It's hard for any traveler to avoid hearing from Renaissance Cruises. If you have an American Express card, read Travel & Leisure, surf the Internet for vacations, are a US Airways or American Airlines frequent flier, or are a member of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), you've probably received a brochure from or read an advertisement about the company, which markets directly to consumers much more aggressively than most other cruise lines.

On the other hand, the Fort Lauderdale cruise line is strangely obscure in the cruise marketplace, lacking the high media profile and name recognition of, say, Carnival Cruise Lines or Royal Caribbean. Historically a small-ship line, Renaissance has recently entered the mainstream cruise market with a series of eight identical, new, mid-size, 684-passenger, 31,000-ton vessels at prices that are comparable to--or lower than--their big-ship competitors.

In an industry where "me too" might well be the official slogan, Renaissance is a fierce contrarian--and an unheralded leader in the development of the cruise vacation, from the way it's bought to the onboard lifestyle. At a time when all other major lines are building 80,000- to 100,000-plus-ton behemoths hosting 3,000 passengers and beyond, Renaissance is sticking steadfastly to intimate, mid-size ships.

While other lines are devoting entire decks to children's entertainment centers and family-friendly facilities, Renaissance has declared its ships kid-free zones. Renaissance itineraries emphasize Europe and the South Pacific, avoiding the cruise-ship interstates of the Caribbean. It was the first to create a fleetwide no-smoking policy. It also was among the first to eliminate the assigned-seating dining room policy so loathed by many contemporary customers.

"Renaissance is creating a mini-revolution," says John Maxtone-Graham, a maritime historian. "I always lamented [that] the middle ground was vanishing. The 600-passenger size is a marvelous floating cosmos that's like a neighborhood."

But for worse or better, Renaissance is getting noticed most for its sales tactics. In addition to courting travelers by mail and the Internet, it's bucking the established sales system by encouraging travelers to cut out their travel agents entirely--traditionally the information purveyors, sales consultants and deal-closers for cruise lines. Renaissance says cutting out the middleman saves them money, and it passes part of the savings on to customers, making its cruises aggressively priced.

By taking this controversial approach--"It's like telling someone not to talk to your priest anymore, just go direct to God," says Keith Waldon, spokesman for the API Travel Consultants consortium of travel agencies--Renaissance has antagonized travel agents, many of whom are reluctant or unwilling to work with the cruise line. The resulting rift between the travel agency community is creating an odd vacuum of information in the industry about one of its most innovative, visible and competitively priced companies.

A Travel section reader sends an e-mail that capsulizes the conundrum:

I thought I had found a great deal [on Renaissance] online for a Mediterranean cruise of Greece and Turkey. I went to a local travel agent and they did not seem to think highly of Renaissance. They seemed to emphasize the lack of commissions, but also mentioned the line being in no-so-hot financial shape. Are they a reputable cruise line?

Yes, people likely to cruise receive plenty of information from the company. But it's a lot harder to get more information--especially the dispassionate sort--if travel agents continue to boycott it.

"The ads look great," says reader Jack Hershey of Frederick, who ultimately decided to spend more than $8,000 to cruise on Renaissance's R2 from Barcelona to Lisbon, without the benefit of anybody's personal recommendation. "But everyone wants to know what it's like. A lot of people are just trying to figure out what's going on."

Curious to see how Renaissance's pioneering sales tactics and corporate stance might manifest themselves onboard--and, more to the point, to gather some answers agents don't provide--I booked an 11-day cruise-tour package from Athens to Istanbul using the company's in-house reservation service. In early June, I boarded a charter plane out of JFK International Airport, the sole U.S. departure point for Renaissance's European cruises. (Unlike other cruise lines, which arrange air transportation from your airport-of-choice at inflated prices, Renaissance requires cruisers to make their own arrangements to JFK.)

My fellow passengers and I had this in common: Most of us had booked our cruise on the basis of the brochure (or the Web site), and nobody knew quite what to expect. After takeoff, a flight attendant wandered down the aisles offering the "drink of the day," a Caribbean-style concoction of orange juice, rum and bananas. But this group, consisting mainly of well-traveled folks in the 35-plus bracket, ordered Scotch and sodas, gin and tonics and the occasional white wine. A lot of passengers walked around chatting up fellow cruisers. Couples paired with other couples. We were bonding before we passed Greenland.

Using a charter rather than scheduled service (Renaissance uses dedicated aircraft for its Eastern Mediterranean and South Pacific cruises; passengers on Western Mediterranean sailings still fly scheduled airlines) sets the tone for Renaissance's greatest strength. Its smallish size makes it easy to develop a camaraderie among cruisers, one I haven't experienced on larger vessels. Our planeload went on to stay, en masse, three nights at the Athens Intercontinental Hotel before boarding the R1. During that time, we'd frequently run into one another at the pool or on the numerous shore excursions that Renaissance organized for the three city days. By the time we arrived at the ship at the port of Piraeus--flawlessly transferred from our hotel, then greeted by white-gloved stewards and escorted to our cabins--the familiar ease that ordinarily takes a few days to develop on a cruise (if it ever does) was well established.

The ship itself is a pleasing hybrid. In many ways, the R1 evokes the traditional cruise experience. Its decor is styled after a casually elegant English country house hotel: lots of cushy chairs and couches, lush floral window treatments, dark woods throughout and figurative oils hanging in gilded frames. The lobby features a curving, two-story staircase a la the Titanic. The windowed library has a mock fireplace and a gorgeous hand-painted ceiling. On-board activities feature the usual singles parties, drinks-of-the-day, Broadwayesque productions, weight-loss seminars and bad hair day demos. There was a casino with blackjack, roulette and slot machines. Duty-free shops offered the usual "bargains."

Contrasting were touches usually found on the mega-ships. Seventy percent of outside cabins have balconies, meaning those people in moderate-priced categories can afford a veranda. There's a state-of-the-art spa and a health program designed in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins Health System. In-room TVs have CNN and movie channels. There are two computers in the library; e-mail access will be added by year's end.

Renaissance's most innovative touch--unusual for all but the more intimate, high-ticket boutique liners--is its four open-seating restaurants, which means at dinner you can eat when, where and with whom you wish. (While many mass-market cruise lines offer open seating at breakfast and lunch, only Renaissance has incorporated it for all meals.) Our ship had a main restaurant, the Club, two alternative eateries--one steakhouse, one Italian--and a more casual option. Some nights, I'd be invited to dine with passengers I'd met on board or on shore; other times, I'd just plunge into a table of eight and meet new people. You could eat early one night and late the next. And the open dining policy meant you weren't rudely leaving a gaping hole at an assigned table if you opted to try some other venue.

Other highlights: There were few distracting shipwide announcements. I never heard the Macarena. Informative port lectures by shore excursion manager Judy Christy covered more than shopping. The library was open around the clock, and there were no locks on the bookshelves. Cruise director Richard Joseph's slide lecture on classic ocean liners was fascinating, particularly when he revealed he had been working on the Achille Lauro when it was hijacked at sea. There was always an empty lounge chair by the pool. The ship never seemed crowded--the only lines I spotted were at the tiny laundry room.

My big gripe? Four of the five days of our cruise were spent in ports. The stops in Santorini, Rhodes, Kusadasi (near Ephesus) and Istanbul, where we disembarked, were fascinating indeed. But with a frantic sightseeing schedule, few of us had enough time to hang out on board.

Renaissance was founded in 1989 with a fleet of eight 114-passenger, all-suite vessels. The company struggled until it was sold in 1991 to an investment group headed by Ed Rudner, a founder of Alamo Rent a Car and former president of Certified Vacations, which packaged trips for Delta Air Lines. Under Rudner's leadership, the company has continued to offer a cruise ship version of tour vacations in which air fare and transfers (and on some voyages, pre- and post-hotel stays) are packaged together. Renaissance still owns two of its original eight boutique ships (the Renaissance VII and Renaissance VIII feature cruises to Scandinavia, the Riviera and Asia), but the real focus today is on its entry into the mainstream with its new, mid-size fleet.

The simply named R1, introduced last summer, sails the Eastern Mediterranean. R2 is based in the Western Mediterranean. R3, launched last month, features South Pacific itineraries. R4, due in December, will also home port in Tahiti. R5 is due in February and will also cruise the Greek Isles; R6 will be launched in May and will replicate R2's Mediterranean itinerary. In 2001, R7 and R8 will sail in the Caribbean; while the Caribbean as a region is considered a mainstream cruise arena, Renaissance is planning to offer more offbeat itineraries on its smaller, more nimble vessels. All ships sail their regions year-round.

In commissioning this series of new ships almost six times the size of the ships in its original fleet, Frank Del Rio, executive vice president of Renaissance, says the company is just responding to industry changes. "The big ships are getting bigger, so small ships are getting bigger. Passengers want the resort atmosphere on a cruise ship. We think we can combine the best attributes of what the small and big ships are known for, offering the best of both worlds--great service, plenty of choices and a brand-new fleet."

And yet, at a time when it has more berths to fill than ever, Renaissance's approach to marketing its trips is daring. Buying a cruise is both a big-ticket travel purchase and a complicated one. Traditionally, cruise-matching has been the mission of travel agents, some of them more adept than others, who "qualify" customers by determining a passenger's preferences and budget, then recommending the "right" cruise. For playing this middleman role, the agent is paid a commission--by the line you ultimately choose--averaging 10 percent of the purchase price.

But Renaissance is encouraging travelers to buy direct and save money. For this act of heresy--and for instituting a cap on the size of commissions paid to agents similar to those that have been applied by airlines--the American Society of Travel Agents booted Renaissance from its membership. When Renaissance introduced a program to pay the lower commissions faster, it enraged agents further by sending rapid-pay checks to agents who had sold cruises before the commission cap. Agents fumed, and many swore off selling Renaissance for life. Some circulated rumors to clients that Renaissance was in shaky financial shape.

"We don't book with them," says John "Bosley" Kennington, an agent with the Travel Co., the nation's largest cruise seller.

"They're not somebody I want to sell, so I haven't spent any time learning about them," says Damian McCabe, president of D.C.'s McCabe-Bremer Travel. "We would certainly book them--although we'd make an alternate suggestion--but we would never recommend them."

In encouraging people to book direct, Renaissance is introducing sales tactics controversial in the cruise industry. These range from a significant financial incentive to go direct (sometimes up to $500) to bombarding anybody who's ever called with promotional e-mails. Renaissance has even sold cruises by making cold sales calls. My own experiences, over a nine-month period of shopping for my cruise, ranged from bizarre to super-professional.

One Renaissance sales representative sent me a color photocopy of a birth announcement (I couldn't remember ever speaking with her). In numerous calls to the reservations department, I never got the same price quote twice. Once, a sales representative named Harvey offered me a $1,699-per-person fare for a cabin with a porthole on the R2's 10-day Barcelona-to-Lisbon cruise. Though he urged me to decide immediately, I opted to think about it. When I called back the next day, the rate no longer existed. "I think he was just telling you something," said Tamara, another Renaissance staffer, who quoted me a higher fare for the same voyage.

Another time, an agent gave me a rate of $1,499 per person for the cheapest inside cabin on the 10-day Athens-to-Istanbul cruise tour, then upped the ante while I deliberated. "I just ran into this new promotion," Patrick Krawczyk said. For $200 more, he offered an upgrade to a balcony cabin--with an additional night's stay in Athens and Istanbul, the ports of embarkation and disembarkation. "It's the bargain of a lifetime," he enthused.

It's critical, though, to shop around. On Renaissance's web site last week, an inside cabin on a 14-day Mediterranean cruise departing December 17 was priced at $2,199 per person, double occupancy (no outside cabins, according to the site, were available). But just last week, a friend bought, via an online travel auction Web site, an outside cabin on the same voyage for $2,400 total--a savings of almost half.

By taking advantage of one of Renaissance's numerous promotional deals, I eventually wound up in a suite with a veranda for the five-night cruise and three-night pre- and post-voyage hotel stays for--are you sitting down?--$1,299, single or double (I opted to travel alone). That included transfers and round-trip air fare from New York to Athens and back from Istanbul, and stays at good hotels like the Athens Intercontinental and the Istanbul Hilton. Extra fees, such as port charges and a Turkish visa, kicked my tab to $1,602, and I was responsible for meals during the land portion of the trip.

My great deal was part of a little-known "last-minute" program that requires inordinate flexibility (the deals are available when there are vacancies within seven days of cruise departure; factor in the three-day stay in Athens prior and I had a mere four days' notice). How do you qualify for these rates? Simply by getting on a list in the promotional services department (separate from the company's main reservations staffers). They call when vacancies come up.

There are disadvantages. You can't dictate what kind of cabin you want; my "regular" suite was topped by another last-minute passenger, a professor from Chapel Hill, N.C., who lucked into an owner's suite for the same price I paid. But you could also wind up with an inside cabin or obstructed view. Another warning: I couldn't get a decent air fare (or connecting flight time) from Washington to JFK on such short notice (rates were $300 and up), so I drove to the airport. The fellow from Chapel Hill didn't have that choice--he forked over $700 to fly to the charter.

At these prices, Renaissance is the low-fare leader. On its Web site, Renaissance favorably compares its European pricing against industry giants like Royal Caribbean and Princess. Our own research indicates, indeed, that Renaissance is a good deal. The cheapest inside cabin on a 10-day voyage from Athens to Barcelona on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas (a ship three times bigger) costs $2,948 per person, including air; Renaissance's inside price for a nine-day sea-land tour from Athens to Istanbul is $1,299. This debunks the economies-of-scale theory that the big-ship cruise lines like to throw around, saying that the bigger the on-board crowd, the cheaper the fare.

Having cruised on one of Renaissance's new vessels, the biggest question for me--and for industry watchers--is how the company can deliver a quality experience so cheaply. Where, I wondered before my trip, would it cut corners? Aside from the uncomfortable seating on the charter flight (which applies only to the Athens/Istanbul-bound passengers--cruisers on the Barcelona-Lisbon trip used scheduled air, and we've heard no complaints about the Tahiti charters started last month), I couldn't spot any obvious money-saving shortcuts on the trip itself.

"The acid question test we get," Del Rio says, "is how do you do it, how do you offer this complete package in these beautiful new ships at these ridiculous low prices? I never answer them because then everybody else would be doing it."

But corner-cutting does exist. The company is notoriously inflexible in strange ways. Typically when you buy a cruise, you can "hold" it for a week and then are required to pay a deposit of several hundred dollars per person. Full payment is due about 60 days before sailing. Renaissance's terms are tougher. Full payment is due on booking a cruise (when you call its reservations line, a recording asks you to have your credit card ready). If you want to pay in increments, Renaissance adds a fee of $500 per person and requires the full amount at the 120-day mark.

Cancellation penalties are also steeper than the norm--you'll pay $750 apiece unless you cancel within 120 days. After that, you lose the whole payment. The line does not offer trip cancellation insurance, but I heartily recommend that you buy some (from an independent insurer). One unpleasant side effect is that some insurers are refusing to issue policies for Renaissance cruises because they consider their cancellation penalties too high. However, a sales associate at Renaissance was able to refer me to two insurers that did handle its cruises (along with other lines') at competitive rates.

The line can also be inflexible with flight arrangements. You are assigned a departure date based on the category of cabin you purchased; I tried to alter mine, but the request was ignored. On the charters, seat assignments are awarded upon check-in so early birds are most likely to wind up with aisle and window positions. If you're flying a charter out of JFK, be prepared to pay for a night at the airport on the return because the plane arrives in New York too late, in most cases, to allow for same-day connections. Some passengers on my cruise were able to "unbundle" their trip so they could use frequent-flier miles for the air, but they saved, at most, $500.

And certainly, Renaissance's recent moves to condense 10-day cruises in the eastern and western Mediterranean into five-day voyages (you spend four to six nights, depending on cabin category, in hotels in embarking and disembarking cities) is cheaper for the company because it's not paying to feed and entertain you. Hotel quality varies, depending on your category of cabin; regardless, the passenger feedback I got (and my own good experience) about the on-shore lodging arrangements was universally positive.

Since returning, I've had several calls from the Renaissance sales department hawking further promotions. The oddest exchange was with a sales representative who, having heard I enjoyed the Athens-to-Istanbul cruise on R1, tried to sell it to me again, a mere three weeks after I returned. I nearly bit on one offer last week, a 13-day cruise-tour from Barcelona to Lisbon for two for $1,999, including air. I have no doubt that if I decide to venture to Tahiti, Renaissance is the only cruise I could afford.

So if the creation of a cruise experience that's easy to book, offers interesting destinations and a lovely on-board experience, flawless travel arrangements (except for that cramped flight) and savvy sales and satisfaction follow-up are factors that indicate success, I'd be willing to bet that, in the follow-the-leader cruise industry, the big players will soon be mimicking Renaissance.

Whether travel agents will go along for the ride is another matter.

For more information, call Renaissance at 1-800-525-5350 or visit its Web site at www.renaissancecruises.com. You can often find Renaissance Cruises available via Onsale.com's (www.onsale.com) travel auctions. While a number of travel agents have told us they will book the line if a customer requests it, many will not proactively offer information on Renaissance. One exception is American Express, which has maintained its "preferred travel agency" status with Renaissance (in other words, the line did not cut the commission percentage it was paying them). Agents there are generally knowledgeable about Renaissance.