For over a year now, I've been looking forward to a new experience that is finally almost here - spending a week on a luxurious cruise ship.

My new suitcases have been spread out on my living room floor for a month and I've been packing and unpacking as I decide on what I'm taking. Since my wardrobe is somewhat limited, I've basically been living out of my suitcase before the vacation.

If it seems that I have been even less focused and more absent-minded than usual to everyone around me, my only excuse is that I've been day dreaming of foo foo drinks with little umbrellas and soaking in a hot tub while sailing to exotic ports.

For me, there's nothing like obsessing about a trip to keep me sane - though somewhat absent-minded - in the midst of the insanity of real life. To obsess for over a year is a long fixation even for me, and I'm more than ready for the actual adventure.

As I write this, it's only a few days from the time I fly out of Boise on the way to Las Angeles airport and then on to Long Beach where I sail on the Carnival Pride to the Mexican Riviera.

My daughter originally planned this cruise in July 2005, announcing to everyone: "We are tired of using all our vacation time visiting people. We're going on a cruise and if you want to see us, you can book the same one and we can cruise together."

At last count, there are 30 people of three generations who'll converge in Long Beach, ranging from a four month-old baby to, well, to a number of us of my vintage - the grandparent generation.

Among the cruisers will be my granddaughter Lily, who turns 2 the day before we set sail, and will celebrate her birthday in the Magic Kingdom where I will be able to indulge my grandma-hood.

While I've never been on a cruise before, I probably know as much - or think I do - as veterans of many voyages, due to my increasingly frequent visits to Cruise Critic, an on-line forum devoted to cruises (www.cruise critic.com).

Thanks to this forum, a group of veteran Carnival sailors (there's different sections for different cruise lines) who are many times more obsessed than I am - some of them have been on a dozen or more cruises - gives advice to "newbies" who still have the wonders of the first open sea voyage with Carnival ahead of them.

When everyone gets back from a cruise - whether it be the first or umpteenth - they are expected to give reviews of their trips, including ports of call experiences, food preference and opinions of how well- (or ill-) mannered their cruise mates are.

Anyway, though I've yet to set foot on a cruise ship, I'm full of knowledge that I've already put to use. I blame Cruise Critic for the fact my new suitcase is bursting at the seams.

By nature, I have a tendency to over-pack - a side effect of my overdeveloped pack rat gene - but here's what's extra in my bag, thanks to my on-line friends:

* Duct tape. There's apparently as many uses for duct tape on a cruise as on a ranch in Wallowa County, including quick luggage repair, hiding your safe key, sticking decorations to your cabin door and repairing wardrobe malfunctions.

* A multi-compartment shoe holder, to hang on the bathroom door. Apparently this is indispensable to keep sunglasses, sun screen, brush, toothpaste, shampoo and ton of other cruise junk organized, since space to put this kind of stuff is minimal.

* An extension cord with three outlets. Apparently, there's only one outlet in each stateroom, and this comes in handy for battery chargers, nightlight (recommended for inside cabins, which are pitch black when the lights are off) and other electrical apparatus.

* An alarm clock. Well, I don't have this packed yet, but I thought I'd look around. You wouldn't think on a cruise you'd care what time it was, but you'd be surprised. I mean there are tons of stuff scheduled, like the hairy chest contest around the pool, the

* A dress. I actually bought a black dress for this cruise, since I didn't own one, because there will be two formal nights in the dining room. That's one of the things Cruise Critic folks jump all over people for, not dressing up for formal nights. "There's a buffet if you want to wear jeans," they say. However, the buffet (which the foodies look down their noses at) doesn't serve lobster tails, which is one of my personal reasons to go cruising.

* Lots of $1 for tipping. Though they automatically subtract $10 a day for gratuities from your Sail and Sign account, as a convenience to you of course, that doesn't cover room service (24 hours a day!), porters, taxis in port, etc.)

Anyway, my departure is almost imminent and the next time I write about cruising, it will be with the voice of experience. Hasta la vista!

Elane Dickenson is the Chieftain news editor.

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