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Tune up your game and hit the links on a cruise ship

Cynthia Boal JanssensBy Cynthia Boal Janssens,

ON BOARD the CARNIVAL LEGEND - It is a Thursday. We are sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, about 18 hours after departing from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. We are traveling with 2,300 other folks intent on having a fabulous cruise vacation. And we plan to play some golf. Just a few years ago, that wouldn't have been possible.

At 10 a.m. the sun is already burnishing the decks, and there is a line of people at the golf cage up on Deck 10. These folks are attracted by the opportunity to have golf pro Daniel Goralczyk analyze their swings using video technology.

This is a free program that is offered at the beginning of each Carnival cruise to introduce golfers both to the golf professional and to the ship lines' innovative on-board golf program. Of the 40 or so people who show up, Goralczyk is only able to work with 15 of them, but it is enough to attract a number of folks back for lessons.

It used to be that cruising and golf were incompatible. You either stayed on land and hit the links or you kept the spouse happy by going on the cruise, but secretly groused about missing out on valuable turf time.

Now several cruise lines offer on-board golf programs. Carnival's, however, is probably the most wide-reaching. It is now available on all 18 Carnival ships, except when sailing in Alaska. And all of the details are on www.CarnivalGolf.com.

The program, run by Elite Golf Cruises, has two components: The first is on-board golf swing analysis and personal instruction given by the golf professional on board the ship, and the other is a series of innovative golf excursions offered in ports of call. These make it easy for passengers can play some of the best courses in the world right off the ship. And you don't even have to drag along your clubs.

Day 1 of our cruise was at sea. We had our swings analyzed and signed up for lesson later in the week, on days at sea. On Day 2 we are already off on our first golf adventure, in the Central American country of Belize - not exactly a hot spot on the golf map. This is the first of two golf outings offered on this particular eight-day ship itinerary, called the "Exotic Caribbean." We are visiting three ports in Central America and Carnival offers golf trips in two of them, Belize and Panama.

Even before we get off the ship at 7 a.m., Goralczyk is fairly bubbling with enthusiasm. He says that this is his favorite golf excursion of all the company offers. "I think it is the best overall experience," he explains.

We soon discover why. We load our golf clubs (rented, natch!) into a small boat (called a tender) which carries us to Belize City. Then we board a bus to a tiny airport nearby where we board a small Maya Island Airways plane for a 10-minute flight to a tiny island offshore.

As we approach, we can see through the plane's windows the golf course, which stretches the entire length of this long, narrow swatch of land. Soon we put down, and we have arrived at Caye Chapel Golf Resort (pronounced "key" chapel). It is the only facility on the island.

At the runway, we jump right into golf carts, drive up to the main clubhouse and within minutes we are on the course. Even more amazing, we are the only players on the course. In fact, on this particular day we are almost the only people on the island.

There are eight of us, so we decide to start one foursome on the front and one on the back nine, and we never see them again except from afar. We have the course to ourselves. And what a pleasure. Ordinarily, Caribbean courses aren't the greatest. Often they are underwatered and overplayed and not particularly pretty.

We are amazed that this course is in lovely condition and offers great water views from every hole. And it tests you, too. It is very long, over 7,000 yards from the tips and we soon appreciate its USGA rating of 74.9/139. Goralczyk plays in our foursome, and we get a tip or two along the way.

We play the front nine in under two hours and the back nine similarly, just in time for a late lunch by the pool. I forgot to pack my bathing suit or I surely would have taken a dip as we had an extra hour to enjoy the resort before we headed back to the ship. It was an exhilarating day.

That was a good thing because we later learned we would not be able to play the Summit Course in Limon, Panama, because the Tour of the Americas tournament was being played there that day.

Despite the fact that we only enjoyed one golf excursion, albeit an expensive one ($225 each), it was certainly the most memorable day on what is a relatively inexpensive cruise. Add to that the lessons ($45 each for a half hour) and we still believe we greatly enhanced our trip.

Goralczyk, 40, is one of the veterans of the cruise-golf business. Originally from Montreal, he has been with Elite Golf (formerly Paradise Golf) since its inception and has been sailing on cruise ships while teaching golf for four years now. Great job, eh? Well, CNN certainly thought so. They came aboard the Legend in early January to film a segment with Goralczyk for the program "I Get Paid to Do This."

He says he always knows on the first day of a cruise how many golf enthusiasts he has aboard. This is because they either book their golf excursions in advance through www.CarnivalGolf.com or they show up on the first day at the shore excursion desk to pummel him with questions. Sometimes all of the golfing slots are filled before the cruise begins.

Goralczyk says that while the Belize excursion is his overall favorite, he also really likes the excursions offered in Bermuda, Hawaii and the west coast of Mexico.

The fact is, if you want to combine golf with your cruising, you should probably go to www.CarnivalGolf.com first to check out the courses before you book your cruise.

Elite Golf is also offering its programs on Silversea's four ships, some Holland America ships and on a couple of Costa ships. Inquire with your travel agent before you book. And if you are serious about playing, book your golf excursions in advance. That way you won't be disappointed.

Just the facts

You can find out just about everything you want to know about Carnival Cruise Lines' wide-ranging golf program by going to www.carnivalgolf.com. If you want to check out Elite Golf's programs on other cruise lines, go to www.elitegolfcruises.com

For more information on
Caye Chapel Golf Resort in Belize,
go to www.cayechapel.com
or e-mail golf@cayechapel.com.
Call toll-free (800) 901-8938.

Cynthia Boal Janssens is a former newspaper writer and editor turned freelance writer. She is the former travel editor and Sunday magazine editor of The Detroit News. In addition, she has worked for newspapers in California, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Ohio University.

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