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In May, Patricia Geismar, her husband, Richard, and some two dozen friends boarded the M.S. Kazan, a deluxe riverboat with 75 cabins, for a 10-day cruise along a chain of Russian rivers and lakes from St. Petersburg to Moscow. A highlight of the trip was Kizhi, one of more than 1,300 islands on Lake Onega. There they visited the 18th century Church of the Transfiguration, whose 22 domes were built without a single nail.
A Russian guide was by their side all the way. She spoke with the group about the history, politics, and economy of the country during lectures and also schmoozed with them during informal conversations in the library and by the pool. "Her skills and knowledge really brought everything alive," says Geismar, of Greenwich, Conn.
Cruising doesn't have to be about limbo on the Lido deck. Like the Geismars, you can embark on an intensive learning experience on one of the small-ship cruises offered by alumni associations, cultural organizations, and museums. The Geismars booked their trip through High Country Passage, a San Francisco firm that designs tours for nonprofits but also takes direct reservations (hcptravel.com). The American Museum of Natural History is scheduling a similar Russian river trip next June, for $8,045 to $9,450 per person.
Travelers can choose from among a wide range of domestic and overseas cruises that cater to a variety of interests. Typically the organization will create a customized itinerary based on the experience of the expert who will lead the tour.HOMERIC VOYAGE
Someone interested in the Antebellum South can travel on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in November with historians from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If your tastes run more toward unusual fish, plant, and bird species, you can join a curator of marine life on a trip to the Indian Ocean in March. The National Geographic Society has set several 15-day winter expeditions, led by a polar explorer, to visit icebergs, volcanoes, whales, and penguins in Antarctica.
Although knowledge-hungry cruisers are usually in their 60s or 70s, travel experts believe that older and wealthier baby boomers will turn to such trips. "Many younger travelers like rigorous academic experiences in which each destination is built into the theme," says Philip Lovejoy, associate director of alumni education at the Harvard Alumni Assn. One such cruise, "Retracing the Life of Homer," designed by a professor of classical Greek literature, will tour key places in Homer's life and literature in Greece and Turkey in June.
For those who want to leave Homer at home and take the kids instead, many groups do provide family cruise fare. In late December and again in February, a specialist from the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park will lead a family riverboat voyage down the Amazon. Kids, who must be over 8, will be able to canoe, fish for piranha, learn jungle survival skills, and identify medicinal plants.
If you're seeking the big-ship experience with casinos and Las Vegas-style entertainment, these cruises aren't for you. Most vessels -- they include yachts, riverboats, and steamboats -- can sleep 30 to 150 passengers. The smaller vessels, though, can sail on rivers and dock at ports that can't accommodate the giants.
Smaller ships can also take advantage of the unexpected. The RV Mekong Pandaw, a replica of a colonial-era river steamer, has a shallow hull that enables it to visit remote locations. Last fall, Dorothy and Kirke Comstock of Portola Valley, Calif., took the vessel up the Mekong River in Cambodia with three professors on a High Country Passage trip. Dorothy recalls that, as they were passing a small village, a group of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, children, and town elders invited the 50 or so passengers to make an unscheduled stop. There was no dock, so they walked off the boat on planks. "The monks took us on a 35-minute walk to see their very old temple," she says. "It was unforgettable."
Such experiences come at a price. A 20-day Harvard trip in February on a 106-passenger ship to New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania will cost $9,995 to $11,895 per person, not including airfare. But these trips are first-class all the way, says James O'Reilly of Houston. O'Reilly and his wife, Lydia Hilliard, have taken two cruises on the Sea Cloud II with the National Trust: one to gardens in Ireland and another to Normandy on the 60th anniversary of the invasion. O'Reilly says his room, which was cleaned several times a day, even had an electric fireplace. And the food, he adds, was "sumptuous."
To find a cruise, check the Web sites of major museums, cultural organizations, and operators that specialize in academic-focused tours. If your alumni group does not offer a cruise that appeals, look at other universities. Many alumni organizations open cruises to nonmembers. Before signing on, ask for a full itinerary and about the the study leader's background.
In some cases, two or more organizations travel together to fill a ship. In April, Dr. Terry Howard and his wife Phyllis of Chelmsford, Mass., took a 64-cabin cruise ship, the Clipper Odyssey, on an arts tour, visiting museums and shrines around southern Japan with the American Museum of Natural History. Groups from Harvard and Yale were aboard, so passengers could take advantage of several study leaders, all experts in Asian art. Three local Japanese guides also were present, he says, "so we could pump them about society and politics."
On one collaborative trip (Harvard and Princeton are among the co-sponsors), Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and other former world leaders will spend at least part of a 12-day cruise in the Baltic Sea with 180 travelers next June. Presentations will focus on the evolution of the region from the Cold War to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It costs nearly $10,000, but sitting poolside with people who changed the world could be considered priceless. By Susan Garland