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One of the strangest things this strange new century has already witnessed is the Vegas-ization of the high seas. Where once tall ships and steamers purposefully struggled to find their ports, a regatta of floating four-star hotels known as cruise ships now flaunt and gleam, bearing cargoes of package-deal honeymooners, conventioneers and sweet-toothed retirees. As for Las Vegas, building 4,000-room pyramids, medieval castles and Manhattan skylines in the middle of the Nevada desert seems somehow proper, in the American tradition of making glittering "Somethings" out of absolute "Nothings" (think of Disney World, Britney Spears or the "difference" between Democrats and Republicans).

But the ocean is quite a different context from the desert. It is mysteriously deep, and storied with centuries of sailor lore, not to mention the shames and triumphs of military history and colonial takeover. The desert? Nothing but sand and mirages.

So it is that I board the spanking new Royal Caribbean liner Explorer of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship in the world, as it departs from New York on a special preview voyage.

A boat that has more in common with the West Edmonton Mall than a schooner, it offers 142,000 tons of recreational razzle and dazzle to fill the seven days out of 365 that those of a certain means can make themselves feel that all those extra hours and kissing up to that jerk boss was worth it. If your personal vacation philosophy is that bigger is better, then it doesn't get any better than this.

The Explorer is 310 metres and 14 decks of entertainment that is best sketched with numbers: 10 dining rooms (which serve 681 kilograms of beef tenderloin and 1.4 tonnes of chicken in a single week), 17 bars, a 1,350-seat theatre for "Broadway style" pageants, a four-storey shopping concourse, and a rock-climbing wall 60 metres above the ocean's waves, all staffed by a crew of 1,176 tending to the needs of yourself and 3,843 other guests. One feels the need for a calculator to appreciate the ship's splendours, and a detailed map in order to find them.

These are all facilities that, although on a much larger scale here, have been built into cruise ships for some years now. But the Explorer offers at least one thing that no other ship has, or that you'd ever think that it could have: a hockey arena. Okay, it's a little too small for a full 5-on-5 game, but if you brought your skates and stick down to the tropics with you, there's enough ice here to accommodate an afternoon of pickup shinny. In the evening, you could return to the rink to check out the figure-skating show, an excellent display of women wearing nothing but feathers being lifted, spun and tossed by men in sparkling tights.

Following this most unlikely sea-going spectacle, I make my way through the shopping concourse to my seat (among 1,919 other seats) in the dining complex, but not before first nipping in to the Champagne Bar for a glass of complimentary bubbly (drinks are included in the all-inclusive package, and you can't turn a corner without bumping up against a different booze venue, which was for me the ship's most thoughtful design feature).

Considering that the chef has to feed groups of people that many nations would consider fair-sized armies at each of two sittings, the food is superb.

Thankfully, there are no gluttonous buffets aboard the Explorer, nor an excess of all-you-can-eat masochism. Instead, service is at table, and the staff obviously well-trained, knowledgeable and courteous.

The dining rooms themselves are bedazzled with gleaming silver, crystal and white linens, but there is some evidence of restraint in the décor, even if the chandelier hanging in the middle of the atrium makes the Titanic's look like a rhinestone reading lamp.

After petits fours, it's time for a walk down the Promenade, an indoor shopping concourse that makes Planet Hollywood seem understated, complete with a Ye Olde-style English pub and zinc-tabled Parisian bistro about as convincing as those found in Saskatoon or Kitchener.

At midnight, however, the street scene is occupied by a parade of staff and performers dressed as tropical birds, clowns and even Santa Claus (how he finds the time to do these cruise gigs at this time of year is anyone's guess).

Then it's on to the casino (not surprisingly, the biggest at sea). Here you'll find the usual Vegas fixtures of blinding chrome and grim-faced desperation, yet the blackjack tables were red-hot on the night I tested them. I left 30 bucks poorer, although it could have been more if I hadn't split those eights towards the end -- blame the martinis for that one.

To celebrate, I decide to shake a leg at the Chamber nightclub, the ship's "late night hot spot." I'm wary. Nightclubs in such hermetically sealed environments are always a dodgy affair, as the designers' efforts to accommodate the broadest clientele often leads to airport-lounge décor and 10-year-old Madonna remixes. The Chamber does better than this: Gargoyles with red Christmas lights for eyes greet you upon entering the gothic dungeon, where a handful of the most brave jive to DJ house music as blue laser beams slice through them. The idea of a gothic castle built into a Finnish-made buoyant mall is more than a little absurd, but it's also appropriately creepy.

Finally, to bed, thinking on the elevator up how much fun having an Explorer of my very own would be. I'd need a billionaire to go in on it though, as it costs around $600-million (U.S.) to build, champagne and soft-ice-cream dispenser not included. Oh well. You'd probably have a devil of a time hauling it up to the cottage behind the Volkswagen, anyway.

Back in my cabin, I take a nightcap of sea air on the balcony. The ocean is still there, of course. But after all the special effects it is somehow diminished slightly, as unlikely a sight as finding an ice rink on a ship.

Explorer of the Seas sails a seven-day Eastern Caribbean itinerary, departing from Miami each Saturday. Ports of call include Labadee (Royal Caribbean's private island off the coast of Haiti), San Juan, St. Thomas, and Nassau/Paradise Island. See a travel agent or call Royal Caribbean reservations at (800) 327-6700. The Web site is . Prices start at $1,199 (U.S.) a person up to $6,949. Air fare is extra. Early-booking discounts are available. The price includes meals, entertainment and activities aboard ship, accommodations and port service fees, but not shore excursions.

Andrew Pyper is the author of Kiss Me, a collection of short stories, as well as Lost Girls, winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.


Alcoholic beverages are not included in the price of the Explorer of the Seas cruises. Incorrect information appeared on Dec. 2 (Saturday, December 9, 2000) (Page T10)

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