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CRUISE FOR THE FOOD - NOT EXTRA POUNDS

Cruises update menus to cater to fit-conscious baby boomers.

Sailing away on a cruise ship with a midnight buffet no longer means waving goodbye to your diet.

Keeping with the times, cruise lines are promising spa-like cuisine alongside the buttery lobster and piles of crab legs. The hope is that lighter selections will lure health-conscious baby boomers and others who fear being trapped at sea with a 24-hour pizza bar.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. last year introduced its "Vitality" program, which weaves healthier meals and exercise into the sailing experience. On Crystal Cruises Inc., fresh fruits and whole grains are playing a bigger role on the buffet line.

"We're hoping it will dispel the myth that a cruise experience is just about overeating. You can eat very healthfully, very creatively, and have a lot of wonderful choices," said Mimi Weisband of Crystal.

While cruising is still a small portion of the travel industry, analysts say it's poised to burgeon as legions of baby boomers retire in coming years. But capturing that new wave of cruisers means tuning into their lifestyle, which is increasingly focused on staying fit.

Adopting a good-for-you sensibility on board not only satisfies veteran passengers, but may entice new ones, said Robin Diedrich, a leisure analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis.

The lighter foods and fitness choices are typically included in the cost of the cruise. On the Disney Cruise Line, that means breakfasts with more whole grains and low-fat yogurts. Crystal is paring down portion sizes and featuring more creative salads. Menus on Carnival cruises list the caloric information for "spa" dishes including: roasted banana panna cotta in citrus broth (150 calories), charred broccoli and cauliflower tortellini (190 calories) or red snapper over stewed fruits (290 calories).

Royal Caribbean in January did away with its midnight buffets, but the famed concept lives on in other ships.

Those looking to get moving on Royal Caribbean ships can consult virtual trainer kiosks and self-guided running maps for land excursions.

For cruise enthusiasts like Linda Coffman, it all means no longer having to worry about gaining weight at sea.

"I always used to try to lose a few pounds in anticipation (of sailing), but I've found that's really not necessary," said Coffman, a 59-year-old travel writer who goes on cruises for work and pleasure.

The changes come at a time when the cruise industry is seeing steady but modest growth. For 2008, the industry group Cruise Lines International Association projects its members will carry a record 12.8-million passengers worldwide, up from the 12.6-million estimated for 2007.

Cruise passengers tend to be older, and many are retired, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. But families, along with baby boomers, are expected to be a big part of the industry's growth spurt in coming years.

Providing light, tasty foods is practically mandatory now, but cruise lines are careful not to push them too aggressively.

"They're very conscious of fact that this is a vacation, and it's a time to splurge. People are going to continue to have that high-end lobster too," Diedrich said. "It's not one vs. the other."

Cruise ship fare: Healthier options

A few highlights of the healthier options cruise lines offer:

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Carnival Corp. Crystal Cruises Inc.
• Kiosks with virtual fitness trainers. • Extensive "spa" menu featuring lower-calorie dishes. • More fresh fruits and whole grain options in menu.
• Self-guided running maps for land excursions. • All foods are trans fat-free. • Smaller portion sizes.
• Classes on healthy eating. • More creative salads.
• All foods are trans fat-free.

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