Exploration Cruise Line christened its 250-passenger Explorer Starship - the largest ship in its fleet - and with her, will operate in the Caribbean for the first time. Two other Exploration ships will also be positioned there, and another will offer the line's first-time ever cruises in Hawaii.

The 9,000-ton Explorer Starship was built at Lloyd Werft in Bremerhaven, and "is the crown of the Explorer Class fleet", said Robert Giersdorf, president of Exploration Cruise Lines. She features 124 outside staterooms, with VCR units and refrigerators; a swimming pool; a fully-equipped health club with a spa and sauna; a sports deck; a watersports platform; two sun decks; a night club; lounges; a casino; a library; a conference center and a beauty salon. There is also a 120-passenger launch/landing craft - the Baby Starship - to take guests to isolated resorts and remote villages where conventional docks are unavailable.

The ship, which is of Bahamanian registry, will sail with a multinational crew of 104. During the winter, she will sail seven-day cruises in the Caribbean - between San Juan and Barbados - and in the summer, she will sail in Alaska from Prince Rupert.

In the Caribbean, the Explorer Starship will offer two alternating, non-duplicating itineraries. Sailing southbound from San Juan to Barbados, she will call at St. Thomas, Saba, Nevis/St. Kitts, Antigua, Dominica/Martinique, and Bequia/Tobago Cays; and northbound, at Grenada/Grenadines, The Pitons/St. Lucia, St. Barts, St. Martin/St. Maarten; Buck Island/St. Croix, Virgin Gorda/Salt Island/Norman "Treasure Island." Rates range from $1,649 per person to $2,809 for the first few cruises, and from $2,195 to $3,745 during the peak season. A 50 percent discount on the second seven-day sailing is offered to passengers cruising in both directions.

In keeping with the line's commitment to focusing on the destinations, Exploration will fly local entertainment to the ship, to familiarize passengers with the authentic flavor of their next port of call.

The first few sailings are booked solidly, Giersdorf said, noting that 40 percent of the passengers have booked for the full 14 days. The line also has had requests from groups for full charters, he said.

Exploration's 158-passenger North Star and 104-passenger Colonial Explorer will join the Explorer Starship later this Fall, featuring seven-day cruises between Barbados and Curacao, and roundtrip from St. Thomas, respectively.

Exploration expects the Caribbean cruises to attract a younger clientele than sailings in other destinations. In the past, the average passenger has been 55 or older, but recently, the line has seen more people in the 45 to 50-year age group, according to Giersdorf.

"In Tahiti and Panama, there has been a good showing from travellers who are 35 to 49," Giersdorf added, noting that seventy percent of Exploration's passengers are experienced cruisers and a good percentage are repeaters.

The line is counting on the Caribbean itineraries to make the East Coast aware of Exploration Cruise Lines, Giersdorf said, noting that the line recently opened its first sales offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Tampa, and Miami. It also opened offices in Minneapolis and Chicago, bringing its total sales force to 18 members - up from about 12 last year, Giersdorf said.

The line also is expanding into Hawaii this year, with seven-day cruises aboard the Executive Explorer - a new 49-passenger luxury catamaran.

As a result, Exploration will be operating eight ships ranging, in size from 49 to 250 passengers, in eight different regions - the Caribbean, Tahiti, Mexico, the Panama Canal, Hawaii, New England and the Chesapeake Bay, Alaska, and the rivers of the Western United States. And it operates in the three­ and four-day, seven-day and 14-day markets.

Each ship attracts a different type of clientele, and the most difficult task is positioning each one in the marketplace, Giersdorf said. The overall marketing theme emphasizes the destination-oriented aspect of the Exploration itineraries, and the casual, informal atmosphere aboard all of the ships. All are marketed to the upscale traveller, Giersdorf said.

To help agents distinguish among its products, the line runs an intensive seminar series across the United States and in Canada.

"We are very committed to working with travel agents," Giersdorf said. So much so, that the line chose the manager of the AAA Travel Agency National Cruise Office in Miami to christen the Explorer Starship.

As for the future, Giersdorf said that the line is "definitely still in the expansion phase," although it is not ready to release any plans right now. However, Giersdorf stressed that the line will continue to specialize in small ships and destination-oriented cruises.