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By Gene Sloan, USA TODAY
ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 — Barbara Blinn never had the time for exotic travel during her working years, tied down as she was running an all-consuming hotel business. But now she's making up for it. Big time.
Over the next three months, she'll travel everywhere from Rio de Janiero to Honolulu to Sydney to Dubai.
"My kids can't believe I'm doing this," says the 68-year-old divorcee from Hampton, N.H., laughing over a plate of roast duck in the Queen Mary 2's elegant Queens Grill dining room. "But they said to me, 'Do it, Mom, spend the money.' "
What Blinn is doing, along with two friends from New Hampshire, both widows — the Golden Girls, their tablemates have dubbed them — is going all the way around the world on the ship. She's one of nearly 500 of the 2,328 passengers on this much-ballyhooed ocean liner, which set sail Jan. 10 from Fort Lauderdale on its first global circumnavigation, who have signed up for the entire 81-day voyage — in some cases paying $100,000 or more to do it.
PHOTOS: Around the world on the Queen Mary 2
It's just the latest sign of the boom in around-the-world cruising. Over the past decade, the number of vacationers who book months-long, globe-circling voyages has ballooned into the thousands each year, prompting a growing number of lines to offer them. Just last month, luxury line Silversea launched its first world cruise, following rivals Regent Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises, which launched around-the-world cruises in 2001 and 1996, respectively. Cunard, meanwhile, in a rare move, is sending both of its ships around the world this year. (The Queen Elizabeth 2 departed Fort Lauderdale the same day as the Queen Mary 2 on a different route.)
WHERE TO BOOK: Find your dream trip
Like Blinn, many of the people booking the trips are from the latest wave of retirees, including the leading edge of the baby boomers. The generation has more money to spend than any before it and an expectation for global adventures in retirement that would have been unthinkable half a century ago. Nearly everyone on this voyage (roughly 80 days in a nod to Jules Verne) is over 50, and the average age is in the 60s.
"These are people who have what they need materially, and now they're going out and looking for really unique lifetime experiences," says Carol Marlow, president of Cunard, which pioneered around-the-world voyages in 1922 and along with Holland America has long dominated the niche. "They're looking for authenticity."
And a unique experience this is. After departing Fort Lauderdale, the QM2 — the largest passenger ship to make an around-the-world trip — steamed for the east coast of South America, stopping in Brazil and Uruguay before "rounding the Horn" into the Pacific. Over the next two months it'll cross the ocean to New Zealand and Australia before heading to China, India, the Middle East and through the Suez Canal into Europe. Then it's back to Fort Lauderdale.
Like other around-the-world cruises, the trip is almost incomparable to the fast-paced, port-a-day Caribbean voyages that are the bread-and-butter of the industry.
"You have to like days on end at sea," concedes retired lawyer and world-cruise regular Timothy Arnold, 52, of England as the ship speeds along just off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Queen doesn't even bother to stop at the port or others in the Caribbean — old hat for the been-there-done-that cruise veterans on board.
For many of the older passengers, the voyage is a way to see the most far-flung parts of the world without the risks — and hassles — of land travel.
"I wanted the experience of visiting these places, but I didn't want to be too far away from real medical support," says retiree Donald Maud, 82, of Cornwall, Pa., who recently had heart bypass surgery.
Lounging in the bridge observation room, Maud says he likes knowing that he has a modern, medically equipped home-away-from-home to return to after each day in port, even if he experiences only a small slice of each country the ship visits.
Other passengers couldn't care less about seeing the sights. "To me, the ports are totally irrelevant," says Cornelis van de Graaff, 71, of Toronto, kicking back in a stylish ship-top lounge, the Commodore Club. "It's just fun to be on a ship."
The retired filmmaker and his partner, Terry, are on their fourth around-the-world cruise in seven years, and they've already booked another one for next winter. For them, the three-month voyages are little more than an escape from the cold back home, an alternative to traveling to a winter home.
"What do I like best about it? The total absence of responsibility," says van de Graaff, glancing out the window at the sea. "At home when I drop a towel on the floor after a shower, it's still there at the end of the day. Here it disappears."
Some wealthy retirees even see the endless cruises, which start around $20,000, as an alternative to a retirement home. Van de Graaff chuckles when he recalls the man on Holland America's Rotterdam who was on his 50th voyage. He basically lived on ships as a form of assisted living. Indeed, some world cruise passengers even book second cabins — at $40,000 or more — just to store their clothes.
"When you think about it, it's a way the very elderly can continue to live an active lifestyle instead of going to a retirement home," Graaff says. "They cook all your meals, clean your cabin. You have everything you need on board."
As a vacation measured in months instead of days, a world cruise definitely has a slower pace. As the ship steams south to Rio de Janeiro, many passengers spend days doing little more than lounging topside with a book or pampering themselves in the ship's luxurious Canyon Ranch spa. Others keep busy attending the many onboard lectures and classes. The QM2, built for long ocean crossings, is larded with rooms for such activities.
Still, such daytime diversions are just a prelude to the elegant evenings, an endless series of nostalgia-tinged formal balls, receptions and four-course dinners. At times, it seems the trip is just one long party with the world as a backdrop.
"They'll stay until the band stops playing," says assistant cruise director Amanda Reid, gazing across the crowded dance floor on one of the first formal nights. The room is a blur of sequined gowns and tuxedos — a scene that evokes the grand ocean crossings of the early 20th century. The dancers include 10 indefatigable "gentlemen dance hosts" who partner with the nearly 200 single women on board.
It's a cosmopolitan crowd. Though the majority of the 2,328 passengers are American (39%) and British (31%), more than 30 other nationalities are represented — a sign that the financial boom of the past decade truly has been global.
Even though most passengers are retired, there are exceptions, such as software company founders Pamela and Chris Doggett of Philadelphia, one of the youngest couples on board at ages 35 and 37.
"It's such a better way to see the world than hopping on and off airplanes," says Pamela, for whom the voyage was a lifelong dream.
"Pam made me promise her when we were married that we'd do this before she hit 35, and we just made it," says her husband.
They had better watch out. Van de Graaff, the four-time world cruiser, says once you get hooked on a long cruise, it's hard to go back.
"I can't remember when I last took a one-week cruise," he says, heading off to find his partner, who's somewhere taking a painting class.
"All that aggravation at the airport for a week? It's just too much effort."