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Anchors aweigh to the millennium

Since the countdown to the millennium began, cruise lines have been holding off on particulars _ but holding on to your money _ for end-of-the-century cruises.

As many of you who are on the waiting list for a millennium cruise know, it's a little like a lottery. Lines have collected millions of dollars for deposits on cruises that aren't even priced yet. Candidates for those cruises _ some of whom have been on the waiting list more than two years _ have only a vague idea of what they've bought.

Their reservations are for tentative dates, undetermined destinations, unspecific ships. With Princess, for example, you could request a ship or an itinerary, but not both. With Carnival, you could opt only for a ship, regardless of which itinerary it ends up sailing at millennium time.

For obvious reasons, cruise lines simply could not firmly fix every variable so far in advance, so, until now, none would reveal specifics.

Well, things finally are shaping up. One of the first to go public with specifics is Cunard. The cruise line has announced itineraries and pricing for each of the five ships in its fleet _ the QE2, Royal Viking Sun, Vistafjord and the twin Sea Goddesses I and II. The line has begun moving its wait-listed passengers to confirmed booked status.

Silversea Cruises has issued a stunning brochure with equally stunning fares: Rates for Silver Cloud's 15-day millennium cruises start at $21,137. That factors out to $1,400 per day per person _ or about $33 for every day from now until the millennium. But, hey, that includes the works, from tips and drinks to air fare.

Over the next few weeks, you also will begin seeing details from several cruise lines about which ships will depart from where, what itineraries they will sail, for how long and for how much. Specifics from most lines should be forthcoming by summer.

But even when details are final and lines start plowing through their wait-lists, it's likely to stir up the waters. Industry insiders predict some lines will give wait-listed passengers only a week to decide whether they want to finalize their plans. Considering that many hopeful cruisers could easily be off on summer vacations when the word comes, they could be out of luck. It's probably a good idea to alert your travel agent to be sure that he or she keeps in close touch with the cruise line on your behalf.

Also, given the millennium madness that ensued when cruise lines began taking bookings, insiders surmise that many lines overbooked their waiting lists, and some cruisers may lose out altogether simply because of lack of space.

Of course, deposits are refundable if you refuse the trip you wind up with or if you lose out in the lottery altogether. But that is small consolation to some passengers who already are griping that cruise lines will have held deposits for years without paying interest.

Even if your number is called in the millennium lottery, there may be some surprises. With millennium cruises at a premium and with no precedents to guide them (except perhaps Cunard a century ago), lines really are not sure just how "premium" their product is.

Jack Anderson, Holland America's senior vice president of marketing and sales, recently told the newsletter Cruise Week that millennium cruises on most lines probably will wind up priced at 25 percent to 35 percent more than regular holiday cruises in years past.

For latecomers to the millennium sweepstakes, here's a recent entrant that offers a ray of hope. Perhaps coincidentally, a new firm, the World Cruise Co., will inaugurate sailings right around the millennium. As the company name suggests, it sails only world cruises, with segments offered.

But if you've got 126 days to spare, the best news is that this company's cruises start at $90 a day, well below the industry average. The sailings, billed as mainly educational, will be aboard the 800-passenger Ocean Explorer I, originally the Sapphire Seas, which is being refurbished for the world cruises. The ship's inaugural voyage on Nov. 20, 1999, will take in the dawning of the new century. Sailing round-trip from Athens, the cruise will visit about 20 countries on seven continents _ including Antarctica. It will return to Athens on March 24, 2000. For more information, call (888) 558-0887.

If you end up altogether unlucky in the millennium lottery, you can cast your hat into the ring for a sweepstakes of a different sort. Ten lucky fans of cable TV's Food Network will win a 14-day Mediterranean and Greek Isles cruise/tour for two on Renaissance Cruises' new 684-passenger R1. Winners will be cruising with Mario Batali, the popular ponytailed talk-a-mile-a-minute chef who hosts the network's Mediterranean Mario cooking show.

Three of the sweepstakes winners will cruise on R1's inaugural sailing, which departs from Athens on Aug. 31. The other seven winners can choose to cruise between Nov. 1, 1998, and May 31, 1999. Each cruise/tour will include a 10-day sailing, two days in Athens and Istanbul, hotel and round-trip air fare. You can enter the contest via Food Network's Web site (http: //www.foodtv.com) or call Renaissance Cruises for more information at (800) 525-5350.

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