Image: Queen Mary 2
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images
The Queen Mary 2 sails under the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay in San Francisco, California. The ship is on her first world cruise.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/7/2007 11:10:16 AM ET 2007-02-07T16:10:16

As I write this, the Queen Mary 2 is just off the coast of Ecuador; Holland America’s Amsterdam is somewhere between Tahiti and Fiji; and the Golden Princess is making her way through the wind-tossed waters between the Antarctic Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego.

Me? I’m in the office, following their progress on the Web — click on the Cruise Ship Tracker at sailwx.info if you’re curious — and marveling at the ever-expanding options in cruising these days. From alternative ports of call in the Caribbean to exotic islands halfway around the world, 2007 is shaping up as a year of new ships, new itineraries and new experiences.

Europe anyone, everyone?
According to recently released figures from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 12.62 million cruise passengers are expected to set sail in 2007, a jump of 4.1 percent compared to last year. And with at least nine new ships set to be introduced this year, it’s not surprising that the major cruise lines are thinking beyond Cozumel and Cabo San Lucas.

Many are thinking Europe. For one thing, experienced cruisers have expressed an interest in something other than another tour de Caribbean. For another, the rebounding U.S. economy has made the continent more compelling for travelers who might not consider a cruise otherwise. Factor in a strong euro, and a pre-paid cruise can be a lot less painful than forking over the credit card for land-based hotels and restaurants.

The Mediterranean, in particular, is going mainstream as cruise lines deploy some of their newest, largest ships in its historic waters. Among them:

Carnival: Scheduled to debut in March, the 110,000-ton Carnival Freedom will offer 12-day cruises from Civitavecchia, near Rome, through mid-October. The ship’s “journey through the centuries” decor should provide an appropriate backdrop for alternating itineraries that include Cannes and Barcelona or Athens and Istanbul.

Slideshow: Around the World

Princess: Princess will also inaugurate its newest ship, the 3,100-passenger Emerald Princess, in Europe with 12-day cruises from Venice, Rome and Barcelona beginning in April. At the same time, Princess will unveil the 680-passenger Royal Princess, which will feature the company’s firsts stops in the Holy Land in more than five years.

Disney: Even Mickey’s going Mediterranean. In late May, the company will kick off its first-ever European season when Disney Magic begins offering 10- and 11-day cruises in the Western Mediterranean. Sailing from Barcelona to Rome and back, the trip will provide a family-friendly overview of the region — Intro to Western Civ by way of the Magic Kingdom.

And those are just the new arrivals. Most major cruise lines have upped their European offerings with more ships, more varied itineraries and more maiden calls to previously unvisited ports. Bilbao, Spain (Celebrity); Split, Croatia (Royal Caribbean); or Sochi, Russia (Holland America) — if there’s a port nearby, chances are someone’s sailing into it this summer.

Spanning the globe
Other ships are sailing even farther. In the last few weeks, seven cruise ships have embarked on globe-spanning world cruises, with two — Silversea’s Silver Shadow and Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 — undertaking their first round-the-world itineraries. Ranging from 80 to 125 days, and costing anywhere from just under $20,000 to nearly $250,000 (per person!), world cruises are clearly targeted to those with time on their hands and money in the bank.

But not everybody on board is retired and/or independently wealthy. Most cruise lines sell segments of their world cruises, which means it’s possible to enjoy the good life and a few exotic ports of call for as few as 12 or 14 days. An inexpensive vacation it’s not, but it does help explain why there are even more world cruises scheduled for 2008.

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Familiar waters, affordable fares
Closer to home, two new ships are making their debut in the Caribbean. Launched last December, the 93,000-ton Norwegian Pearl will sail out of Miami until mid-April before heading to Alaska for the summer season. Then, in May, the gargantuan Liberty of the Seas — 160,000 tons, 1,112 feet long and nearly 5,000 guests and crew — will begin a year-round program of seven-night Caribbean cruises.

The two set sail into waters already crowded with cruise ships, some of which may end up looking a bit dated by comparison. A few will get the nautical equivalent of an extreme makeover — Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas is currently undergoing a full refurbishment — but most will end up getting shifted to shorter, less amenity-dependent itineraries.

And now’s the time to book them. While demand for European cruises remains strong (ditto for Alaska), the Caribbean has lost some steam lately, and shorter cruises, in particular, are currently selling for rock-bottom prices. Time it right, and you can enjoy a three- or four-day getaway for less than $70 a night.

That’s not quite as cheap as monitoring distant ships on the Internet, but it’s a lot more fun.

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