Holy hassle

Getting to the Vatican for New Year's Mass, plus advice for first-time cruisers and Auckland sightseers.

Published October 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I will be in Rome from Christmas until just after the beginning of the new year. How feasible is it to attend the Mass at the Vatican on New Year's Eve?

Anyone headed for Rome would do well to first visit the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 site, which provides an array of information on what's happening throughout 2000 and the weeks leading up to it.

As for New Year's, a calendar at that site says the prayer vigil at St. Peter's Basilica for that night is still "bookable."

Determining the details may take some effort on your part, but there are phone numbers available for booking inside and outside of Italy. Key to booking is the acquisition of the Vatican's Pilgrim Card, "a modern device, the result of the latest technology, prepared and planned for you in harmony with the sense of your pilgrimage." This card provides free transportation on public transit in Rome, can be used as a phone card, and includes insurance coverage. It costs 65,000 lira, about $36.

In order to get the Pilgrim Card you must supply some personal data, itinerary and events you want to attend, and you're given the option of providing health information, too. The idea of the Catholic Church putting all that information on a microchip card and into a database will give some people the willies, but the Jubilee site insists that the information will not be given to third parties and will be destroyed after the Jubilee Year.

Through that Jubilee site you can find phone numbers for ordering the card and reserving space at special events.

Although the idea of going to St. Peter's on New Year's Eve is a simple one, the Italian Tourist Office in New York was unable to provide much information on the topic -- other than referral to the Web site -- and three of the biggest U.S. tour operators of Catholic pilgrimages had no details, either.

You might try contacting your local diocese to find out if it has any inside information on visiting. Another possibility: The Vatican Central Committee has designated a company called TourCrafters as the official U.S. tour operator for Jubilee 2000. Its phone number is (800) 621-2259. The TourCrafters site also has links to several Rome sites.

My wife and I are first-time cruisers. Where can I get an evaluation of the ship we will sail on, in terms of quality of surroundings, rooms, food, entertainment, etc.?

There are many ways to evaluate cruise ships, and many guides that can help you do just that. "Fielding's Worldwide Cruises" is one of my favorites because it offers plenty of subjective appraisal of the ships, not just statistics. Fielding's also has a Cruisefinder at its Web site that can help you locate the best cruise for you.

Another first-rate site for checking out ships is The Cruise Ship Center. It includes a useful "Best of" section based on the Fielding's guide.

First-timers can especially appreciate "The Essential Little Cruise Book," by Jim West (Globe Pequot, 1997). Part of its appeal is that it's palm-size, and packed with useful details gleaned from years of experience. It's also not overwhelming the way the larger, data-packed guides can be.

The Cruise Lines International Association site has a Q&A section about cruising, and you can order a printed version of the group's Cruise Vacation Planner by calling (888) 927-8473.

Your best friend in picking a cruise is a travel agent experienced at booking cruises. Someone with a broad knowledge of the industry can listen to your requests and immediately zero in on suitable cruises. The Web site of the American Society of Travel Agents has a search engine that lets you filter for cruise specialists.

If you have a particular destination in mind, look for a specialized guide. At least half a dozen other publishers put out annual cruise guides; go to a big book store and check out the cruise section.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors sanitation conditions on international cruise lines, and you can find the monthly report by looking at the "Summary of Sanitation Inspections of International Cruise Ships." (Look for the Green Sheet label.)

Right now I'm in Tonga, headed for Auckland, and hoping to stay someplace nice, pamper myself a bit after being in Nuku'alofa for three months. Any suggestions?

After months of living la vida loca in Nuku'alofa, I can see how you'd be ready for a breather in Auckland.

Check out the New Zealand Tourism Board site, whose accommodation section is one of the best you'll find on a national site anywhere. Among its easy-to-search links for Auckland is a "luxury lodges" section, including at least half a dozen in the greater Auckland area. One about 10 minutes from central Auckland is the Langtons, a spacious home set in large grounds with views of Manukau harbor. If the nightly rate of $185NZ (about $95) is a bit steep, check out Pacific for Less Inc., whose links include one for Flag Hotels, with a range of properties in Auckland.

If you'd like to be in the heart of Auckland and want a full range of comforts and diversions, consider the 344-room Sky City Hotel and Conference Centre, part of a complex with the Sky City Casino, Sky City Theatre, Sky City Restaurants and Sky Tower.

The main New Zealand site also has many other choices of hotels, spas, inns and B&Bs.

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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