If going a little overboard is your idea of a great vacation, vigorous, eco-friendly tours offer all the adventure you can handle.

FANTASTIC VOYAGES

October 12, 1997|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the swank Wind Song makes its maiden call on Costa Rica this December, passengers will be offered an unusual means of getting into the swing of the country -- careening from tree to tree along a metal cable 100 feet above the rain-forest canopy in a scene more evocative of a Rambo flick than a cruise-ship shore excursion.

For further thrills, passengers can gallop across a working ranch with an active volcano for a backdrop or hike up the steep bank of a seaside jungle preserve, hooted on by howler monkeys and toucans. Throughout each cruise, a Costa Rican naturalist based on the ship will key passengers in to the fragile ecology of each region through shipboard talks and wilderness walks amid the country's rich diversity of plant and animal life.

"Our passengers keep telling us they want to really get into the natural splendors of a destination, to feel them, touch them, be involved with them; well, here's their chance, big time," says Rick Meadows of Windstar Cruises, which is repositioning the Wind Song to Costa Rica after 10 years in Tahiti.

Indeed, these vigorous outings, previously available only on land-based adventures in Costa Rica (I've tried them all on several visits, and they will sate the most intrepid outdoors enthusiast), represent a revolutionary meld of comfy ship life and the "Just-do-it" call of the great Out There.

New wave of traveler

The Wind Song is not alone on this wild new wave afloat. This season, many ships will be calling on virgin turf or revisiting familiar grounds in more intimate, eco-centric ways that would have been unheard of a few years ago. While passengers aboard rough and tough expedition vessels always have been able to count on adventurous nature outings as part of life at sea, these relatively daring excursions aboard mainstream liners give more traditional cruisers a double bonus. They get all the usual amenities of a regular cruise ship -- typically, more spacious cabins, feedings virtually around the clock and a plethora of on-board entertainment -- along with a taste of adventure when they are in the mood. Couples and families can satiate different tastes as one member makes like Tarzan zipping through a rain-forest canopy or mountain biking up a volcano, while another takes the city tour, shops in port, or just lounges by the ship's pool sipping the frosty drink of the day.

"We believe ideal cruising is about choice, with lots of options each day for every kind of passenger," says Mimi Weisban of Crystal Cruises. "A good vacation is a regenerative experience -- some people want to be active, others seek relaxation, and others education. We want to give our passengers a shot at all those things."

This year Crystal is trying to meet that goal by venturing for the first time up the western coast of South America, with inaugural calls in Chile, Peru and Ecuador. An optional Crystal Harmony shore excursion in Peru includes a two-night trip to Machu Picchu, where passengers are taken on a guided hike amid the ruins of the ancient lost city of the Incas.

In an effort to sate its most active nature lovers, Crystal has hired the venerable Toronto adventure outfitter Butterfield & Robinson to run naturalist-led cycling and walking excursions on several new European itineraries as well as cruises through New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia.

Closer to home, passengers aboard Celebrity Cruises' Galaxy will have an opportunity to horseback ride alongside beachfront Mayan ruins and swim through a system of underground rivers, past caves and lagoons, when the ship introduces an excursion to Mexico's expansive XCaret Eco-archaeological Park during its western Caribbean sailings starting this month.

Though usually associated with a more sedate senior set, the Holland America Line is riding the wave of the increasingly profitable family vacation market by introducing, on its Alaskan TTC itineraries, nature adventures for kids only -- a first in the cruise industry. Children ages 6 to 17 will get a taste of natural history and marine adventure as they help paddle a giant war canoe out of Sitka, hike a rugged coastal rain forest near Ketchikan, trek a mountain trail above Juneau's old gold mines, and help care for injured eagles at a rehabilitation center for raptors and other birds of prey.

"When we began to realize that families were accounting for up to 20 percent of our Alaska cruise passengers, we decided we had to make sure we were not leaving children unentertained or they would run amok," says Jack Anderson of Holland America. "The youth program should please other passengers as much as families."

Disney redoing an island

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