Next month, Grand Circle Cruise Line will be launching the first in a series of six 50- passenger vessels, the Athena, with the other five to follow at roughly four month intervals. They are being built at a cost of approximately $10 million each at the Brodosplit Special Vessel shipyard in Croatia. The second vessel, the Artemis, follows in August.

"The Athena will sail 10- and 11-day cruises between Split and Athens," said Mark Frevert, executive vice president and chief architect at Grand Circle. The company is also looking at various winter opportunities, including moving the ships to the northern coast of Africa or Western Africa, to Senegal. Grand Circle also owns and operates a fleet of river vessels, in addition to an ocean-going vessel in the Galapagos and the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin, sailing in French Polynesia.

"Our passengers are not Carnival (Cruise Lines) fun ship passengers. They are experiential travelers. Our product is not about entertainment or amenities; it is about the experience," Frevert said.

The size of the new vessels - 50 passengers - is critical to the group dynamics and interaction onboard and ashore, according to Frevert. ''People will pay more to get into the culture and into local people's homes," he said. "We bring land staff with us for the entire cruise and may divide the passengers into two groups of 24 to 25 people each with our guide.

"When we plan itineraries, our goal is to feature the highlights and the most unique sights. We also develop relationships with local families, and our passengers are invited to share meals and have discussions with families in the areas we visit. The discovery aspect is really off the ships," he added.

"Our model is different and our per diems are only half of what other small-ship cruise lines charge. We are able to operate much more efficiently by running everything ourselves - from soup to nuts - and we buy services and supplies directly, so there is no middleman cost. Our strategy is to control as many variables as we can," he said.

"Our target is a four-star product. But, we sell it as a three-star product and deliver a five-star product. We under-promise and over-deliver," Frevert added.

Projections for 2007 call for 96,000 passengers to sail with Grand Circle, compared to 87,000 in 2006.

A direct marketing company, Grand Circle has a database of more than 5 million customers.