nepal trip with the new year celebrated at the Taj Mahal. Among the others: Egypt and the Nile (New Year's at the pyramids), Kenya (New Year's on the Mara River), Kenya-Tanzania (New Year's at Ngorongoro Crater) and Europe, where celebrants will greet the new year with a ball in the opulent rooms of Vienna's Imperial Hotel. A trip to Machu Picchu hasn't sold out yet, but is expected to.

Prices? The company brochure quotes prices of $2,385 to $8,250 per person (excluding air fares) for the same itineraries this year and stresses that those figures "will increase, possibly significantly, by 1999."

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Meanwhile, two Concorde supersonic jets have been bagged by Intrav (tel. [800] 456-8100), a high-end tour operator based in St. Louis. The company has made New Year's Eve 1999 the centerpiece of two around-the-world-via-Concorde tours, each beginning in New York, with 17-day itineraries that include Dallas, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Sydney, Hong Kong, Delhi, Nairobi and the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, Cairo and back to New York. One jet will depart Dec. 24, 1999, putting its group in Hong Kong for the arrival of the new year; the second group departs Dec. 27, and celebrates the new year in Sydney, city of the 2000 Summer Olympics. Ninety-six seats will be available on each plane. Fares, which include all meals and accommodations and various extras, have not been set, but are expected to run about $70,000 per seat.

By comparison, the Queen Elizabeth 2 is likely to be a bargain. As 2000 begins, the Cunard Line's most famous vessel will be off the island of Barbados on day 11 of a 15-day cruise. The Royal Viking Sun will be in day 12 of a 22-day itinerary, off Acapulco. The Vistafjord will be on day 13 of a 21-day itinerary, in the Red Sea near Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. The smaller "super-yacht" Sea Goddess I will be in the Caribbean near Virgin Gorda. Its twin, the Sea Goddess II, will be off Pulau Naira, Indonesia, in a lagoon beneath the volcano Ganung Api. By mid-December, says a Cunard spokeswoman, the line had more than 2,000 reservations, each accompanied by a $1,000 deposit--but no prices. Announcement of those isn't expected until mid- or late-1997.

As the premillennial rumbling grows louder, two groups of naysayers go unheeded. First, there are the numbers crunchers who insist that Jan. 1, 2001, not Jan. 1, 2000, will mark the arithmetically correct dawn of the new century and millennium.

The other group of non-celebrants is larger. By the best estimate of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, two-thirds of the world's 5.7-billion inhabitants are non-Christian, hence less likely to observe the arrival of a round number on the Christian world's calendar. (The year 2000 on the Christian calendar coincides with Jewish years 5760-5761, the Islamic years 1420-1421, the Chinese years 4697-4698.)

Those who do have a 2000 AD celebration in mind seem bent on settling their plans now. A New York tourism spokeswoman recalled that when the Rainbow Room in midtown Manhattan took a few hundred New Year's Eve 1999 reservations in 1994, a 95-year-old man was among the first to call, "because he figured that if he had a reservation, he wouldn't die before then."

For jet-setters and armchair travelers alike, this rush to stake claims raises an epic question: If you want to make this the most memorable of all your midnights, where should you mark it?

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If you believe first is best, look to the South Pacific.

That's where New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and scores of other islands cluster in the South Pacific near the international dateline, and it's where at least a few cruise lines are expected to dispatch vessels. Thanks to their location, those islands' clocks run 12 to 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and 20 to 21 hours ahead of Los Angeles (depending on Daylight Savings Time policies), making them the first places on Earth to mark the arrival of midnight.

Eager to share in a tourism windfall, 14 island nations have joined to form a South Pacific New Millennium Consortium. But as visitors puzzle over exactly where to position themselves to get the first glimpse of 2000, riddles arise. Though their clocks may be synchronized, some islands are closer than others to the international dateline; others are farther south and will see dawn sooner.

Among the leading locales is Tongatapu, the main island of the nation of Tonga, a little more than 100 miles west of the dateline. Other promoters have laid bets on the Chatham Islands, a territory of New Zealand (now occupied principally by sheep) that lies closer to the South Pole and will get sunrise about an hour ahead of Tonga. And the city of Gisborne, on New Zealand's North Island, has flung itself into the fray as well, with millennial promotions including Servant 2000, a 10,000-person Christian "camp meeting" from Dec. 28 to Jan. 1, 2000.

In such a crowded marketplace, salesmanship counts. Thus, when Seabourn Cruise Line wrote the Kingdom of Tonga earlier this year to inquire about a good position at sea for viewing the first light of 2000, Tongan marketing representative Peter Davidson fired back an Aug. 28 letter that not only lauded three Tonga-adjacent sites, but added: "I'd like you to imagine thousands of schoolchildren lining the shoreline, perhaps spaced no more than 2 meters apart, all simultaneously lighting their coconut sheath torches on the stroke of midnight. In addition we are looking to assemble the largest massed Polynesian choir. . . ."

Seabourn passed. The company plans to have two of its ships off the coast of Florida and one at Singapore on a chartered cruise. Besides, there is at least one other factor for would-be South Seas revelers to consider: January and February are hurricane season.

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Prefer the big city? New York certainly hopes so, and has helpfully re-declared itself "the crossroads of the world" and concocted special 1999-2000 theatrics at Times Square, where the lowering of a lighted ball has attracted New Year's Eve crowds since 1907. For the big night, organizers are planning an array of oversized video screens to track the arrival of 2000 in time zones worldwide. (To start, they're leaning toward Fiji.) As the magic hour approaches, organizers expect to employ their customary battery of searchlights, laser beams and fireworks over Central Park, along with balloons and 3,000 pounds of confetti. How many people will turn out? The 1995 crowd was estimated at 500,000.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a Millennium Society has grown from its 1979 founding to claim membership of about 6,000. The society sponsors an international scholarship program, claims a noble mission (to welcome 2000 "in a way that celebrates achievements of civilization and lays for the foundation for greater achievement in the 3rd millennium") and throws big parties every year. This year's is at the National Press Building in Washington. (In 1987, the party was at New York's Hard Rock Cafe, which prompted printing of those "New York Millennial Ball 2000 A.D." T-shirts.)

These parties, of course, are really warmups for the big night in 1999, when the group plans a global network of parties dominated by a central bash at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. More than 100 A-list invitations have already gone out; since 1984, the society has been holding press conferences to name its 10 favorite inspirational individuals of the year, and inviting them to the Giza party. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Bruce Springsteen, Baby Jessica, Jay Leno and Kerri Strug are among those on the list. Then there are corporate sponsors: Tiffany & Co., which is producing gilt-edged, engraved invitations; and Moet & Chandon, the champagne makers, are already setting aside commemorative jeroboams.

In London, a Millennium Commission is mulling ideas and drawing on millions of dollars in national lottery revenues. The biggest new project in the works is a "Millennium Wheel" that would stand 500 feet high in London's Jubilee Gardens, across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament. Presuming the $15-million project (co-sponsored by British Airways and the Millennium Wheel Co.) continues its path through an elaborate government approval process, it is expected to operate in Ferris-wheel fashion, carrying customers on slow, circular rides of 20 minutes each, costing about $8 per ride, and affording views of the London skyline.

So far, Paris and Rome have been quiet, but authorities assure that the usual throngs will assemble on the Champs-Elysees and the Piazza Navona, respectively. In Hong Kong, which by December 1999 will be in its third year under Chinese rule, high-end hotels with Western clientele, including the Peninsula and the Regent, are working on Dec. 31 events. But the Chinese Lunar New Year, the annual party that inspires flower markets, waterfront parades and elaborate fireworks, won't begin until Feb. 5, 2000, when the Year of the Rabbit yields to the Year of the Dragon.

Be warned, however, that big-city hotel reservations may be a tricky business. For instance, Gleneagles, a lavish golfer's retreat in Scotland, reports that it has been booked for the big night ("Hogmanay" in local parlance for New Year's Eve) since May. The high-toned Hotel Hassler in Rome started taking 1999 bookings in 1990, and booked more than 60% of its rooms, although prices haven't been set yet. Recently, the hotel suspended reservation-taking and said it would resume in 1998.

A spot-check of other high-profile city hotels around the world reveals a similar fear of commitment: Despite rumors of sellouts, representatives say no reservations are being taken yet at Caesars Palace or the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. At the Savoy Hotel in London, the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the Fairmount in San Francisco, reservations agents have been known to take names, but not firm bookings. Lotteries for rooms are possible later. But no matter how the preliminaries roll out, industry insiders agree, hotel guests can ultimately count on maximum prices and multi-night booking requirements.

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Is a city really where you want to be? What about the stately remove of a private castle in the country where "Auld Lang Syne" was written or the peace, quiet and natural spectacle of a national park?

One Edinburgh-based company, Scotts Castle Holidays, reports that it's now receiving a call a week from thrill-seekers curious about spending the big night in a Scottish castle. The company, which represents 22 rentable castle properties, counts "just a few" properties left for late December 1999. A spokeswoman estimates $20,000 for one-week New Year's 1999 rental, which would get you a castle that sleeps up to 10.

Finally, for those who'd rather welcome 2000 from a clearing in the American wilderness, National Park Service officials have mixed news: On one hand, park lodging reservations are generally available no more than 364 days ahead. On the other hand, concessionaire contracts require that prices rise no faster than inflation, even for that night of high demand.

Thus, even at such coveted lodgings as the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite ($215.50 nightly and up), the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley ($235 and up), and the Volcano House at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ($79 and up), rooms will probably cost no more than 10% above what they do now. But in many cases, officials expect an avalanche of applications to make lotteries necessary. The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite is already using a lottery 10 months ahead of its $150-a-head New Year's Eve dinner-dance.

Camping, of course, is cheaper and may be less crowded. But as the millennium counts down, which campground to choose?

"I've been canvassing around here," says spokeswoman Holly Bundock in the park service's San Francisco office. "And everyone's choice is Death Valley. That skyline . . . the wide open spaces . . . just the whole aura."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 12, 1997 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction New Year's 2000--In a photograph in the Dec. 29 Travel section, the site of a Viennese ball was incorrectly identified, due to an editing error, as the Imperial Hotel. The couples were waltzing at the Opera House in Vienna. Also, due to a production error, a photograph of Machu Picchu was reversed.
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